Hey, Mr. Producer

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.”

The year is 1941, 9-year-old Morty Klein is singing in the hallway of his apartment building, and a neighbor says to his mother, “Shirl, why don’t you give him voice lessons? He’s got this beautiful soprano voice.” His parents enrolled him in the Marie Moses School of Dance and Singing, with such future-star classmates as Donna Reed, Ann Blythe, and Rita Moreno. At age 101⁄2, he was cast as a newsboy in the Broadway show Mexican Hayride with June Havoc. He did other shows and commercials until his voice changed at 13, when he was forced into early retirement. “My mother said, ‘Now you can lead a normal life,’ and I said, ‘Yes, a normal depressed life.’ ” At 17, now a baritone, he began performing in nightclubs under his new Waspy moniker. Richards spent two years at NYU studying architecture, his grandfather’s profession, while singing at night, but then quit to pursue show business full-time.

A scrapbook of yellowing clips charts his rise as a crooner: On May 21, 1956, the Daily News trumpeted an upcoming performance on an NBC show of “young baritone Mart Richards, a teen-age sensation. This Bronx-born buddy of Sal Mineo … first became popular when he did commercials for a candy bar.” He landed small parts in TV shows such as Naked City and The Defenders and movies such as The Hustler and Rat Race. He was dazzlingly good-looking; in his old head shots, he resembles a young James Dean.

As he gained traction as a singer, Richards loved regaling his family with tales of his glamorous life, but one thing he never revealed: He was gay. After a brief marriage in 1952, Richards realized he played for the other team. “It was the fifties, you didn’t talk about those things then,” he says. “My mother would have jumped out the window, she would have thought she did something terribly wrong.” He adds, “I never walked around in a tutu. The only difference was, I liked guys.” In 1962, Richards recognized that he wasn’t going to make it as a singer and landed jobs as a casting director. He began working for Fox and Paramount, finding bit players for Manhattan-location movies including The Seven Year Itch, Sweet Charity (where he first saw Fosse and Rivera from afar), The Boston Strangler, Sweet Smell of Success, and BUtterfield 8. Strapped for cash, Richards would occasionally stay at his family’s apartment: His younger brother, Bruce Klein, remembers the excitement when a woman called and identified herself as Elizabeth Taylor. “I had to get Marty out of the bathtub,” Klein recalls. Richards adds, “Because she was waiting and she was not exactly my bosom buddy, I ran, and I slid on the linoleum and landed on my rear.”

He’s always been starstruck, citing his behavior, as a lowly casting director, on location of the film Wait Until Dark, which starred Audrey Hepburn. “I am still in awe of people who I admire, but I’ve learned not to attack them,” he says. “I followed Audrey Hepburn around with a chair, just in case she wanted to sit down, until she asked the director, ‘Will you please tell that nice man I don’t want to sit?’ ”

While casting for veteran movie-and-Broadway producer Robert Fryer, Richards took on his own first project, raising $60,000 for an Off Broadway show, Dylan, with Rue McClanahan, which won an Obie. After proving his money-raising moxie, he was asked to join producers Fryer and James Cresson in raising $800,000 to launch Chicago.

His subsequent 27-year fixation with that dark musical can partly be explained by the fact that Richards was such a gawky novice on the show. Lyricist Fred Ebb recalls that at the first auditions, “Marty came and sat down two rows in front of Bobby Fosse, and somebody had to tell him to move. You didn’t do that.” Rivera recalls that Gwen Verdon took an instant dislike to the producer. “Marty was very sensitive and new,” Rivera says. “He wasn’t treated too well. But when a heart attack sent Fosse to the hospital just before the opening, it was Richards he counted on to find “the kids” temporary jobs—something that earned him the director’s lifelong friendship.

The same year that Chicago opened, Richards met Mary Lea Johnson and her second husband, psychiatrist Victor D’Arc, who were interested in investing in theater and movie projects. The meeting was arranged by John Fino, a bit actor who was working as the couple’s chauffeur and hoped to jump-start his own theatrical career.

The oldest child of the fabulously wealthy and eccentric Johnson & Johnson heir Seward Johnson, Mary Lea had already led a troubled, money-can’t-buy-happiness life. (Her sad story has been well documented in two books about the battle over her father’s $500 million legacy: Barbara Goldsmith’s best-selling Johnson v. Johnson and David Margolick’s exhaustive account, Undue Influence.) A sweet but deeply wounded and insecure woman, she later went public with accusations that her father sexually assaulted her starting when she was just 9 years old.

