“I never imagined anything like this. It’s pretty awesome,” says William “Bill” Craver, who receives a Tony Honor for Excellence in the Theatre this year. “I’ve had some very prominent clients, three of whom have won Pulitzer Prizes and several have won Tony Awards. I think that has been noticed,” says the veteran literary agent. “Maybe it was just genetic. I had it in my veins and it opened the world to me,” he adds.
Craver’s interest in the theatre began at college in Texarkana, a small city on the border of Texas and Arkansas. “The state line goes right down the middle of the main street through the post office and through the train station. I was born on the Texas side,” he reports. Captivated by the theatre productions presented twice a year in his school auditorium, he decided to study musical arts at the University of Texas. He headed to New York in 1956 after completing his Master's degree. The move to NYC meant starting with temp work. “I typed invoices for a bread company in the Graybar building and things like that,” he says. “But my goal was to be in the theatre.”
Two years later, while working at the temporary Manhattan box-office for the Stratford Connecticut American Shakespeare Festival, Craver befriended Helen Menken, Broadway actress and one-time President of the American Theatre Wing. At the end of that summer, Menken invited him to work for her at the Wing’s Professional Theatre School. He was manning the switchboard one day when he took a call from a William Morris agent who had a message for Menken: the Broadway producer Saint Subber needed an assistant. “No one ever got that message!” chuckles Craver. He went to Subber’s office and landed the job.
Working with Neil Simon and a Move to Hollywood
Arnold Saint-Subber (known as Saint Subber) had won a Tony Award for Kiss Me Kate in 1949 and was one of the most eminent producers of his day. Shortly after Craver started working for him, Subber went on to produce seven Neil Simon plays, five of which received Tony nominations. “I worked on Barefoot in the Park (1963), which was also Mike Nichols’ first directing job on Broadway,” Craver recalls. He soon received a credit listing as company manager for Simon’s subsequent hits, The Odd Couple (1965) and Plaza Suite (1968). He also worked on the Subber-Nichols all-star Lincoln Center 1967 revival of The Little Foxes with Anne Bancroft and George C. Scott. After he left Subber, Craver continued his New York theatre career working in various capacities as producer and business manager, including overseeing the long-running 1971 Off Broadway revival of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Before embarking on his distinguished three-decade career as an agent for writers, directors and designers, Craver spent a two-year interlude working in Hollywood. He was associate producer on the CBS mini-series The Dain Curse (1978) and Farah Fawcett’s first movie feature, Somebody Killed Her Husband, the following year. “I was basically commuting back and forth and I didn’t like that very much, so I gave it up and went back to New York to freelance as a general manager,” he says. Around this time, Helen Merrill, an agent best known for nurturing a new breed of up-and-coming playwrights and directors in the 1970s, invited him to come and work for her. “She asked me to help her out with the offers her clients were getting to write for film and television.” Two years later his friend Joan Scott, the founder of Writers & Artists, a talent agency based in Los Angeles, made him an irresistible offer. “She invited me to lunch and about two minutes after we sat down she said, ‘I want you to come and work for me and run my New York office,’” he relates.
A Distinguished Literary and Talent Agent
Craver would become a partner and president of the New York office of Writers & Artists, which was subsequently acquired by the literary and talent agency Paradigm. Soon playwrights and directors who knew him from before sought his representation. David Henry Hwang moved from Merrill to Writers & Artists, where Craver would shepherd his Tony-winning M. Butterfly. Director Jerry Zaks, who also got acquainted with Craver in his Merrill days, came over for a spell with the agency, during which he received his 1992 Tony for directing the revival of Guys and Dolls. At about the same time, Craver’s client Robert Schenkkan received the 1992 Pulitzer for his epic The Kentucky Cycle even before the play was produced in New York.
A good part of his work, Craver says, entailed going to readings and presentations. “Basically you are looking for a good play or what you think is a talented writer,” he says, adding that he was able to draw on his prior experience as a company manager working with contracts when it came to negotiating business deals for his clients. “It takes a bit of explaining to them what we could do with their work or why something didn’t go well,” he explains. “That’s what the job is about, providing them with a way in.”
“When I took on David Auburn, he was doing a typing job just like I had done before,” the agent continues. He arranged for an Off Broadway production of Auburn’s play Skyscraper in 1997, but didn’t see or hear much from the playwright, he recalls. “Then he called me one day after about a year and asked if he could bring me a new play. It was Proof. I sent it to Manhattan Theatre Club and they decided on the spot that they would produce it. He won a Tony and a Pulitzer.”
Jonathan Larson and Rent
Craver’s third Pulitzer-winning playwright is perhaps the most bittersweet of his memories. He received a call from Jonathan Larson, who had been struggling for years and wasn’t happy at another agency. “I had to go and meet him in his apartment near Canal Street. He had a piano there,” says Craver. “I had to call him from a pay phone, and he threw the keys down for me to get into the building. If you remember, that is a special moment in Rent.” After Larson signed on, Craver helped to get Tick, Tick…Boom! produced Off Broadway in 1991. Then came Rent, which New York Theatre Workshop was planning to stage in early 1995. “I remember Jonathan called me in total distress the previous November saying that they had decided to postpone it,” says Craver. “I sort of coerced the theatre to go forward with it, and of course, it was a sensation. You couldn’t get into the building -- Steven Spielberg was outside trying to get a ticket. And then it moved to Broadway.” Sadly, Larson didn’t live to enjoy the success and collect his Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for the musical.
“I am very grateful that for the things that happened to me,” says Craver looking back. “I never asked for a job after the first one. It was quite fortunate that people would ask me to work for them and every job seemed to be a step up.” Now that he has just ended his tenure at the Paradigm agency, he says, “I am not looking forward to retirement, actually. When I was in high school I had to go to work after school, so I got used to work. I like work.”
Revised May 31, 2013