Michael Butler, the Tony-nominated producer who financed the culture-defining musical Hair, passed away November 7 at the Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging in Reseda, California at the age of 95. The news was confirmed by longtime Broadway publicist Merle Frimark.
Born into a wealthy Chicago family November 26, 1926, Mr. Butler was the godson of Old Hollywood actor Tyrone Power, and a close friend of Joe and John Fitzgerald Kennedy. He pursued a career in politics, serving as the chancellor for the Lincoln Academy, the commissioner of the Port of Chicago, president of the Organization of Economic Development in Illinois, and the president of the Illinois Sports Council. He was an assistant to Illinois governor Otto Kerner Jr., and served as a Special Advisor to then-Senator John F. Kennedy on matters regarding the Middle East.
In 1967, while preparing to run for the US Senate, Mr. Butler had a pivotal discussion with a young student who worked as a gardner on his estate. The conversation led to Mr. Butler adopting an anti-war outlook in regards to the Vietnam War, and while in New York City on business for Kerner Jr., he attended the Public Theater production of Galt MacDermot, Gerome Ragni, and James Rado's landmark rock musical Hair.
Mr. Butler was so moved by the production that he abandoned his pursuit of political office, instead acquiring the commercial rights to the musical for a Broadway run. The show was immensely influential, running on Broadway for 1,750 performances in addition to launching nine national productions and 19 international productions.
Simultaneously, Mr. Butler pivoted to serving as a political activist, donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to left-leaning causes while personally lobbying his powerful friends for change. Prior to the 1968 Democratic National Convention, he organized a meeting between Abbie Hoffman and Chicago mayor Richard Daley, held "Cause" meetings in Oak Brook, Illinois (which had been founded by his father), and pointedly supported Tom Smothers, Peter Yarrow, and Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. For his efforts, Mr. Butler was placed on Richard Nixon's infamous "Enemies List."
A lover of polo, Mr. Butler hosted lavish matches on his extensive grounds in the United Kingdom, and he later admitted to losing the entirety of Hair's $60 million–dollar profit on polo-related spending and gambling.
In addition to Hair, Mr. Butler produced the Broadway shows Reggae, The Golden Apple, a 1964 revival of West Side Story, The Trial of the Catonsville 9, Coquelito, and Lenny. On screen, he produced the film adaptation of Hair and the 1968 counterculture documentary You Are What You Eat. He appeared on screen in Harry and Tonto, Electra Glide in Blue,and Guiding Light.
Mr. Butler is survived by his son Adam, his daughter-in-law Michelle, and grandson Liam Bartholomew Butler, as well as sister Jorie Butler Kent and her daughter Reute Butler, and half-sister Wendy Dunaway and her two daughters, Missy West and Jorie Waterman.