John Willis, editor of the Theatre World and Screen World series for more than 45 years and longtime producer of the Theatre World Awards, died June 25 at his home in Manhattan of complications from lung cancer. He was 93. Willis had attended the 2010 Theatre World Awards ceremony, honoring actors making their New York stage debuts, on June 8.
As editor of Theatre World from 1965 to 2008, Willis chronicled each season of Broadway, off-Broadway, off-off-Broadway, regional theater, summer stock and touring companies, plus actors’ biographies, obituaries, and major theatrical awards, with emphasis on the coveted Theatre World Awards. During the same time period, he also edited Screen World, the annual record of foreign and domestic film releases. (In 2009, Ben Hodges took over editing Theatre World and Barry Monush took over Screen World.)
John Alvin Willis was born in Morristown, Tennessee, on October 16, 1916. He graduated cum laude from Milligan College in 1938 and received a M.A. from the University of Tennessee in 1941. After serving in the U.S. Navy and Navy Reserves, he moved to New York City in 1945 to become an actor. While working in summer stock, he was tapped by Theatre World co-founder Daniel Blum to type the entries for the annual series.
Willis holds the unofficial record of seeing more Broadway, off-Broadway, and off-off-Broadway shows than any other person. He attended between seven and nine shows a week for more than 58 years, with the exception of a two-week vacation in June of every year. In addition, he worked as a New York City public school teacher for more than 20 years.
On behalf of Theatre World, Willis received a 2001 Tony Honor for Excellence in the Theatre, the 2003 Broadway Theater Institute Lifetime Achievement Award, a 1993 Lucille Lortel Award and 1994 special Drama Desk Award. He served on the Tony Award nominating committee, the New York University Musical Hall of Fame selection committee, and the board of directors of the National Board of Review. In 1996 he received a caricature on the wall of Sardi’s.
Willis was divorced twice and had no children.