A Tribute to Paul Junger Witt
Paul Junger Witt made us laugh. He made us cry. He made us think, sing, open our minds, and learn to seize the day. And for those of us associated with the Arts at UVA, he made us proud.
The legendary and groundbreaking television and film producer began his career in the mailroom at Columbia Pictures. Before long, it became clear his talents were better suited to delivering beloved, groundbreaking and unforgettable television and film experiences than delivering packages. He produced some of the most successful projects in television history, starting with The Partridge Family, which would become a soundtrack for the seventies and must-see family TV for millions across America. Witt soon had all of America in tears with Brian’s Song, the tale of cancer-stricken Chicago Bear Brian Piccolo, which won seven Emmy Awards.
Witt would soon be behind one of the most important barrier-breaking moments in American popular culture with Soap, which introduced us to television’s first openly-gay character, and to a young actor named Billy Crystal. The hits would keep coming as the decades rolled on, with an almost unfathomable string of classics including Benson, Empty Nest, Blossom, and the original Beauty and the Beast. Witt’s Midas touch extended to the big screen as well as a producer for the Academy Award-winning Dead Poets Society, Three Kings, Insomnia, and the critically-acclaimed A Better Life.
Paul Junger Witt brought the same passion and dedication to projects outside the industry, most prominently as tireless environmental activist, serving on the California State Park and Recreation Commission as Chairman, Vice-Chairman, and Commissioner for 16 years, in addition to serving on other influential boards of leading environmental advocacy organizations.
Another of his lifelong passions was the University of Virginia, and specifically the Department of Drama. Witt never forgot the creative seeds sown on Grounds ago many years ago as a member of the Virginia Players. He remained an ardent supporter of the Department and of his great friend David Weiss, who led it so well for so long.
“Paul Junger Witt was a true giant of the entertainment industry,” said Jody Kielbasa, Vice Provost for the Arts. “His impact on the television and film worlds, and on American culture, is impossible to measure. Yet, despite the incredible demands on his time and energy, he continued to support the Department, and UVA Arts overall in a variety of ways, including as a valued member of our Arts Council. We are forever grateful for his passion and support.”
Former Drama Chair and longtime Heritage Theatre Festival Artistic Director Bob Chapel always looked forward to when Witt returned to Grounds. “I was always so impressed that he made the time to come back here. It was clear that he had a great love for the Department, and definitely for David Weiss. I always looked forward to hearing about his new projects every time he was here, and he was always interested in what we had going on. He was a true gentleman.”
Drama Professor and former Department Chair Tom Bloom remembered Witt’s lifelong interest in the College and the Department of Drama, as well as his 2013 visit to honor David Weiss. “He had such admiration for David and returned for the Rotunda dinner held in David’s honor. To express this appreciation, Paul gifted the College and the Department the David Weiss Greenroom of the Ruth Caplin Theatre. Drama has lost a great friend.”