Donald Bevan, 93, Sardi’s Artist and ‘Stalag 17’ Writer, Dies
By BRUCE WEBER
Published: June 30, 2013
In 1942, as a young soldier in the Army Air Forces stationed in England, Donald Bevan, a budding cartoonist, put his artistic skills to good use, decorating the noses of B-17 Flying Fortress bombers and sketching portraits of his fellow airmen on the walls of the combat hut.
Walter Cronkite, then a war correspondent for the United Press news service, was struck by their quality and fed them to the wire. Thus did the man whose caricatures of theater stars would adorn the walls of Sardi’s, the Broadway bistro, achieve his first wide audience.
Mr. Bevan, who was 93 when he died at his home in Studio City, Calif., on May 29, flew missions as a waist gunner until he was shot down over Bremen, Germany, on April 17, 1943. He spent two years in prisoner-of-war camps, ending up at Stalag 17B, near Krems, Austria. There, he and his fellow prisoner Edmund Trzcinski jerry-built a theater, wrote and staged revue sketches and, with scripts supplied by the Red Cross, put on plays for the detainees.
Mr. Bevan’s prison camp experience produced professional theater as well: he and Mr. Trzcinski collaborated on “Stalag 17,” a play they called a comic melodrama about American prisoners of war who are victimized by, and finally triumph over, a Nazi spy who has infiltrated their barracks.
The play — directed by José Ferrer, who won a Tony Award for his effort — opened in May 1951 and ran for well over a year. It was adapted by the director Billy Wilder for a 1953 film that won a best-actor Oscar for William Holden.
“In both the writing and the acting, the search for the traitor is a taut and harrowing business,” Brooks Atkinson wrote in The New York Times, characterizing himself as “one theatergoer who is still shaking from the excitement of the performance.”
Donald Joseph Bevan was born on Jan. 16, 1920, in Holyoke, Mass., and grew up there and in Springfield, Mass. His father, Walter, was an engineer but lost his job during the Depression. After high school, young Don studied at the Grand Central School of Art in Manhattan and worked briefly for The Daily News before he was drafted.
In an interview with The New York Daily Mirror in 1951, Mr. Bevan said the event that provided the spur for “Stalag 17” was an episode in which a prisoner who had tried to escape and was about to be sent to a concentration camp was hidden by the other prisoners under straw mats in a latrine until he could be smuggled out of the camp.
“The Germans had us standing in the rain for whole days trying to make us tell where he was,” Mr. Bevan recalled. “They found out he was tattooed and stripped us naked. When they did, we already had tattooed ourselves just as he was tattooed.”
After the war, Mr. Bevan was an illustrator and poster artist for a film company. According to his son Mark, he met his wife, the actress Patricia Kirkland, when his friends set him up on a phony blind date. Mr. Bevan showed up at her apartment, only to learn that there was no date.
“But I guess she liked him anyway,” Mark Bevan said.
In the early 1950s, Ms. Kirkland’s father, the playwright Jack Kirkland, the author of “Tobacco Road,” introduced Mr. Bevan to Vincent Sardi Jr., who was looking for a new caricaturist for his popular Midtown restaurant. Mr. Bevan began with drawings of Denholm Elliot and Maureen Stapleton, who didn’t like hers and, according to Mr. Sardi’s memoir (written with Thomas Edward West), “Off the Wall at Sardi’s,” stole it.
The third of only four caricaturists that Sardi’s has employed since 1927 (the current artist is Richard Baratz), Mr. Bevan made hundreds of caricatures for the restaurant for more than 20 years, clean drawings displaying a keen eye for the prominent feature: Karl Malden’s nose; Lucille Ball’s red hair and blue eyes; the high cheekbones, elongated neck, angular chin and feline eyes of Lauren Bacall; the rotund face and sleepy-lidded eyes of a possibly inebriated Jackie Gleason (he’s raising a martini glass); Zero Mostel with dark circles around his eyes and a threadbare combover; Carol Burnett with a toothy smile. He drew Laurence Olivier in profile, giving him a long nose, a jutting chin and distinguished graying hair at the temples.
“This is the happiest moment of my life,” Olivier wrote as an inscription.
Mr. Bevan moved to California in the mid-1970s, but Sardi’s current owner, V. Max Klimavicius, said Mr. Bevan drew Michael Douglas and his father, Kirk, in Los Angeles in the 1990s. The caricatures depict both Douglases with matching oversized dimples that look like growths.
Ms. Kirkland died in 2000, and two sons, Michael and Scott, died before their father did. In addition to his son Mark, who confirmed his father’s death (which was not widely reported at the time), Mr. Bevan is survived by a daughter, Nan; eight grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
Mr. Sardi said that he often chose Mr. Bevan’s caricature subjects, and that Mr. Bevan was generally amenable unless the subject was a critic. Mr. Bevan was, after all, a playwright as well as an artist. Alas, he never achieved another success to rival “Stalag 17” — his son remembers him working on a failed musical based on the comic strip “Alley Oop” — and though it’s unlikely his artwork was to blame, he did provoke an ominous response from the critic Walter Kerr, whose caricature was actually rather kind, showing him to be heavyset but well groomed.
“Okay, Bevan,” Mr. Kerr wrote above his signature on the caricature. “You’ll write a play someday.”