Eugene Lee, the six-time Emmy-winning production designer for Saturday Night Live since 1975 and a multiple Tony winner for such Broadway hits as Wicked, Sweeney Todd and Candide, died Monday in Providence, RI, following a brief illness. He was 83.
As the production designer of SNL since the year of its debut, Lee was the longest-serving member of the NBC show’s production staff. He also served as production designer for The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon from 2014-2018 and numerous SNL specials.
He also led the production design for Late Night with Seth Meyers and the 2000 television movie On Golden Pond, among others. For his work in television production design, Lee was nominated for 18 Emmys, winning six including consecutive Emmys for Outstanding Art Direction For Variety Or Nonfiction Programming from 2017-2021.
In addition to his Tonys, Lee’s stage work was honored by the New York Drama Desk, the Lucille Lortel Award, and the Pell Award, among others. He is an inductee of the American Theater Hall of Fame and the New York Theater Hall of Fame.
Among Lee’s numerous Broadway productions were Sweeney Todd in 1979, Gilda Radner – Live From New York (1979), Merrily We Roll Along (1981), Seussical (2001), Wicked (2003), A Streetcar Named Desire (2012), Glengarry Glen Ross (2012), and, most recently, Amazing Grace (2015).
Lee was also instrumental in founding Trinity Rep in Providence, and remained that theater’s resident set designer until his death. (A Wisconsin native, Lee was a longtime resident of Providence.) The theater company’s founding artistic director and Lee’s longtime friend Adrian Hall died last weekend at age 95.
“Eugene Lee was a once-in-a-generation theater artist, one of the greatest minds to ever answer the question ‘What is theater?’” Trinity Rep artistic director Curt Columbus said. “He was simultaneously playful and profound, childlike and rigorous, a genius who sees the world in ways that others only dream. Every time I worked with Eugene as a designer, my work as a director became more bold, more expansive, and more true. It is one of the greatest honors of my life in the theater that I could call Eugene Lee my collaborator and my friend. Words cannot express how much he will be missed.”
Lee arrived at Trinity Rep in 1967 and made his Trinity Rep scenic design debut with The Importance of Being Earnest. Most recently, he was scheduled to co-design the set for this spring’s production of Sweeney Todd with Patrick Lynch. Other notable design credits at Trinity Rep include Billy Budd (1969), Peer Gynt (1974), Tom Jones (1975), King Lear (1977), American Buffalo (1978), The Cherry Orchard (1988 and 2006), School for Wives (1991), Homebody/Kabul (2002), Twelfth Night (2010), The Fantasticks (2007), Camelot (2010), Oliver! (2014), The Glass Menagerie (1992 and 2015), Ragtime (2018), Marisol (2019), A Tale of Two Cities (2020), and several productions of A Christmas Carol.
Among Lee’s feature film credits are Francis Ford Coppola’s Hammett, Danny Huston’s Mr. North, Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street and Jonathan Demme’s A Master Builder.
He is survived by his wife Brooke, sons Willie and Ted, their wives Kate and Greta, grandchildren Lucy and Otis, twin brother Thomas, nephew Graham, and his wife Pam. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Providence Animal Rescue League, the RI Community Food Bank, WaterFire Providence, and Trinity Rep. A celebration of his life will be held at a future date.
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