John Willis, longtime editor of the Theater World and Screen World annual series for over 45 years, died June 25 in Manhattan of complications from lung cancer. He was 93.
In his role as editor of Theater World, Willis served as historian of the seasons of Broadway, regional theater, summer stock, touring companies, actors’ biographies, obituaries and major theatrical awards. He reportedly held the unofficial record of seeing more Broadway, Off Broadway, and Off Off Broadway shows than any other person.
In addition to editing both series from 1965 to 2008, Willis produced the Theater World Awards, one of the oldest kudos given to Broadway and Off Broadway debut performances. He advised winners “there is no need for a long speech” and “were it not for luck, looks, and supportive parents, you probably wouldn’t be here,” ending with the tongue-in-cheek advice “be brief, be beautiful for our photographers and be off.”
The after-parties were considered the stuff of legend with the likes of Carol Channing, Colleen Dewhurst, Dorothy Loudon, Marianne Niles, and Maureen Stapleton attending.
The Tennessee native served in the Navy during World War II. In 1945, he moved to New York City where he was hired by the Theater World founders as a typist. He also worked as a New York City public school teacher for over 20 years.
On behalf of Theater World, Willis received a Tony excellence in the theater in 2001. Other honors came from the Broadway Theater Institute, Drama Desk and a special Lucille Lortel award.
He served on the Tony Award nominating committee, the New York U. Musical Hall of Fame selection committee, and the board of directors of the National Board of Review.
He had no immediate survivors.