Eugene Lee, my dear friend and collaborator for 40 years, thought by many to be the greatest theatrical designer not only of his generation but also of his century, died on February 6 in Providence, Rhode Island, at the age of 83, with his wife and partner in his attainments, Brooke, and sons, Willy and Teddy, beside him. He was the resident designer of Saturday Night Live from its very start to earlier this month.
Eugene was born in Wisconsin with a twin brother, Tom. They’d invented and spoken their own language till they were seven. Eugene and I, soon to set off for a job in Africa, were having a cup of tea one morning at his hotel in London, when, looking out the window at a flurrying snowstorm, which seemed to have brought that great city and its citizens to a standstill, he remarked, “They wouldn’t have a problem if they’d grown up in Wisconsin.”
In some ways, Eugene seemed to be what’s called “eccentric,” that is to say, dressing and acting in a way that seemed natural to him—often in khakis with suspenders, utilitarian boots, a bow tie over a white shirt, a blue French work jacket. And non-designer glasses, for how long can you look at things, drawings and graphs, without your eyes getting tired?
Eugene was not in any way loquacious, taciturn almost, until he wanted to impart something. A pencil and piece of paper were his voice. And then there was his brain. The way it worked, he would come up with conclusions and results which were unexpected, original, surprising, powerful, and persuasive. He worked closely with his directors, and often we would find inspiration from what Eugene was doing.
I can only talk about my time with Eugene, but the legendary theater directors Peter Brook, Hal Prince, and Adrian Hall would’ve had much to say, as would Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of New York’s Public Theater. And many others.
A pencil and piece of paper were Eugene Lee’s voice. And then there was his brain …
In the first 1985 production of Larry Kramer’s AIDS hand grenade of a play, The Normal Heart, which I directed at the Public, then run by the great if combustible Joe Papp, Larry wanted certain props and design elements to augment the fact that the protagonists, Ned and Felix, were gay, like black silk sheets and, say, a Paul Cadmus drawing on the wall. But Eugene had provided no bedroom wall, and the bed would later turn into a couch.
Eugene and I said to Larry that his play wasn’t about “design.” It was about calamity, and that wasn’t an elegant or pretty thing. By the end of the play, everything which had landed on the floor—balled-up paper, cardboard boxes, carrots and leeks and a spilled carton of milk—was still on the floor. Larry sometimes spoke wistfully about the silk sheets, but by the time the play was recognized as a major American work, let alone the hottest ticket in town, Larry said to me, “Thank God we have Eugene. It wouldn’t have been the same without him.”
In 1987, we were in Zimbabwe preparing to shoot Paul Simon’s “Graceland: The African Concert.” Eugene used beautiful African fabrics to create large awnings over the stage. To work on them, he enlisted men and women from the townships, who surprised me not so much with their evident skill and aesthetic sense as with their friendliness toward our white contingent, given that their last white government, before the country’s liberation, was a particularly mean and abusive one.
We shot the show twice, Paul and the other performers doing daytime concerts on the Saturday and Sunday. Eugene and I were having breakfast on the morning of the second concert, and I said I’d failed miserably the day before shooting Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the electric a capella singing-and-dancing group of mainly brothers and cousins from South Africa.
“Shoot them like the Rockettes,” Eugene said to me.
“The Rockettes, like Radio City?,” I asked.
“Don’t stay away from wide shots. That’ll get you what you want,” he replied.
Eugene was right—that was the way to show the patterns of their movement, their sinuousness and joy.
Peter Brook, Hal Prince, and Adrian Hall would’ve had much to say of Eugene.
We did plays together on Broadway, Off Broadway, in Los Angeles, in Stratford, Canada, and for TV, including the Simon and Garfunkel Reunion Concert, in Central Park, which is where it all began, 40 years or so ago.
This memory of Eugene would not be complete without a mention of the boats. As some collect stamps, he collected sailboats—wooden, classic—which he would take out on whatever body of water was available, as well as sanding and polishing them himself. It was the fine workmanship and attention to detail which he admired and understood. He used to sleep on one docked in a nearby marina while he was doing S.N.L.
Much more could be said. We did this. He advised that. He gave me courage. I loved him. I am sad.
Eugene Lee, a theater, film, and TV designer, was born on March 9 in Beloit, Wisconsin. He died on February 6, at age 83
Michael Lindsay-Hogg is working on a memoir about the first production of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, which he directed at the Public Theater. His Beatles documentary, Let it Be, is expected to be re-released later this year