Robert Allan Ackerman, the admired director who guided the likes of Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren, Vanessa Redgrave, Sean Penn and Anne Bancroft in productions for stage and television, has died. He was 77.
Ackerman died Monday of kidney failure at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, a family spokesman told The Hollywood Reporter.
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A Brooklyn native and protégé of famed theatrical producer Joseph Papp, Ackerman received two of his five career Emmy nominations for directing and producing the 2001 miniseries Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows, starring Judy Davis.
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He landed two more Emmy noms two years later for directing Tennessee Williams’ The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, starring Anne Bancroft and Helen Mirren, and for executive producing the HBO telefilm My House in Umbria, starring Maggie Smith.
For other telefilms, he directed Bancroft and Hector Elizondo in 1992’s Mrs. Cage; Kirstie Alley in 1994’s David’s Mother; Diana Ross and Brandy in 1999’s Double Platinum; Mia Farrow in 1999’s Forget Me Never; and Davis and James Brolin in 2003’s controversial The Reagans.
Ackerman also helmed two films: Safe Passage (1994), starring Susan Sarandon and Sam Shepard, and The Ramen Girl (2008), starring Brittany Murphy.
He directed Pacino on Broadway in Oscar Wilde’s Salome in 1992, then reunited with the actor in 2017 when Pacino portrayed Williams in God Looked Away at the Pasadena Playhouse.
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“I loved being around him, his aura, his steady peace. To work with him was joyous,” Pacino said in a statement. “He understood the language of theater art and communicated it with such ease. His gift was intangible, and there’s no way of understanding how he created. When an artist has that special gift it is unexplainable, it just happens. … He will be missed.”
Ackerman was born in Brooklyn on June 30, 1944. He spent summers as a boy at Ackermans, a resort in Mount Freedom, New Jersey, that his family owned and operated.
After graduating from Adelphi University, he worked as a teacher in Harlem for seven years while aspiring to be an actor. He joined an off-off Broadway rep company to act but quickly volunteered to direct, drawn, he said, to “the immediacy of live performance, watching actors as they worked, discussing lines with writers during rehearsals and previews and loving the backstage buzz of gossip between shows.”
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In 1977, Lloyd Richards, artistic director of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut, hired him as a conference director, and he helmed Thomas Babe’s A Prayer for My Daughter. Papp saw the police drama and hired him to direct it for the Public Theatre; the 1978 production, starring Alan Rosenberg and Laurence Luckinbill, won an Obie Award for Ackerman.
From there, he was mentored by Papp and directed several new works by Babe, including 1978’s Fathers and Sons, starring Richard Chamberlain and Dixie Carter, and 1979’s Taken in Marriage, starring Streep and Colleen Dewhurst.
Ackerman made his Broadway debut with Martin Sherman’s Tony-nominated Bent, starring Richard Gere and David Dukes, in 1979-80. In 1983, he won Outer Critics Circle and Lucille Lortel honors for his work on John Byrne’s Slab Boys, starring Penn, Kevin Bacon and Val Kilmer. He also directed Peter Allen in Legs Diamond in 1988-89.
Off-Broadway in 1982-83, he guided Sarandon and then Farrah Fawcett in William Mastrosimone’s Extremities.
In London’s West End, he directed Extremities and Strangers on a Train, both starring Mirren; Torch Song Trilogy, starring Antony Sher; A Madhouse in Goa and the Olivier Award-winning When She Danced, both starring Redgrave; Burn This, featuring John Malkovich and Juliet Stevenson; Me and Mamie O’Roarke, starring Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders; Our Town, starring Alan Alda; and Manuel Puig’s Mystery of the Rose Bouquet, starring Gemma Jones.
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He also had a thriving career in Japan, where he worked extensively and brought provocative Western works, including Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, to the stage.
In a statement, Mirren called Ackerman “one of a kind. His commitment to his art of direction was total and encompassed work that ranged across different countries and cultures. His mind was constantly investigating and exploring, and his joy in his work was palpable. I worked with him both in theater and on film, and he was a natural in both disciplines, making the process a joy. All who knew him will miss him.”
Survivors include his sister, Suzanne, and niece Jennifer.
Asked in a 2016 interview how he perceived theater around the globe, Ackerman said: “On Broadway, the actors drink coffee. In the West End, they drink ale. In Los Angeles, they wear flip-flops to rehearsals. In Tokyo, they don’t wear shoes at all. In Paris, they speak French and smoke a lot. In Israel they speak Hebrew and shout and smoke a lot. Otherwise, they’re pretty the same.”
“In the end,” he added, “when it all works, it’s the most thrilling thing to sit in the audience and listen to the applause as the actors take their bows.”
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