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Bertrand Castelli, 78, artist and a producer of 'Hair'

By Bruce Weber
New York Times News Service / August 14, 2008
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NEW YORK - Bertrand Castelli, the executive producer of the original Broadway production of "Hair," died Aug. 1 when he was struck by a boat during one of his daily swims. The accident occurred off the Caribbean coast of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, where he was artist in residence at the Maroma Resort and Spa in Riviera Maya. He was 78.

The cause of his death was confirmed by his daughter Pandora.

A painter, screenwriter, balletomane, and choreographer as well as a producer, Mr. Castelli was described by those who knew him as a world-class bon vivant.

If his was not a familiar name, he was known among the known. A friend of the famous and not-so-famous, a cultivator of people, an avid pot smoker, and a devoted sensualist (his daily swims were always taken nude and usually stoned), he was comfortable in the divergent worlds of SoHo and Broadway, Hollywood and Paris. He once worked as Picasso's assistant, and he was, his daughter said, an occasional lover of Picasso's companion Françoise Gilot.

In a biography of the heiress Rebekah Harkness, Mr. Castelli is quoted as saying after he made love to her: "It was as if we were two camels in the desert who suddenly know that the only way to make an oasis is to really talk sense." It is perhaps no wonder that he was subsequently named artistic director of the Harkness Ballet.

"He had a kind of transcendent egalitarianism," said Rick Kauffman, a friend who owned a SoHo gallery for 25 years. "One day he'd come by the gallery with Jonas Salk, and we'd go out to dinner, and the next time I'd see him, he'd be with the plumber from down the street."

Michael Butler, the original Broadway producer of "Hair," said in a telephone interview last week that Mr. Castelli was in charge of many of the artistic decisions on the show; it was Mr. Castelli, for example, who persuaded Butler to hire the director, Tom O'Horgan. Mr. Castelli was the lead producer for many of the European productions, Butler said; among his many casting contributions, he said, was putting Donna Summer in the show in Germany.

Forty years after it first appeared on Broadway, "Hair" is being revived in Central Park in New York City. The production has catalyzed considerable nostalgia for the late 1960s. What few recall, however, is that "Hair" had more than its share of misfortune; six members of the original company died prematurely, AIDS and drugs being the prime culprits.

"It's as though everything in 'Hair' turned into a nightmare," Mr. Castelli said in a recent documentary film about the show, "Hair: Let the Sun Shine In." "Everything that was joyful and harmless became dangerous and ugly."

Luis Bertrand Nugue Castelli was born in Salon-de-Provence, Bouches-du-Rhône, in southeastern France. Early in his life his father left the family, and Bertrand Castelli grew up in Paris, reared by his Corsican mother and grandmother. Castelli was his mother's name, and he boasted of his Corsican heritage. It was during World War II, when Paris was occupied by the Nazis, that he conceived his desire to be an artist.

"My friends and I began to paint and dance and sing, to create ballets, operas, and plays," he later wrote. "I realize now that we were desperately trying to feel alive, to forget the fear, to find peace."

According to his biography on the Maroma website, maromahotel.com, after the war Mr. Castelli toured with a small circus, coming up with innovative lighting techniques in performance spaces where electricity was in short supply, and he subsequently worked for opera and ballet companies.

He gained his first fame when, as a fund-raising ploy, he created a ballet that involved 12 dancers dressed as posters, each advertising a product, and each given a three-minute solo. Companies like Cartier and Perrier lined up to participate, and he earned enough money to stage a more serious ballet, "Les Algues," which earned him entrée into the society of artists, including Picasso, Celine, and Sartre.

Eventually he moved to New York, then Hollywood, where he tried his hand at writing stage plays and television scripts. He had a role in the 1959 film "Thunder in the Sun," a Western that starred Susan Hayward. And in 1972, after "Hair," he wrote and produced "Richard," a pre-Watergate lampoon of President Nixon. He invented a table-tennis-like game called Plaff, for which he created a paddle with two parallel surfaces connected by a hand grip.

Mr. Castelli's marriage to Lorees Yerby, who was a codirector of "Richard," ended in divorce. In addition to Pandora, who lives in Manhattan, he leaves another daughter, Josephine, also of Manhattan; a granddaughter; and two stepsons, Michael and Winston Dutton of Santa Barbara, Calif.

For the last 15 years he had lived mostly in the Yucatan, where he devoted his time to swimming and painting. His moderately abstract, Spanish-influenced, colorful work dealt often with dancers and human movement. There he also continued to cultivate a following, especially among the creative and the beautiful.

"His friends were all younger than me," Pandora Castelli said.

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