Tony-winning stage, screen director Jack Hofsiss dies at 65
NEW YORK >> Stage and screen director Jack Hofsiss, who won a Tony Award in his first outing on Broadway while helming “The Elephant Man” and kept working despite an accident that left him without the use of his arms and legs, died Tuesday, according to producer and longtime friend Elizabeth McCann. He was 65.
Hofsiss died at his home in Manhattan after recently being hospitalized at Mount Sinai Hospital for respiratory distress. “He fell asleep and slipped away from us,” McCann said Wednesday.
Hofsiss also directed several TV films, including a 1982 adaptation of “The Elephant Man,” a version of “Cat of a Hot Tin Roof” starring Jessica Lange, and “The Oldest Living Graduate” with Henry Fonda.
He was best known for shepherding “The Elephant Man” to Broadway from offBroadway and in 1979, at 28, became the youngest man at the time to win the Tony for best direction.
The play was based on the actual case history of John Merrick, a Victorian-era freak show outcast whom a London surgeon, Frederick Treves, protected and encouraged. In the play, Philip Anglim played Merrick without the aid of make-up or special costuming.
McCann, who produced the play, called Hofsiss a gregarious and witty man and said she considered him the smartest director she ever worked with. “He was total man of the theater,” she said.
Hofsiss’ career was interrupted on July 20, 1985, when he dived into the shallow end of a Fire Island swimming pool and broke his neck. He ended up in hospitals for nearly eight months.
“You spend a lot of time figuring out how you might get rid of yourself. Suicide becomes a very strong possibility. A release,” he told The Associated Press in 1986. “I never got to the methodology, though. I only got as far as the fantasy.”
The support of his family, his show business colleagues and the offer of a job helped Hofsiss adjust. The job offer from Josephine Abady, artistic director of the Berkshire Theater Festival, came while Hofsiss was still in the hospital. “It was an inspiration to get better,” Hofsiss said.
The accident made him confront his physical limitations as a director. “Not being able to jump up and get in the middle of things forced me to be more articulate. Now I have an assistant who jumps up and shoves people around instead of me,” he said.
His first job after the accident would be directing Philip Barry’s “Paris Bound.” The first day of rehearsal I told them, ‘Treat me with your usual awe and respect that you give directors,’” he said, laughing.
“It didn’t stop him,” said McCann. “He went everyplace he could. He went to the theater all the time.” Whenever they went out to dinner, theater was all they talked about.
Hofsiss, a graduate of Georgetown University, came to New York in 1971. He parlayed a job in the casting department at the New York Shakespeare Festival into several directing assignments, including work at the Public Theater, the New York City Opera and the television soap opera “Another World.”
He made his movie-directing debut in 1982 with “I’m Dancing As Fast As I Can,” which starred Jill Clayburgh. After the accident he would direct on Broadway with “The Shadow Box” in 1994 starring Estelle Parsons and Mercedes Ruehl, and such off-Broadway shows as “Surviving Grace” in 2002, “James Joyce’s The Dead” in 1999 and “Confessions of a Mormon Boy” in 2006.
Hofsiss also served as a Tony nominator and on the board of directors of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, which advocates for artists with disabilities and artists of color, for several years.
He is survived by three sisters.