John Raitt, the ruggedly handsome musical theater leading man who created the role of Billy Bigelow in Broadway’s “Carousel,” died Sunday. He was 88.
The father of Grammy-winning singer Bonnie Raitt died from complications of pneumonia at his Pacific Palisades, Calif., home, according to manager James Fitzgerald.
Raitt had become well known on the West Coast for his handsome presence and ringing baritone when in 1944 he was invited to New York to try out for the role of Curly in the road company of “Oklahoma!” He auditioned for Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers.
In 1995, Raitt recalled: “I hadn’t sung since California, so I said, ‘Do you mind if I warm up?’ I sang Figaro’s aria from ‘The Barber of Seville.’ Then I sang all of Curly’s songs.”
There was silence when he finished. The problem was not his voice, which was both melodic and powerful, but his height. At 6 foot 2, was he too tall for Curly? Hammerstein reasoned: “I’m a tall man. Why can’t Curly be tall?” Raitt was hired for the Chicago company of “Oklahoma!”
In addition to winning him the job, Raitt’s Figaro inspired Hammerstein, then working with Rodgers on “Carousel,” to write the show-stopping “Soliloquy” for Raitt, who called it “practically a one-act opera that took 6½ half minutes to sing.” The tuner’s ne’er-do-well carnival barker Billy Bigelow became Raitt’s most iconic role and made him a star.
After “Carousel,” Raitt appeared in flops “Magdalena,” “Three Wishes for Jamie” and “Carnival in Flanders.”
His other Broadway hit was 1954’s “The Pajama Game,” opposite Janis Paige; he co-starred with Doris Day in the successful 1957 film version. Raitt introduced classic ballad “Hey There” in the Richard Adler-Jerry Ross tuner.
Despite his good notices for the film, however, “Pajama Game” was Raitt’s only starring movie and his final film credit. His perf as Billy Bigelow was captured in a 1954 TV tribute to Rodgers & Hammerstein. He starred with Mary Martin in a 1957 national tour of “Annie Get Your Gun,” which became an NBC TV spec that year.
His only other Broadway musicals were “A Joyful Noise” in 1966 and “A Musical Jubilee” in 1975, both short-lived.
Raitt nevertheless remained active in the touring and summer stock circuits. “I don’t think anybody’s ever played more performances of Broadway musicals than I have. I’ve never stopped,” he told the L.A. Times in 1995, when he celebrated the 50th anniversaries of his and “Carousel’s” Broadway debut by singing many of the songs from the musical at the Hollywood Bowl.
Born in Santa Ana, Calif., Raitt won a track scholarship to USC and completed his education at the U. of Redlands. His professional singing debut came in 1940 in the chorus of “HMS Pinafore” with the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera. He went on to sing lead roles in operas including “Carmen.”
About the same time, he became a contract player at MGM, where he had uncredited bit parts in about half a dozen movies but failed to make a mark in Hollywood.
A man of unflagging energy — he once sang the entire score of “Carousel” during an appearance on “The Today Show” — Raitt retained his build, voice and thick head of hair well into old age. In the 1980s, he became best known as Bonnie Raitt’s father (his daughter with Marjorie Haydock), and often appeared with her in concert.
Over the years, Raitt augmented his work in musicals with a performance piece called “An Evening With John Raitt,” in which he sang 23 songs from 16 Broadway musicals.
“John Raitt: The Broadway Legend,” the 1995 album that was his first in 25 years, included three songs with his daughter.
In addition to Bonnie, Raitt is survived by his wife, Rosemary; two sons; two stepdaughters; and six grandchildren.
Funeral services will be private. Plans for a memorial are pending.
Donations may be made to the John Raitt & Rosemary Raitt Scholarship & Musical Theater at the UCLA School of Theater, Film & Television.