By the time she met Richards, her life was on a downward spiral. Johnson had studied as an actress in her twenties, even playing a maid in a touring company of Private Lives with Tallulah Bankhead, but gave it up to marry a press agent turned gentleman farmer, William Ryan, a devout Catholic. During that first marriage, she lived on a New Jersey chicken farm and was pregnant ten times, giving birth to six children. She contracted hepatitis from a blood transfusion during back surgery; the disease eventually destroyed her liver and led to her death.

After her divorce from Ryan, Johnson met D’Arc, a psychiatrist at St. Luke’s, when he treated her son Seward Ryan for drug addiction. (Even her friends admit that the depressed Johnson was not gifted at motherhood. As one pal says, “She was neglected as a child, and she neglected her children. She felt guilty, she’d give them money.”)

Mary Lea and D’Arc married in 1972, but the couple’s relationship quickly turned sordid: As detailed by Goldsmith, the bisexual D’Arc coerced Johnson into kinky threesomes with other men, including the chauffeur Fino. “She did anything that men wanted,” Richards says, sadly, “because of the abuse with her father.” As her eldest son, Eric Ryan, says of his mother’s relationship with D’Arc, “It was pretty wacky stuff, all in all.”

Small wonder that Johnson, enmeshed in this tormented marriage, took comfort in leaving her New Jersey estate and coming into Manhattan to spend time with the funny, charming, and eager-to-please Marty Richards. “Marty did wonders for her self-esteem,” says Maryanne Dittmann, who has worked for members of the extended Johnson family for three decades and is now Richards’s business manager. “She came out of her shell.” Costume designer Florence Klotz, a close friend of Johnson’s, says, “She had been thrashed by her childhood and her life, and Marty took care of her.”

He couldn’t afford to give her expensive baubles, but when this poor little rich girl complained that she’d never had a Shirley Temple doll as a child, Richards found a vintage model and repaired it as a gift. Johnson would frequently join Richards at performances of Chicago. “Mary Lea and I used to watch it together,” he says of the sold-out show. “We’d sit on the steps until the usher made us move.” Rivera remembers seeing them together: “Marty was extremely protective of Mary Lea. He saw how shy and vulnerable she was.”

In 1976, with a million of Mary Lea Johnson’s dollars, Richards and Johnson established the Producer Circle and began developing two projects, a movie that eventually became Fort Apache, the Bronx, starring Paul Newman, and a Broadway-musical flop called Rockabye Hamlet. When ther marriage collapsed and D’Arc demanded a divorce, Mary Lea went to Richards and asked if she could stay with him. She was aware that he was gay—“She knew everything about my background,” he says—and it started out as a Rock Hudson–Doris Day two-beds-side-by-side friendship. They eventually got separate apartments in the Sovereign on East 58th Street.

A traumatic break-in and bizarre alleged murder plot against them cinched their relationship. Johnson heard rumors, in a convoluted way, that her estranged husband had hired a hit man to murder her and Richards: There was even a tape of D’Arc purportedly plotting the deed with an accomplice. She hired a bodyguard and insisted that Richards stay by her side. Two men subsequently broke into her apartment one night. “We were almost killed in our sleep,” Richards says. “They ripped our phone off the wall, they hit our bodyguard, he had blood all over his head, he chased them.” The intruders got away.

Eric Ryan went with his mother and Richards to meet with the Bronx D.A. and ended up wearing a wire to dinner with his stepfather, D’Arc. “I had two detectives in the booth near me, and my job was to get Victor to talk about the murder plot,” Ryan recalls. “Victor denied the plot, but suggested that were I to help in the divorce, I’d benefit financially.” After listening to the tapes, prosecutors declined to indict D’Arc, who denied all charges. But Fino refused to testify and spent 26 months in jail for contempt of court. Johnson and D’Arc’s divorce was finalized in 1977 (he has since died of AIDS). Mary Lea and Marty married a year later.

Ask Johnson’s friends why she’d tie the knot with a gay man, and the universal answer is that she was happy for the first time in years, that it was a revelation to feel loved. “She couldn’t believe it,” says a friend. “I do believe that my mother derived a great deal of pleasure from her relationship with Marty,” says Eric Ryan. “She very much enjoyed the show-business lifestyle. They were quite happy together.”

