Paul Gregory, Risk-Taking Showman in a Golden Age, Is Dead at 95

Paul Gregory was a stage, screen and television producer whose career flowered in what has been called the golden age of entertainment.

It was a time, in the 1950s and ′60s, when floodlights slid up and down facades along the Great White Way as limousines carrying women in gowns and men in tuxedos drew up beside squealing crowds to deposit their glamorous cargo under Broadway marquees announcing the names of Hollywood and international stars.

It was also a time when the stage, often showcasing dramas and musicals with social themes, was ripe for experimentation, much to Mr. Gregory’s liking. His productions were known for dispensing with props, costumes, scenery, orchestras and other conventions to spotlight the talent of stars and exploit the imagination of audiences.

But as that era flickered out, Mr. Gregory all but disappeared with it. And when he died at 95 on Christmas Day in 2015, little public notice was taken; his death went virtually unreported at the time.

By then he had been living alone for many years in an apartment in Desert Hot Springs, Calif. And that was where he died, apparently from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

Word leaked out slowly. Almost a year later, The Desert Sun, a daily newspaper serving Palm Springs, Calif., and the Coachella Valley area, published an article that took note of Mr. Gregory’s death, saying that “few people knew about it.”

“He wasn’t given a public memorial service and he didn’t receive the kind of appreciations showbiz luminaries usually get,” the newspaper said.

The New York Times learned of the death recently while seeking to update this obituary, most of which was written in advance, in 2012. A call to the Riverside County Coroner’s office on Monday confirmed the death and its circumstances.

Like a character in a Frank Capra movie, Mr. Gregory was an Iowa farm boy with a love of literature who made himself into the millionaire producer of 17 Broadway shows, notably “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial,” which opened in 1954.

He also produced many television plays and Hollywood films, including “The Night of the Hunter” (1955), the terrifying tale of a murderous preacher, and “The Naked and the Dead” (1958), an adaptation of Norman Mailer’s World War II epic.

An early collaboration with the British actor Charles Laughton proved profitable for both. Mr. Laughton co-produced or directed many Gregory productions, and he introduced Mr. Gregory to actors, directors and financial backers, giving him access to stars who became critical to his success.

But Mr. Gregory was a phenomenal showman in his own right, a risk-taker with bold ideas and the drive to execute them. He began in 1951 with the idea that the third act of George Bernard Shaw’s “Man and Superman,” a two-hour dream sequence dealing with war, crime, sex and spirituality, could be read by four actors sitting on stools, with no scenery or costumes, relying just on the author’s insights and the extraordinary personalities of the actors.

Readings were hardly new, though rarely popular. But “Don Juan in Hell,” with Mr. Laughton, Charles Boyer, Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Agnes Moorehead, toured from coast to coast in a triumphal procession that ended in New York with critics hailing a spectacular arrival. Brooks Atkinson, in The Times, called it “mighty and moving.”

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Shelley Winters and Robert Mitchum in “The Night of the Hunter” (1955), the terrifying tale of a murderous preacher. It was one of a number of movies produced by Mr. Gregory.CreditUnited Artists/Photofest

In 1952, Mr. Gregory turned Stephen Vincent Benét’s Civil War poem “John Brown’s Body” into a dramatic reading by Judith Anderson, Tyrone Power and Raymond Massey, under Mr. Laughton’s direction, again with stark staging. Walter Kerr of The New York Herald Tribune called it “mellow and magical.”

Mr. Gregory found another drama in the trial scenes of Herman Wouk’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Caine Mutiny” (1951), a tale of Navy officers in World War II who relieve a captain paralyzed by fear in a typhoon at sea and are then tried in a military courtroom. Starring Henry Fonda, John Hodiak and Lloyd Nolan, “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial,” with 415 performances, was one of the longest-running and most profitable Broadway plays of its era.

“There is no distracting scenery,” Robert Coleman wrote in a review for The New York Mirror. “The courtroom atmosphere is suggested by a gray drape and a few props. But the result is electrifying. The audience is given an opportunity to create its own illusion.”

Mr. Gregory did without an orchestra as well as scenery and props in “3 for Tonight,” his 1955 musical with Harry Belafonte and Marge and Gower Champion. The show went on a national tour that ended on Broadway and on CBS television as a one-hour special, generating rave reviews throughout. “He has eliminated everything except talent,” Mr. Atkinson wrote in The Times.

Mr. Gregory later produced several Hollywood films, most notably “The Night of the Hunter,” with Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters and Lillian Gish, directed by Mr. Laughton. He also produced a dozen 90-minute television specials for CBS, and took shows on national tours that usually ended on Broadway.

He was born James Burton Lenhart on a farm near Waukee, Iowa, on Aug. 27, 1920, to James and Esther (Taylor) Lenhart. When James was 9 the family moved to Des Moines, where he attended public schools.

He absorbed literature, and at 14 read stories and comic strips on a local radio station. He acted in school plays, wrote essays on subjects like prime interest rates and won a scholarship to Drake University in Des Moines.

As a student he promoted campus concerts. But, wanting to be an actor, he quit college after a year and moved to Hollywood. He was handsome, and MGM, glimpsing another Gregory Peck, signed him up and changed his name to Paul Gregory. But after a few minor roles he quit acting.

While working as a soda jerk, Mr. Gregory booked dates for a church choir and met the singer and actor Dennis Morgan, who introduced him to his agents at the Music Corporation of America. In 1947, MCA hired Mr. Gregory for its New York office, to book tours for orchestras and prominent entertainers. In 1949, after seeing Mr. Laughton give a televised Bible reading, Mr. Gregory persuaded him to undertake a national tour reading classics. It was a hit, and the partnership launched Mr. Gregory’s career.

He continued to produce plays in the 1960s, but never repeated his early successes. In the 1970s, he taught at San Diego State University.

In 1964 he married Janet Gaynor, the star of silent and talking pictures who won the first Oscar for best actress in 1929, when the Academy Awards began. She died in 1984. He married Kathryn Obergfel, an art collector and gallery owner, in 1998. She died in 2001. Mr. Gregory, who lived in retirement at Desert Hot Springs, about 10 miles north of Palm Springs, apparently had no immediate survivors.

In reporting on Mr. Gregory’s death in November 2016, nearly a year after it occurred, The Desert Sun noted that the Desert Hot Springs Historical Society had designated Mr. Gregory a “Living Treasure” in 2005.

When the newspaper’s article appeared, the organization had recently given a dinner in Mr. Gregory’s memory for a group of his friends.

“His passing was so quiet,” Bruce Fessler, who wrote the article, told the gathering. “No one wrote about him. It’s just one of those awkward moments.”

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