Norman Twain, Producer of Morgan Freeman's 'Lean on Me,' Dies at 85

Norman Twain Headshot P 2016
Courtesy Jeffrey Richards Associates

He mounted several plays and musicals on Broadway before heading to California in the 1970s.

Norman Twain, a prominent theatrical producer in New York and California in the 1960s and '70s who also was behind the fact-based film Lean on Me starring Morgan Freeman, has died. He was 85.

Twain died Saturday in New York City after a brief illness, a spokesperson for Jeffrey Richards Associates announced.

In 1989's Lean on Me, Freeman starred as Joe Clark, the New Jersey high school principal and disciplinarian who famously appeared with a baseball bat on a cover of Time magazine in 1988. Twain saw a segment about Clark on the NBC newsmagazine 1986 and "immediately thought this was a movie," he told the Philadelphia Daily News in 1988.

"I called Joe up the next day and came out here [to Paterson, N.J.] the day after that," Twain recalled. "He was all for it, even though he didn't know whether I was talking about a made-for-TV movie, a home movie or what. I paid him a fee for a 120-day option on his story."

Michael Schiffer wrote the screenplay and John Avildsen directed, and Warner Bros.' Lean on Me won the Image Award from the NAACP for outstanding motion picture of the year.

Earlier, Twain produced musicals for the stage including 1964's Bajour, which co-starred Chita Rivera, Herschel Bernardi and Nancy Dussault; the Robert Merrill-George Roy Hill 1967 collaboration Henry, Sweet Henry, based on Nunnally Johnson’s The World of Henry Orient; and the money-losing Lolita, My Love, which, despite lyrics from My Fair Lady's Alan Jay Lerner, closed in Boston in 1971 before ever making it to Broadway.

Twain brought French singers Charles Aznavour and Gilbert Becaud to Broadway in the mid-1960s and had success with a 1969 revival of Hamlet that starred Nicol Williamson and was directed by Tony Richardson.

A native of Atlantic City, N.J., Twain graduated from Columbia University and made his mark off-Broadway by producing Tennessee Williams’ Garden District and Maxwell Anderson’s The Golden Six.

He made his Broadway debut in 1959 with a revival of John Osborne and Anthony Creighton’s Epitaph for George Dillon and then directed and produced A Distant Bell, starring Martha Scott.

His other productions for the Great White Way included Franco Zefferelli's production of The Lady of the Camellias in 1963; Jean Anouilh’s Traveler Without Luggage, starring Ben Gazzara; and Cop-Out, which introduced John Guare to Broadway audiences in 1969.

Twain’s final New York production was the off-Broadway hit The World of Lenny Bruce.

In California, Twain produced David Rabe's Streamers, which starred Richard Thomas, Bruce Davison, Charles Durning and Ralph Meeker; a Richardson production of As You Like It; Cyrano, starring Stacy Keach; and a Gower Champion production of Our Town.

He produced It's a Bird … It's a Plane … It's Superman!, a 1975 telefilm based on the Charles Strouse-Lee Adams musical, and served as an associate producer on Richardson's 1984 film The Hotel New Hampshire.

Twain also executive produced the 2001 HBO telefilm Boycott, which starred Jeffrey Wright as Martin Luther King Jr.

His most recent producing efforts included the horror film Scar (2007), the Sarah Jessica Parker-starring Spinning Into Butter (2007) and the animated My Dog Tulip (2009), which featured the voices of Christopher Plummer, Lynn Redgrave and Isabella Rossellini.

At the time of his death, Twain was planning a return to Broadway with the play The Coastline of England.

Survivors include his wife Deanna, daughter Dena, son-in-law Timothy and granddaughters Dylan and Isabelle.