Richards insists that marriage was her idea, and that when she first broached the topic, “I said, ‘Mary Lea, I’m a very screwed-up person, and my life is weird, and I don’t want to be the whipped cream on top of your sundae. You’ve had it.’ ” But in June 1978, they took a trip to California and had an impromptu ceremony in a lawyer’s office, not even inviting her children. It was the only Richards-Johnson production that wasn’t a lavish extravaganza. As a wedding gift, she gave him the Southampton estate on Gin Lane, a gorgeous home on the beach with a swimming pool and a tennis court and a football-field-size lawn. Morty Klein had truly arrived.

Their relationship was the source of much gossip and speculation, but Richards insists, “We had a totally normal sexual relationship. The macho part of me wanted to protect her. She made me feel handsome and virile, she gave me everything.”

Michael Douglas, whose mother and Mary Lea’s mother were sisters, has watched a lot of the family action from the sidelines over the years. “Marrying into the Johnson family, that’s a world in and of itself,” says the actor. “Mary Lea had gone through a lot of pretty weird stuff in her life, and it was nice to see them together. Mary Lea and Marty adored each other.” And what did people make of Richards’s past life? “In terms of the gay issue,” he replies, “it wasn’t as open or understanding back then, the bond and love that people can have. They really had it, it was a real marriage.”

While Johnson’s millions fueled the couple’s fantastical lifestyle (the Bentleys, a three-month cruise on the QE2, the chartered yacht at St. Barts, the spending sprees on art), Richards gave her a whole new set of creative and talented friends. Hal Prince recalls that she loved all the nitty-gritty elements of putting together a show. “Mary Lea was very good at art direction—the ads were her department,” he says, adding that she was completely unpretentious, despite her moneyed background.

Her children, still bitter about her last marriage, did not embrace their new stepdad. “The kids were close to me,” he says, “but the day after we got married, it was open warfare.” Mary Lea’s five youngest children tried unsuccessfully to restrict her access to the trust (Eric did not join in). Upon her death in 1990 after complications from a liver transplant, Richards got the bulk of the estate, roughly $44 million; Eric was rewarded with $14 million for his loyalty; his siblings got $3 million each.

Even now, thirteen years after Mary Lea’s death, Richards is embroiled in a new legal showdown with the Johnson-family trust and his stepchildren. As his lawyer, Alan Naar, explains, the issue is whether Richards is entitled as a “surviving spouse” to millions more from a 1961 Johnson charitable trust only now being disbursed to the family. (Mary Lea’s first husband, William Ryan, has also filed a financial claim.) Richards sounds outraged as he talks about the lawsuit and his contentious relationship with his stepchildren, saying, “They’ve been in court a zillion times.”

“Marty received a large inheritance from my mother, spent his way through it, and now he sees his tank running empty,” says Eric Ryan. “My real hope is that he wins his Oscar, that fame and fortune follow, and he won’t have the financial incentive to go after these assets.” Some of that fortune is in fact rolling in; Chicago has already grossed $114 million, a sizable chunk of which goes to Richards. But for Richards, the suit is as much about being recognized as Mary Lea’s spouse as it is about money. The hearing is scheduled for April in New Brunswick.

The first hit show that Richards and Johnson co-produced was the Tony-winning On the Twentieth Century, staged by Prince and written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. As lyricist Cy Coleman recalls, “We opened in Boston at the Colonial Theatre, the night of a huge snowstorm.” Most of the backstage staff couldn’t get to the theater, Coleman says, “so we all took up jobs. Mary Lea did the hair for the actors. Marty and I were the ushers.”

The Producer Circle has had an enviable track record for backing prize-winning, memorable works. Sam Crothers, Richards’s longtime producing partner, says, “We’ve taken on a lot of controversial subjects. Cannibalism—Sweeney Todd. Gays—La Cage aux Folles.” And then there have been a few topics the producers wish they had passed on. “We did a show called Goodbye, Fidel,” Crothers adds, “which I call Adios, Turkey.” That show, starring Jane Alexander, closed after four nights.

Richards has a reputation for a passionate and ferocious temper. (Dittmann says they still occasionally throw things at each other.) “He’s someone you love to have as your friend and would be terrified to have as your enemy,” says Douglas. “He has a revenge streak in him.” Around the talent, Richards is in awe, a champion, a bit of a softie. “I’ve always been terribly intimidated by Stephen Sondheim’s genius, and I was afraid to approach him,” he says, musing about the experience of working on Sweeney Todd. “But he’s the least stubborn composer. If you need another song, he just goes home and writes one and brings it back the next day.”

