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Hey, Mr. Producer

As Chicago moves into the home stretch of its Oscar campaign, Marty Richards recalls his life as a starstruck producer, his loving marriage to an American heiress who knew he was gay, and the 27 high-flying years (those Gin Lane parties!) it took for his Broadway hit to triumph on the silver screen.


Marty Richards knows how to make an entrance. He ought to be jaded by now, this legendary 71-year-old Broadway producer with a thick mop of white hair, wearing a black-and-white-flecked cashmere coat and a gold pinkie ring, stepping out of a chauffeured Mercedes. Still, Richards has a look of boyish anticipation on his face as he marches into Sardi’s for yet another party honoring Chicago, his long-in-the-making hit movie (and the one to beat for Best Picture at Sunday’s Oscars). He is mobbed by well-wishers. Director Rob Marshall, whose caricature is going up tonight at the legendary Broadway restaurant, grabs Richards to pose for a TV crew; Richard Gere reminisces about shooting on location in Toronto; Harvey Weinstein wants to gossip about upcoming Oscar parties; Christine Baranski says she loved hearing Richards’s heartfelt (albeit rambling) speech accepting the Golden Globe for Best Picture. “I was so nervous that I grabbed the menu instead of my notes,” Richards explains in the raspy voice that pals delight in imitating. He spots Chita Rivera, and they fall into each other’s arms; for the rest of the party, he keeps circling back to her side.

Rivera, in a slinky black outfit that highlights her still-extraordinary dancer’s body, knows more than anyone in this room how much this triumph means to him. Their friendship was forged in 1975, when Rivera high-kicked her way onstage as Velma (now the Catherine Zeta-Jones role) in the original Broadway production of Chicago. Richards, then a fledgling producer, used to hide in Rivera’s dressing room, terrified of the brilliant and mercurial director-choreographer Bob Fosse and his leading-lady wife, Gwen Verdon. Recalls Richards, “Chita used to protect me.” In turn, Rivera says she relished his reaction, all these years later, when her bit part in Chicago was filmed: “He kvelled, he loved, he cared.”

After all, Gerald Ford was president when Richards began his 27-year quest to turn this musical into a movie, a project he kept obsessively pursuing even as he co-produced such theater hits as Sweeney Todd and La Cage aux Folles and The Will Rogers Follies, and movies including Fort Apache, the Bronx and The Shining. “You rarely see anyone this tenacious,” says director Hal Prince, who has worked with Richards on four Broadway shows. “Marty has been pushing Chicago so long that the stars he wanted grew older and became character actresses.”

Although Richards’s 57th Street office is virtually papered with framed Tony certificates—the twenty shows launched by the Producer Circle Co., which he and his late wife, Band-Aid heiress Mary Lea Johnson, founded in 1976, have won 36 Tonys—this impresario has long lusted after a hefty gold statuette. “Marty talked so much about wanting an Oscar that I finally lent him one of mine,” says composer Marvin Hamlisch, noting that three months passed before it was returned. Miramax honcho Weinstein, who optioned the movie rights to Chicago from Richards in 1991 and shepherded the film into production, says, “Marty’s a fantastic showman. He’s got great instincts. People love him.”

Yet as Richards counts down the days to the awards ceremony, he describes it as a bittersweet time. “There are a lot of empty spaces in my life—the people who participated in Chicago on Broadway who aren’t alive to see this—my wife, Fosse, Gwen.” And he’s had a recent health crisis of his own: Diagnosed in December with early-stage prostate cancer, he’s been going to Sloan-Kettering five days a week for radiation therapy. Columnist Cindy Adams, who has known Richards, she jokes, “since the Stone Age,” says: “I’ve watched Marty schlep through the Chicago maze for years. It’s like God’s now applauding him with one hand and muting it with another.”

At Sardi’s, Gere flashes his multi-million-dollar smile and offers me a piece of advice: “Marty’s a font. He’d tell hundreds of stories on the set, about which Broadway producer he’d fought with and all the things he’s done. He’s had an amazing life. Just let him talk.”

As if I could stop him. Marty Richards is a world-class talker, a marathon talker. Every story evolves into three other stories, his punch lines have punch lines, and if you ask him even the simplest of questions, it’s like buying a train ticket to Newark and finding you’ve been detoured onto a 747 to Fiji. Ask how he met his wife, and he’s off into an extraordinary tale of attempted murder and mayhem. Ask about working with Fosse, and he launches into a prequel about trying out as a singer for The Ed Sullivan Show. Inquire about his childhood, and Richards fast-forwards to a later-in-life story about director Stanley Kubrick, who was a neighbor when Richards was growing up as Morton Richard Klein, the son of stockbroker Sid and homemaker Shirley, just off the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. “When I heard we would be working together on The Shining, I called him in Scotland and started singing ‘Hail Taft High.’ Kubrick said, ‘Who the fuck is this?’ and hung up.”

Modesty is not his schtick. “I’ve been offered $3 million for my life story,” Richards boasts. This seems not implausible for a tale that involves marriage into perhaps the most famous dysfunctional Fortune 500 family in history, an unimaginably luxurious lifestyle, and a showbiz career working with the greatest American theatrical creators, from Hal Prince and Stephen Sondheim to Cy Coleman and Jerry Herman.

He starts by giving me the grand tour of his River House apartment, which is, to put it mildly, grand. (“Oh, my God, it’s unbelievable,” says Chicago screenwriter Bill Condon, “and I live in L.A., and I thought I’d seen it all.”) Sure, the view of the East River is pretty impressive, but this 9,000-square-foot duplex is lavishly decorated with gilt-edged mirrors and seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French and English furniture (“I felt I was in Versailles,” says Rob Marshall), along with elaborate marble sculptures, an ancient-Greek male torso, cabinets full of precious antique china, and a lot of valuable art. (One of the great fuck-you gestures of the rich is hanging museum-quality work in the powder room: His sports a Jean Dufy.)

But what the irrepressible Richards can’t resist showing off is “the most ludicrous room,” leading me downstairs to the master-bedroom suite and pointing to the loo, complete with gold fixtures, blue and beige marble walls, a bathtub that could seat four, and the pièce de résistance—a ceiling with an elaborate gold-and-blue rococo plaster design highlighting his initials, m.r. “I am so embarrassed,” he says, although he’s laughing. “I redecorated after Mary Lea died, and it was a mistake. If she had seen this, she would have hit it with a hand grenade.”

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