‘Hair’ producer for Broadway and the movie was 95 – Deadline


Michael Butler, the producer who brought Hair on Broadway in 1968 and later produced the film adaptation and many other productions of the show, died Monday in Santa Barbara. He was 95 years old.

His lawyer confirmed the news on behalf of Butler’s family but did not provide details.

As a producer, social figure and international bon vivant, Michael Butler was an international celebrity in the 1960s and 1970s. Like his 1968 production of Hair became an international success, with 12 productions around the world, his friendships grew among exotic world figures such as the Shah of Iran and the Mahajarah of Jaipur. As host to his lavish polo grounds in the UK, Butler included British royalty among his regular polo playing friends. He admitted that his polo spending consumed the entire $60 million profit from his play.

Subtitled “The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical”, Hair, who began life in 1967 at New York’s new Public Theater Off Broadway, was not only the first Broadway musical to prominently feature nudity, but was a hugely influential insertion of a counterculture sensibility from the 1960s. 60 into the Broadway mainstream – it was banned in many cities and sparked numerous lawsuits. The musical contributed a number of songs that would become radio hits (often in cover versions) and stage musical standards: “Aquarius”, “Let the Sunshine In”, “Hair”, “Ain’t Got No/I Got Life”, “Good Morning Starshine”, “Easy to Be Hard”, among others.

Hair was nominated for the Best Musical Tony Award in 1969 – he lost to 1776 — and its cast album spent 13 weeks atop the Billboard 200, winning the Grammy for Best Cast Album and spawning four hit singles. The record was later inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. (A 2009 Broadway revival directed by Diane Paulus won the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical.)

The Fifth Dimension’s “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” medley was the country’s No. 1 pop hit for six weeks in 1969 and the No. 2 single of that year. (Young Riverdale fans can ask their grandparents about the best song of 1969, “Sugar, Sugar” by the Archies). The Cowsills’ “Hair”, Three Dog Night’s “Easy to Be Hard” and Oliver’s “Good Morning Starshire” all reached the National Top 5.

Butler maintained friendships with Hair former students, including cast members such as Diane Keaton, Donna Summer, Ben Vereen and Keith Carradine. The series’ co-creator, James Rado, died in June, and one of the production’s first stars, Robin McNamara, died last year.

‘Hair’ (1979) movie, starring Don Dacus, Treat Williams, Annie Golden, Dorsey Wright

He was eager to produce and co-finance the film version of Hair and developed a screenplay with Colin Higgins (Harold and Maud) as a writer and Hal Ashby (Go home) as director with Peter Bart producing. Although studio deals and funding were in place, Ashby fell ill and retired in pre-production, with Milos Forman taking over as director and Lester Persky producing.

Starring Treat Williams, Beverly D’Angelo and John Savage, the film failed to capture the zeitgeist magic of the play.

Butler has presented more than 30 productions of Hair over the years, including the latest – a planned 2021 edition at the El Portal Theater in North Hollywood that he narrated Los Angeles Magazine “could be the best production of Hair I did. Original Broadway choreographer Julie Arenal was on board, but that show was delayed due to “production challenges” and was not rescheduled.

NBC was about to air Live Hair! in 2019, but plans for the show were scrapped shortly after the death of its producer Craig Zadan and the network opted to refocus on family musicals.

Butler also produced the Broadway shows reggae (1980), Coquelito (1979) and lenny (1971).

Butler also produced the 1968 counterculture documentary You are what you eat, which depicts the Haight-Ashbury scene with Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip and New York’s East Village. Butler also had a handful of on-screen credits, including Harry and Tonto, Electra Glide in Blue and televisions Guiding light.

He was born on November 26, 1926 in Chicago. Billed as the “hippie millionaire,” his private life has provided a feast for gossip columnists. Whereas Hair shocked audiences with its portrayal of gay and trans characters, Butler had legendary affairs with actresses such as Linda Christian and Audrey Hepburn and actors such as Tyrone Power and John Phillip Law.

As a young man, the hulking, strikingly handsome butler was a major social presence in Chicago. The Butler dynasty was built around two huge private companies, Butler Aviation and Butler Paper. In his early thirties, Butler opted for show business rather than the family business, hence his investment in Hair, then a struggling show at the Public Theater. With additional funding and a new creative team, the show became a mega-hit, its nude scenes and brilliant score helping to fill theaters.

In his 40s, Butler split his time between big houses in Santa Barbara and Hollywood.

Outside of his showbiz career, Butler has fulfilled civic roles in local and national politics, serving as a special adviser to the then-Senator. John F. Kennedy on the Middle East and appointed by Robert F. Kennedy to manage Illinois Governor Otto Kerner’s re-election campaign in 1964.

RFK and other top Democrats of the day backed Butler for a U.S. Senate bid in 1967, but Butler—despite being favored in the polls—chosen to produce Hair for Broadway after seeing the Off Broadway production.

He also ran for the Illinois State Senate representing Du Page County and served as Chancellor of Lincoln Academy Charter School, Chicago Harbor Commissioner, and in other public roles.

At the time of his death, Butler was in talks to write a memoir.

He is survived by his son Adam Butler, his daughter-in-law Michelle Butler and his grandson Liam Bartholomew Butler.

Peter Bart and Greg Evans contributed to this report.


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