Many of Richards’s shows have been sold-out successes, but the most coveted ticket in the social and theatrical world for years has been an invitation to his over-the-top Southampton bashes. “His parties were magnificent, beyond anything,” Cy Coleman recalls. “It was like going to the land of Oz—huge tent, hundreds of people, everything first-class.” Each year, Richards would try to outdo himself: The Grateful Dead, the Village People, and Neil Sedaka have performed on Gin Lane, along with impromptu riffs with Sondheim or Coleman at the piano. Singer Lesley Gore, a regular guest, says, “Everything is a production for Marty, with no cost spared. He has this childlike attitude that anything is possible.”

And everything was possible at those parties, which after the more uptight folks left sometimes turned into Dionysian revels. Ah, yes, the sex-and-drug excesses of the seventies and eighties made for a few particularly memorable evenings. “It got pretty wild,” says one amused guest. “There were a lot of drugs. You were afraid to walk into the bathroom.” The parties have grown more sedate in recent years, and Richards wants to sell the house for $50 million because it costs too much to maintain.

Money has been fun for this Bronx boy. “He’s at every charity benefit,” says Cindy Adams. “He’s never forgotten where he came from.” He’s spent millions establishing the Mary Lea Johnson Richards Institute at NYU, and the Children’s Advocacy Center of Manhattan. He’s also known for showering his pals with gifts. “You don’t want to say, in front of Marty, ‘Gee, that’s beautiful,’ ” says Rivera, because he insists on buying whatever she’s admired, whether a cashmere sweater or jewelry. Dittmann says it’s hard to rein in the exuberant Richards, to get him to live within even his considerable means. “Marty’s impossible,” she says affectionately, adding that he has taken to sending gifts to the Sloan-Kettering staff. “He sends the nurses flowers, then he gets them theater tickets, then he sends them tapes and CDs of Chicago. Now he wants to send them jewelry. He wants to be good to the little guys.”

He does like the good life. and yet, well, money isn’t everything; achievement still matters. Sitting in a gilt-edged antique chair in his spectacular living room at River House, with the cut-glass chandelier twinkling overhead, Richards mentions that he’s really upset that he never got his canvas director’s chair from the Chicago set. “You mean all these gorgeous antiques don’t do it for you?” I ask, gesturing at the luxury surrounding us. He thunders back, “I’d rather have that chair than anything in this room.”

His emotional involvement in this movie was quite evident to the cast. Catherine Zeta-Jones recalls, “Sometimes we would be filming into the early hours of morning, until sunrise. I kept saying, ‘Marty, are you okay, are you tired?’ And he’d say, ‘This was my dream to watch this happen.’ ” She adds, “When the last of our energy was gone, when me and Renée could hardly walk after the last number, there was Marty in the audience, clapping.” Director Marshall says, “Marty sat by the monitor with me, and he’d be in tears half the time—the recollections it would bring back.” Richards says the experience was overwhelming: “I put my hands up to the air, after the first assemblage, and I said to Bob Fosse, ‘Please, Bobby, please like this picture. I just want to do you justice.’ ”

In the transition from stage to screen, endings are often rewritten and the tone changed to fit a different artistic or commercial vision. Marshall and screenwriter Condon had planned to make their own mark, changing to end on a rueful note, showing Roxie having second thoughts about her rise to fame. Condon said that two endings were shot, at Richards’s insistence, and the producer’s version won. “Marty told us, ‘I know what you guys are going for, I get it, I can’t tell you how wrong I think it is,’ ” says Condon. “Marty said, ‘It’s such a betrayal of what this piece is about to claim at the end of the day, Roxie’s fought her way to this moment of glory and is now feeling the emptiness. That’s another movie. The point of this story is, she’s thrilled to be here.’ ”

He should know. Not only was he trying to protect Fosse’s vision, but, of course, who could better understand the struggle of a talented and colorful character’s fight for fame and acclaim and razzle-dazzle respect?

“Everything in my life is a drama,” Richards loves to say. Sunday night in Los Angeles, there’s no doubt about it—he’ll be thrilled to be there.

Hey, Mr. Producer