Longtime WSU professor, director 'just understood theater'

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News
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Tony Schmitt, who died July 1 at age 80, spent nearly 25 years teaching and directing at Wayne State University

Anthony “Tony” Schmitt, Royal Oak 

In nearly a quarter-century leading Wayne State University theater productions, Tony Schmitt loved laboring to awe audiences.

“Tony could cover the spectrum,” said Blair Anderson, a former WSU theater department chair. “He just understood theater — all the different facets. That’s what made him a really good director. He was very versatile and knowledgeable.”

Mr. Schmitt died Sunday, July 1, 2018, after suffering a stroke. He was 80. 

The longtime professor and director spent much of his drama career at Wayne State, which he joined in 1978.

During his tenure, he oversaw the graduate acting program and also directed more than 70 productions at WSU venues like the Hilberry and Bonstelle, including famous works such as “Romeo and Juliet,” “Of Mice and Men,” “The Heidi Chronicles,” “Antigone,” “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Nicholas Nickleby,” according to Mr. Schmitt’s biography.

Colleagues and students recall his personal touch in each play, from helpful tips to one-on-one rehearsal talks with performers.

“Each production was unique. He didn’t force a style,” said Anderson, who also earned his doctorate at WSU and directed plays there. “He let that evolve in his collaborations with not only his designers but his actors. Darn near every show was dead on.”

That dedication dominated Mr. Schmitt’s down-time.

“He would always come home and redo what he had done,” said his wife of 56 years, Jan Schmitt. “He was constantly revising and revising to make it, in his mind, better.”

Born Jan. 21, 1938, in Ohio, Mr. Schmitt started his theater education as an apprentice at a Cincinnati summer playhouse.  He also attended Xavier University, served in the Army from 1961-63 then briefly taught high school English, according to his biography. 

Earning a master’s degree from Saint Louis University, Mr. Schmitt later directed productions and taught theater courses at what was then Gannon College in Erie, Pennsylvania.

From 1970-78, he was an assistant professor and director and also led a summer theater program at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

At Wayne State, Mr. Schmitt also taught courses in acting and directing as well as guided M.F.A. and Ph.D. dissertations and theses, relatives and associates said.

Over the years, the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society member bonded with students and colleagues, encouraging them with his wit and huge laugh.  

“He was just a genuine individual that brought laughter and humor into people’s lives,” said his son, also named Tony Schmitt.

Retiring in 2001, Mr. Schmitt became an associate artistic adviser and freelance director at Meadow Brook Theatre, relatives said. He also directed at Metro Detroit’s Attic Theatre, the Utah Shakespeare Festival and Cherry County Playhouse, his biography indicated.

When not in the spotlight, Mr. Schmitt had acting credits, penned plays and at the time of his death was writing a book on stage performing, his wife said. “He just loved learning about it, improving it, changing his techniques, studying it and then sharing what he learned.”

In his retirement, Mr. Schmitt relished reading and tending to a garden brimming with roses and orchids, applying the same zeal he summoned to command the stage.  

“He was passionate about everything,” his wife said. “He was just one of those guys that whatever he was going to do, he was going to do all the way.”

Besides his wife and son, other survivors include children Stephen and Victoria; five grandchildren; and a sister, Mary Ann Fischer. 

A funeral Mass was scheduled for 10 a.m. Monday at National Shrine of the Little Flower Basilica, Woodward at 12 Mile, Royal Oak.

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