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John Willis, editor of Theatre World, dies at 93

June 29, 2010 |  6:09 pm

John Willis, 93, a theater and film historian who was the longtime editor of the annual publications Theatre World and Screen World, died of lung cancer Friday at his home in Manhattan.

Willis arrived in New York in 1945 looking for work as an actor. He soon got a job as a typist for the first issue of Theatre World, which chronicled the 1944-45 Broadway season.

In 1965 Willis became editor of Theatre World, which serves as a pictorial and statistical record of Broadway, off-Broadway and regional theater productions. He also began editing the equally comprehensive Screen World, which covers foreign and domestic film releases.

As editor, Willis produced the Theatre World Awards, recognizing promising newcomers in the acting ranks.

Willis received a Tony Award in 2001 on behalf of Theatre World for excellence in theatre.

Born Oct. 16, 1916, in Morristown, Tenn., Willis received a bachelor’s degree from Milligan College in East Tennessee and a master’s in English from the University of Tennessee. He taught English before joining the Navy in World War II. After the war he moved to New York and for many years taught high school English while also working at Theatre World and Screen World.

He retired in 2008.

Willis, who compiled obituaries of stage figures for Theatre World, insisted on citing the cause of death for each one. "Everyone dies of something," Willis would say. "I don't understand why they say 'natural causes,' when all causes are natural unless you're murdered or die in an accident, so they should print what it was that killed them!"

Then he would add, "When I go, please mention what killed me."

Duly noted: lung cancer.

The lights on Broadway will be dimmed for one minute Wednesday night in Willis' honor.

-- Claire Noland

Photo: Eileen Heckart, Theatre World editor John Willis, and Maureen Stapleton at the 1970 Theatre World Awards. Credit: Van Williams