R.I.P. George Bartenieff

I only just learned the sad news from friend Paul Bartlett that Theater for the New City co-founder George Bartenieff (b. 1933) passed away on July 30. Bartenieff was one of those exceedingly rare figures who moved easily among Broadway, Off-Broadway, Off-Off Broadway, and commercial film and television. As for Off-Off, he was there from the beginning and can be said to have been among its founders.

Bartenieff was the son of dancers Mikhail and Irmgard Bartenieff, the latter of whom went on to found the Laban/Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies. The couple were Jewish; Mikhail was Russian-born. The pair were living in Berlin at the time of George’s birth. Hitler became chancellor of Germany literally a week later. The family subsequently emigrated to New York for obvious reasons. George was only 14 when he made his Broadway debut in The Whole World Over (1947), directed by Harold Clurman, with a cast that included Uta Hagen, Sanford Meisner, and Jo Van Fleet. This was followed by the premiere of Lillian Hellman’s Montserrat (1949), starring William Redfield, Nehemiah Persoff, and Julie Harris.

As a young man, Bartenieff studied at RADA. Then he returned to the States where he accumulated what might be considered one of the most stellar avant-garde acting resumes the mind can conceive. He worked with Andre Gregory’s Theater of the Living Arts. He was in the Living Theatre’s original 1963 production of The Brig. He was in Alan Schneider’s production of Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, coupled with Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story at the Cherry Lane in 1965. He was in the American premiere of Vaclav Havel’s The Memorandum at Joe Papp’s Public in 1968, the same year he was in the world premier of Albee’s Box and Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, along with the earlier Albee plays The American Dream and The Death of Bessie Smith.

It was in 1970 that he and then-wife Crystal Field (with others) founded Theater for the New City, along with its many programs, such as their annual street theatre productions, the Village Halloween Parade (which TNC split from a few years later) and its wonderful support of avant-garde playwrights. TNC’s tribute to Bartenieff (with some great photos) may be found here.

Bartenieff remained with the company nearly a quarter of a century, while at the same time jobbing as an actor hither and yon. You can see him in smaller supporting roles in many well known movies, including Hercules in New York (1970, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s screen debut); The Hot Rock (1972) with Robert Redford and George Segal; See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989) with Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder; Susan Seidelman’s Cookie (1989) with Peter Falk; Nora Ephron’s Julie and Julia (2009) and Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator (2012). He was also on TV shows like Law and Order, 30 Rock, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Elementary. And throughout the years there continued to be dozens of major stage roles, especially with Joe Papp’s Public Theatre. In 1995 Bartenieff co-founded Theater Three Collaborative with second wife Karen Malpede. Their recent video production Blue Valiant, starring Bartenieff and the divine Kathleen Chalfant may be viewed here. A 2019 episode of Ray Donovan was his last major screen credit.

Bartenieff’s passing has overshadowed the OTHER major TNC story I had intended to post today, but it really shouldn’t. TNC launches its annual summer street theatre production today with a performance outside their First Avenue complex. I’m not sure, but I believe this is at least the 50th edition of this beloved annual citywide ritual, always written and directed by the valiant and indefatigable Crystal Field, who has kept TNC going through thick and thin. They launch this year’s production at a sad time, but as they know better than most…the show must go on. Full details and schedule are here.

ADDENDUM: A memorial for Bartenieff has been announced. It will take place Monday, September 19, at Theater For The New City, 155 First Ave. (at E. 10th Street). A reception begins at 7:30 PM and a narrated pictorial, remembrances and performances will start at 8:00 PM. The evening will include performances and addresses by artists who have worked closely with George at TNC, including Crystal Field, Phoebe Legere, Penny ArcadeEduardo Machado, George’s son Alexander Bartenieff, and George’s granddaughter Briana Bartenieff. Performers will include Thunderbird American Indian Dancers, Amazing Grace, and Michael David Gordon. The duo of Elizabeth Ruf and Karl Bateman will give a musical background during the reception. RSVPs (recommended) should be sent to info@theaterforthenewcity.net.

More tributes:

New York Times

Performing Arts Legacy Project