Tony Walton – From Behind the Scenes to Center Stage
Tony Walton is a man of many talents. His incredible resume is a testament to that fact. Over the course of his prodigious career, he’s been involved with more than 50 Broadway productions, 20 films and television shows and countless other theatrical endeavors, from the West End of London to the East End of Long Island. He’s won an Academy Award for All That Jazz, an Emmy for Death of a Salesman and Tony Awards for Pippin, The House of Blue Leaves and Guys and Dolls, and has been nominated for about a dozen more.
The producer, director and production designer’s additional contributions to the stage include original productions and seminal works such as Chicago, Grand Hotel, The Will Rogers Follies, Picnic, Anything Goes, The Man Who Came to Dinner, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum among others. His film work includes Mary Poppins, The Wiz, and Murder on the Orient Express, all of which he was nominated for Academy Awards.
During his six-decade career, Tony has worked with: Noël Coward, Frank Loesser, Neil Simon, Stephen Sondheim, Bob Fosse, Kander and Ebb, Stephen Schwartz, Tom Stoppard, John Guare, David Rabe, Tommy Tune, Mike Nichols, Ken Russell, Paul Newman, Francois Truffaut, and Sydney Lumet.
Actors he’s worked with include Julie Andrews, Lauren Bacall, Liza Minnelli, Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Michael Caine, Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, Harrison Ford, Nathan Lane, Jean Smart, Bette Midler, Whoopi Goldberg, Alec Baldwin, Blythe Danner, Richard Dreyfuss, Marsha Mason, Eric Stoltz, Twiggy, Melissa Errico, and many more.
But there’s more to the man than an astonishing number of hit shows. Soft-spoken, smart, and incredibly kind, by many accounts, he’s the glue that has held many a production together and kept everyone on the same page.
“Tony always made sure we were all doing the same play,” Lumet said of his close friend and collaborator.
The Theatre Hall of Fame inductee, whose Tony Walton Collection is included in Library of Congress in Washington D.C., will once again be celebrated out East in December at the Mark Borghi Gallery in Sag Harbor, beginning on December 10.
“What a terrific honor,” says Walton, who was busy readying for the show when we spoke. “I’m touched by it.”
The man who envisioned the costumes and sets for such cultural touchpoints as Mary Poppins says that he didn’t think about being a designer at all when growing up in England. He assumed he would be a surgeon like his father.
“I had planned on being a useful human being,” he laughs, adding that his low marks in the medical subjects soon changed his mind.
Tony got his start in the business on an industrial for Fruit of the Loom. His first major production was an off-Broadway revival of Coward’s Conversation Piece in 1957.
It was heady times with “the kindest man in the world,” says Tony of the theater icon, whose “friends with one name … Marlena, Judy, Marilyn,” would stop by to watch rehearsals.
After that, there was a disappointing one-night open and close of the Broadway show Once There Was a Russian with Walter Matthau, but soon thereafter it was Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which put the young Brit on the map.
A career-long string of hits followed. Notably, Walt Disney sought him out to consult visually and design sets and costumes for the movie version of Mary Poppins.
“It was the lucky big break of a lifetime,” Tony recalls, noting that he at first tried to turn the offer down because he and his then wife, Julie Andrews, didn’t want to strain their relationship by working together on a film set. He eventually relented to Disney’s persuasions and was glad that he did.
“Working at Disney was like being a kid in a candy store,” he says. “Incredible things happened there practically every single day.”
As they have continued for the legendary creator practically ever since.
“It’s been an amazing life and a wild ride,” he says. “I’m grateful.”
A never-before-seen collection of the artwork of multiple award-winning director and production designer Tony Walton will be unveiled at the Mark Borghi Gallery in Sag Harbor on December 10. The Tony Walton: Retrospective, which will feature approximately 100 works by the Academy Award- Emmy- and Tony winner, will be on view through January 10. A talk with the artist is planned for the end of December.