Bernhardt’s Broadway credits include two Pulitzer winners: Paul Zindel’s 1970 The Effect Of Gamma Rays On Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds, as well as the Henley play, which won the prize in 1981 but lost out on the best play Tony to The Life And Adventures Of Nicholas Nickleby. He died at home in Manhattan on September 12. No cause of death was given, but his husband, Jeff Woodman, told the New York Times that Bernhardt had been in declining health and had stopped taking nourishment after breaking his arm in a recent fall.
Prior to Crimes Of The Heart, Bernhardt won the 1978 Tony Award for best direction of a play for his sensitive production of Hugh Leonard’s Da, which also won for best play, best actor and best featured actor in a play (Barnard Hughes and Lester Rawlins, respectively). It ran nearly 700 performances.
Crimes Of The Heart was even more celebrated. A Southern Gothic comedy of the darkest sort, Henley’s first full-length play concerns three emotive Mississippi sisters who reunite when the youngest, Babe, is out on bail after shooting her abusive husband. It was first presented at the Actors Theater Of Louisville, with a cast that included Henley’s Southern Methodist University fellow alumna Kathy Bates. It was then picked up by the Manhattan Theatre Club, which at the time operated in a tiny theater on New York’s Upper East Side. Bernhardt’s critically lauded production starred Mia Dillon, Mary Beth Hurt, Lizbeth MacKay and Peter MacNichol and quickly transferred to Broadway’s Golden Theatre, where it ran for 535 performances. Bruce Beresford’s 1986 film earned Henley an Oscar nomination for adapted screenplay, and starred Jessica Lange, Sissy Spacek and Diane Keaton as the three sisters.
“Melvin and I used to joke that we were each other’s lucky charm, since the two shows we did together began at small, 80-seat houses, both transferred to Broadway and earned him Tony nominations and with Da, the Tony,” Mia Dillon, a Tony nominee for her memorable performance as Babe, told Deadline. “He was an exacting director who sometimes elicited heated discussions in his note sessions with actors, usually because his mind was so quick he was on to the next subject before you understood what he was talking about.”
Swoosie Kurtz (Mike & Molly, Sisters), another actress who worked with Bernhardt, had similar recollections. “He was the director of my dreams — a true leader,” Kurtz told Deadline, “brilliant and relentless in his vision, brilliant and relentless in his notes. I still have them. He taught me so much.”
In a career spanning more than four decades, Bernhardt had worked his exacting magic with a small constellation of stage legends including Sada Thompson, the star of Marigolds as well as Ron Leibman and Linda Lavin, Julie Harris and Estelle Parsons (as sisters in Zindel’s And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little, and Elizabeth Ashley in Hide and Seek, a thriller that was a quick failure on Broadway between Da and Crimes Of The Heart.
“His mind was so quick he was on to the next subject before you understood what he was talking about.” — actress Mia Dillon
Bernhardt worked on soap operas and directed a 1984 television adaptation of Mister Roberts with Charles Durning, Kevin Bacon and Robert Hays. He and Woodman lived in Manhattan and Cragsmoor, N.Y. The director is also survived by a brother, Richard Bernhard (Melvin added the “t” to the family name in honor of the actress Sarah Bernhardt).
“His passion for the work always showed in the end product,” Mia Dillon said. “How a gay Jewish director understood young Southern women and elderly Irish gardeners is testament to his brilliance. A lot of revivals haven’t come close.”