Joseph Andre as Paul San Marco
Sammy Williams, who won a Tony Award in his Broadway acting debut for his wrenching monologue as Paul, the tormented young gay man and aspiring dancer seeking artistic validation, in the original production of “A Chorus Line,” died on Saturday in North Hollywood, Calif. He was 69.
The cause was cancer, his brother Carmen said.
Written in the decade before the AIDS epidemic placed gay rights on the nation’s agenda, Mr. Williams’s role was considered cathartic for people who felt in a similar position — young, bullied and reticent about their sexual orientation if not embarrassed by it.
A record-breaking musical about backstage life — it won nine Tonys and a Pulitzer Prize — “A Chorus Line” was a play within a play. The audience often squirmed as an exacting director whittled down applicants for the chorus during auditions not only by watching them perform but also by extracting revelatory confessions of why they so desperately wanted to dance.
Mr. Williams was 26 when he first played Paul San Marco, an awkward and shy gay Puerto Rican dancer from Spanish Harlem. It was his first speaking part.
When it was his turn to be grilled by the director in the play, he delivers a nearly 10-minute introspective monologue recounting how he had dropped out of Catholic school, despairingly joined an itinerant drag troupe and is now hungry for a legitimate job dancing to validate his life.
“And there they were standing in the middle of all these . . . And all they said to me was, ‘Please write, make sure you eat and take care of yourself.’ And just before my parents left, my father turned to the producer and he said, ‘Take care of my son . . .’ That was the first time he ever called me that.”
Ben Brantley, the New York Times’ chief drama critic, later wrote that the monologue “brought shattered audiences to tears when Sammy Williams delivered it.”
Harris Green agreed in The Times that “the longest — and most excruciatingly sentimental — of all these narratives would have been unbearable if Sammy Williams hadn’t been so affectingly understated as the homosexual doomed to a career in drag shows.”
Mr. Williams won the Tony Award for best performance by a featured actor in a musical in 1976 as well as an Obie Award.
“A Chorus Line,” produced by Joseph Papp for the Public Theater, opened at the Shubert Theater on July 25, 1975. It played 6,137 performances, becoming Broadway’s longest-running production until 1997, when it was overtaken by “Cats.”
The script was a case of art imitating life. It was heavily drawn from taped interviews with actual dancers, leavened by a hefty dose of artistic license.
Paul’s story was drawn from that of Nicholas Dante, who wrote the book for the show with James Kirkwood Jr. It also mirrored Mr. Williams’s own journey from personal humiliation to self-awareness and acceptance and to professional recognition.
Samuel Joseph Williams was born on Nov. 13, 1948, in Trenton to Joseph Williams, a factory worker, and the former Nona Dibella, who worked in a hospital.
In addition to his brother Carmen, he is survived by his father; another brother, Joseph; and his stepmother, Julie Williams.
As a boy, Mr. Williams would tag along to his sister’s dance classes. One day, as the story goes, when she didn’t feel like dancing, he announced, “I can do that!” — four words that were immortalized in a song by the same name in “A Chorus Line.”
“Although I ended up doing ‘I Can Do That’ in the show,” said Wayne Cilento, who played the role of the singer and tap-dancer Mike Costa in the original production, “it was actually the story of Sammy Williams.”
After graduating from Steinert High School in Hamilton Township, N.J., where he performed in school plays, Mr. Williams, at 19, went to New York to try his luck. Within a year he had landed in the ensemble of David Merrick’s “The Happy Time” on Broadway (where he also understudied for 20 parts). He later danced opposite Lauren Bacall in “Applause,” which opened in 1970.
After winning the Tony, Mr. Williams’s life imitated art.
In the play, Paul injures his knee during an audition, and, in a painful reminder of fleeting fame, he is dropped as one of the remaining candidates for the chorus.
Mr. Williams, who was gay, played Paul on Broadway until April 24, 1976. In mid-1978, he reprised the role in Los Angeles, hoping for film offers there. But his agent told him mercilessly, “You can put your Tony away; it doesn’t mean anything in this town.”
Mr. Williams grew a beard and managed to get cast as a drug dealer in an episode of “Kojak” on television, but he lamented, “Nobody recognized me, not even my agent.”
In 1983, he returned to the Broadway cast of “A Chorus Line” for two years, but by then, he said, the depictions on stage seemed less authentic.
“Originally, we were those characters we played,” he said at the time. “The people now are acting what we were.”
The show was transformed into a film, directed by Richard Attenborough, in 1985, but Mr. Williams wasn’t cast in it. (Cameron English got the part of Paul.) He later moved to California permanently and worked full-time as a florist. He also performed episodically in touring and regional productions and in a one-man autobiographical show, “And the Winner Is.”
By evoking the decades when Mr. Williams was, indeed, a winner, the show’s title was an implicit reminder — if Mr. Williams or Paul San Marco needed one — of fame’s ephemerality.
“When ‘A Chorus Line’ opened, we were really it,” Mr. Williams said. “But when it’s over, so are you.”