May 16, 2022

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Tony Walton, award-winning stage designer who was married to Julie Andrews, dies at 87

Mr. Walton was born in England and spent most of his career in the United States and became a stalwart of the theater, with more than 50 Broadway credits to his name. He established his reputation in 1962 with his simple, almost abstract set designs for “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” one of Stephen Sondheim’s first musical comedies, directed by George Abbott. Mr. Walton devised a more realistic set for the 1966 film adaptation of “A Funny Thing Happened,” which, like the original Broadway production, starred Zero Mostel.

Another early triumph for Mr. Walton was “Mary Poppins,” a 1964 movie musical starring Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. Although Mr. Walton’s title was merely “design consultant,” he was widely credited with developing the distinctive Edwardian look of the movie’s costumes and sets and received the first of five Academy Award nominations.

“There is a definite attempt to heighten reality,” Mr. Walton told the New York Times in 1991, explaining his approach to “Mary Poppins,” “to fantasticate it, and try to make it a matter of delight.”

He won an Oscar for art direction for “All That Jazz” (1979), director Bob Fosse’s alternately grim and glossy self-portrait. Over the years, Mr. Walton worked on films directed by Sidney Lumet (“Murder on the Orient Express,” “Equus,” “The Wiz,” “Deathtrap”), François Truffaut (“Fahrenheit 451”), Mike Nichols (“Heartburn”), Ken Russell (“The Girlfriend”) and Paul Newman (“The Glass Menagerie”).

But “I really am a theater animal,” Mr. Walton said, and his work touched on virtually the full range of theatrical presentations, from revivals to dramas, comedies and blockbuster musicals. He created the scenic designs for Fosse’s original productions of “Pippin” (1972) and “Chicago” (1975), winning a Tony for the first.

He also received Tony Awards for a 1986 revival of John Guare’s dark comedy “The House of Blue Leaves” and for a 1992 version of “Guys and Dolls,” for which director Jerry Zaks told Mr. Walton, “I want to see you let loose with the paintbrush, to let it rip.”

He prepared by reading Damon Runyon’s stories, which formed the basis of the Frank Loesser musical about gamblers, gangsters and reform-minded members of the Salvation Army. The result was a color-splashed visual fantasia, with bold angles and a surreal feeling of inhabiting another world — in this case, a strangely alluring sewer.

Mr. Walton won an Emmy Award for a 1985 TV production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of Salesman,” starring Dustin Hoffman and John Malkovich.

His designs were in such demand that at one point in the early 1990s, Mr. Walton had six plays running simultaneously on Broadway — three musicals and three dramas. He had also designed a production of “Peter and the Wolf” then being performed by the American Ballet Theatre.

He approached a new script, he said in a 2008 interview with Playbill, “as if it were a radio show and [would] not allow myself to have a rush of imagery … I try to imagine what I see as if it were slowly being revealed by a pool of light … Generally, of course, it’s about how best to tell the tale.”

His design palette was so varied that there was no particular “Walton style.” New York Times drama critic Frank Rich described the understated set of the 1989 Broadway musical “Grand Hotel,” which earned Mr. Walton another Tony nomination:

“Mr. Walton creates the ambiance of nearly every public and private room of a grand hotel in Weimar Berlin by relying simply on three chandeliers, a proscenium-wide band platform, several dozen straight-backed chairs, a skeletal revolving door and four ghostly, translucent pillars in which evocative period bric-a-brac floats like the cultural detritus in a Joseph Cornell box. The constantly changing configurations of these simple fixtures is all that is needed to take the action from a bar to a bedroom to the lobby and back again. The audience’s eyes fill in what Mr. Walton leaves out.”

Anthony John Walton was born Oct. 24, 1934, in Walton-on-Thames, England. His father was an orthopedic surgeon, and his mother was a homemaker.

At first, Mr. Walton thought he would take up medicine, but he struggled with science and was queasy at the sight of blood. He became interested in theater after his parents returned from a London playhouse late one night and taught their children a new dance they had seen onstage, the Lambeth Walk.

Once, when called on to recite a Latin poem in school, Mr. Walton instead launched into a vaudeville skit he had learned, later noting, “I got booted out of that class.”

He staged plays and operas with marionettes and tried acting but “was hopelessly self-conscious in front of a paying audience.” He studied at the Slade School of Fine Art, part of University College London, where he found his niche in design and began his relationship with Andrews.

Mr. Walton was serving in the Royal Air Force in Canada in 1956 when Andrews was starring on Broadway in “My Fair Lady.” He often visited her in New York, attended other plays and settled in Manhattan after his military discharge. They were married in 1959, divorced nine years later but remained close friends.

In a statement, Andrews called Mr. Walton “my dearest and oldest friend. He taught me to see the world with fresh eyes and his talent was simply monumental.”

Mr. Walton was named to the Theater Hall of Fame in 1991, and his drawings and models for set designs were sometimes exhibited in museums. He illustrated more than a dozen children’s books that Andrews wrote with their daughter, Walton Hamilton.

In addition to his daughter, Mr. Walton’s survivors include his second wife, writer Genevieve “Gen” LeRoy; a stepdaughter, Bridget LeRoy; two sisters; a brother; and five grandchildren.

After concentrating on design, Mr. Walton turned late in his career to directing, leading productions of works by Noel Coward, George Bernard and Oscar Wilde at theaters in New York, Connecticut, Florida and California.

“I begin each project as though I’ve never done one before,” Mr. Walton said in 1991. Each new play or film, he added, is “a high dive into something yet unexplored.”