Hinton Battle, Three-Time Tony Winner in Musicals, Dies at 67

Hinton Battle, Three-Time Tony Winner in Musicals, Dies at 67

Hinton Battle, a dazzling dancer who won the first of his three Tony Awards in 1981 for his performance in the Duke Ellington musical revue “Sophisticated Ladies” after learning how to tap dance in the weeks leading up to opening night, died on Tuesday in Los Angeles. He was 67.

His death, at a hospital, was confirmed by Leah Bass-Baylis, a family spokeswoman, who danced with him on Broadway. She did not provide a cause.

“Some people are born with the spirit of the dance,” said Debbie Allen, the dancer, choreographer and actress, who had known Mr. Battle since he was 16. “Hinton Battle was that kind of person.” She added: “He was just technically superior to anyone who came close to him. He had rhythm and style. You were looking at a supernova.”

Mr. Battle auditioned for “Sophisticated Ladies” several years after he originated the role of the Scarecrow in “The Wiz,” the all-Black adaptation of “The Wizard of Oz,” when he was 18. Trained as a ballet dancer, he didn’t know how to tap and felt the pressure of being in a show with virtuoso tappers like Gregory Hines and Gregg Burge.

At his audition, Mr. Battle said that he fudged a soft-shoe routine.

“I panicked,” he told The New York Times in 1984. “It used to be you didn’t need to know how to tap. Tap was out for so long, and there wasn’t much of it to see.”

He took intensive lessons from Henry LeTang, one of the show’s choreographers and a longtime master tap teacher, before and during his run in the show. The tutelage paid off.

In The Boston Globe, the critic Kevin Kelly wrote that Mr. Battle “manages to distinguish himself — by which I mean separate himself — from the ensemble whenever he gets the chance.”

He added, “His dancing is full of dazzle.”

After he won the Tony for best featured actor in a musical, Mr. Battle took the statuette to his mother’s home in Washington, D.C. In a scene captured by The Washington Post in 1981, she untied the strings of the small pouch and removed the Tony.

“Ah, gorgeous!” she said happily, adding, “Are you going to let me keep it?”

“You can have the nomination plaque, but not the Tony,” Mr. Battle said. “That’s mine.”

Over the next decade, he won two more Tony Awards for featured actor in a musical — a record in the category — in “The Tap Dance Kid,” as Dipsey Bates, an aspiring Broadway dancer and choreographer who fuels the show business ambitions of the title character, and later in “Miss Saigon.”

In his review of “The Tap Dance Kid” in The Times in 1983, Frank Rich wrote that Mr. Battle “can perform so many tap variations that the sounds of his feet becomes a percussion symphony.”

Ben Vereen, the actor and dancer renowned for his Tony-winning performance in the musical “Pippin,” first saw Mr. Battle in “The Tap Dance Kid.”

“Hinton’s expression of movement was an inside job,” Mr. Vereen said in a phone interview. “Nothing was mechanical for him. It was a feeling. When it comes from the inside, it’s authentic.”

Mr. Battle’s Tony-winning performance in “Miss Saigon” in 1991 required no dancing. He played John, a marine who introduces the show’s doomed lovers — his sergeant friend and a Vietnamese bar girl — and later becomes an advocate for the abandoned children of American servicemen and local women. In the song “Bui Doi,” he delivers a powerful plea for compassion for the children.

“I’m a mess after singing that song — but only my dresser sees that,” he told The Associated Press in 1991.

Hinton Govorn Battle Jr., was born on Nov. 29, 1956, in Neubrücke, West Germany, where his father, who was in the U.S. Army, was stationed. His mother, Carrie (Griffin) Battle, was an accounting supervisor. Hinton, his two sisters, Lettie and Eddie Battle — his only survivors — and two brothers grew up in Washington.

Hinton danced at home and in an elementary school production of “The Nutcracker” before he started studying ballet at 10 at the Jones-Hayward School. He earned a scholarship to the School of American Ballet in New York at 13 and stayed there for about three years before returning to Washington. But he soon went back to New York to audition for “The Wiz” at the suggestion of his sister Lettie, who was a chorus dancer in the show.

When “The Wiz” was in its pre-Broadway tryout in Philadelphia in late 1974, the director Geoffrey Holder plucked Mr. Battle from the chorus to play the Scarecrow, replacing the much older Stu Gilliam, who had become ill. After its Broadway opening, the dance critic Emory Lewis of The Record of Hackensack, N.J., wrote that Mr. Battle moved “with a Ray Bolger grace,” referring to the actor and dancer who played the Scarecrow in the 1939 movie “The Wizard of Oz.”

Mr. Battle spent about two years with “The Wiz,” then returned to ballet school and performed with the Lyric Opera Ballet Company in Chicago and the Dance Theater of Harlem. But Broadway beckoned once again, and he worked as a replacement performer in Bob Fosse’s revue “Dancin’” before joining the original cast of “Sophisticated Ladies” in 1981.

In 1983, Mr. Battle replaced Cleavant Derricks in the role of the soul singer James (Thunder) Early in “Dreamgirls,” which is roughly based on the story of the Supremes. He left later that year to begin rehearsals for “The Tap Dance Kid.” In addition to “Miss Saigon,” his other Broadway role — taking over for James Naughton in 1997 — was the gleefully unscrupulous defense lawyer Billy Flynn in the musical revival of “Chicago.”

Mr. Battle also choreographed ballets at the Baltimore School for the Arts as well as routines for the singers Anita Baker and Sister Sledge, and he worked with Ms. Allen, the dancer, on two Academy Awards shows. In 2006, he choreographed the Outkast movie musical, “Idlewild” (2006), and the Off Broadway show “The Evil Dead: The Musical.”

He opened a dance academy in Japan in 2017, but it closed in 2022 amid the coronavirus pandemic, in part because of his health issues.

Mr. Battle appeared in the film versions of “Sophisticated Ladies” (1982) and “Dreamgirls” (2006), although in “Dreamgirls” it was in a different role than the one he played on Broadway.

One of his most memorable screen performances was when he played a singing and dancing demon — with the power to force people to burst into song-and-dance numbers and confess their innermost secrets — in a 2001 musical episode of the TV series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

Wearing a zoot suit, spats and a devil’s mask, a self-assured Mr. Battle tap dances through a scene in which he tells Dawn, Buffy’s little sister, that he is going to take her to a different dimension, where he will make her his bride. With brio, Mr. Battle sings:

I’m the hottest thing! I’m the twist and shout!

When you gotta sing, when you gotta let it out!

You call me and I come a-runnin’.

I turn the music on, I bring the fun in.

Now we’re partyin’, that’s what it’s all about.

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