NEW YORK -- Lloyd Richards, theater director and educator who mentored the career of August Wilson and directed the legendary Broadway production of ``A Raisin in the Sun," has died of heart failure.
Mr. Richards died Thursday at Mount Sinai Hospital, Victoria Nolan, deputy director of the Yale School of Drama, said yesterday. Always circumspect about his age, he was believed to be in his mid-80s.
Besides Wilson, Mr. Richards helped shape the career of many playwrights, working with writers primarily at three major theatrical institutions -- the National Playwrights Conference at the O'Neill Center in Waterford, Conn., as dean of the Yale School of Drama, and artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre.
But it was with Wilson, who died last October, that Mr. Richards forged his most prominent partnership.
He directed six of Wilson's plays on Broadway, starting with ``Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" in 1984, and their relationship continued through ``Fences," ``Joe Turner's Come and Gone," ``The Piano Lesson," ``Two Trains Running," and ``Seven Guitars." Mr. Richards won a Tony Award for his direction of ``Fences."
At the Playwrights Conference, where new works receive staged readings, Mr. Richards worked not only with Wilson but with such authors as Wendy Wasserstein, David Henry Hwang, and Christopher Durang.
At Yale Rep, he also championed the work of Athol Fugard and directed several of the South African playwright's dramas on Broadway, including ``A Lesson From Aloes," ``Master Harold . . . and the boys," and ``Blood Knot."
In Boston, Mr. Richards directed four August Wilson plays at the Huntington Theatre Company: ``Joe Turner's Come and Gone," ``The Piano Lesson," ``Two Trains Running," and ``Seven Guitars."
His relationship with the Huntington began in 1986, said managing director, Michael Maso.
``Lloyd then was everything at once," he said. ``During those years, he was dean of the Yale School of Drama, he was also the artistic director of Yale Repertory. And he was head of the Eugene O'Neill Playwriting Center in the summer.
``He was really a giant. He was the first black director on Broadway, directing Lorraine Hansberry's `A Raisin in the Sun' with Sydney Poitier and Ruby Dee. He was this man of enormous dignity, enormous compassion, and enormous intelligence. He was a black Buddha: powerful, reserved, warm. So much of the explosion of black theater in America in the past half-century goes back to Lloyd Richards."
Discovering Wilson was one of his major achievements. He found Wilson's submission for ``Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" at the O'Neill Center.
``It wasn't finished," Maso said, ``but he said `this guy is someone to invite in.' He clearly brought Wilson to the mainstream."
Wilson went on to write a 10-play cycle of the lives of black Americans in the 20th century. The last, ``Radio Golf," was completed shortly before he died in October.
Broadway director Kenny Leon, who directed another in the series, ``Gem of the Ocean," at the Huntington in 2004, will direct ``Radio Golf" there in September.
James Bundy, dean of the Yale School of Drama, also used the word ``giant" to describe Mr. Richards, who was dean of the school from 1979 to 1991.
``He was a giant in American theater, although he was not a man large in physical stature," Bundy said. ``He was keenly observant, spectacularly articulate, and deeply talented. He had an enormous impact on American theater. He was a gifted teacher and a passionate advocate of creating diversity in American theater. He really was a visionary."
Ed Bullins, playwright, professor and artist-in-residence at Northeastern University said he was ``deeply sorrowed" to hear about Mr. Richards's death.
``When he was directing my play `The Fabulous Miss Marie' for Joseph Papp at Lincoln Center in the '70s, he came my aid as a playwright. He thought some things shouldn't be changed in the play, and he and Joe got into a tremendous argument and the production was canceled.
``He was a very understanding, warm, thoughtful, and correct person and had a great impact on me," Bullins said.
Kenny Leon saw Mr. Richards as a longtime friend and mentor.
When Leon was tapped to direct the 2004 Broadway revival of Lorraine Hansberry's ``A Raisin in the Sun," starring Sean ``P. Diddy" Combs and Phylicia Rashad, he immediately looked to Mr. Richards for guidance. Mr. Richards, after all, had directed the 1959 Broadway production.
``The first thing I did was sit down and talk to him for hours about the play," Leon said yesterday . ``I think Lloyd is an American treasure, a genius. He's like a king -- a king that's gone home."
Services will be private. A memorial service will be held at a later date.
Catherine Foster of the Globe staff contributed to this report.