Yaakov Agmon, Giant of Israeli Theater, Dies at 91

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Yaakov Agmon
Yaakov AgmonCredit: Dudu Bachar

Yaakov Agmon, a cornerstone of Israeli theater, died on Wednesday at the age of 91. Agmon was the head of the Cameri and Habima theaters and a founder of the Beit Lessin Theater, which originally belonged to the Histadrut labor federation.

Among his best known productions were “House of Dolls,” Kinneret, Kinneret” and “Twelfth Night” for the Cameri Theater, and “Waiting for Godot,” Death of a Salesman,” “Tango” and “Black Box” for Habima.

“Habima National Theater mourns the passing of Yaakov Agmon, who headed Habima Theater from 1995 to 2005, and husband of the great Habima actress Gila Almagor-Agmon. Agmon took the reins of the national theater after a great economic and artistic crisis,” the theater said in a statement.

Agmon was born in Poland in 1929, and was brought to Israel when he was four. He was a member of Hashomer Hatzair youth movement and eventually moved to Kibbutz Harel, where he started his career producing events. In1958, Agmon was among the producers of Israel’s 10th anniversary celebrations. In that same year, the Cameri Theater “rebelled” against its CEO and founder, Yosef Milo. Artistic direction of the Cameri passed on to some of its senior actors, including Hannah Meron and Orna Porat. They were joined by Agmon as CEO, a position that he held for four years.

In 1962, Agmon went to the United States to study and was cultural adviser to the America-Israel Cultural Foundation. In the 1960s he met Almagor. She she was 21 and an actor with the Cameri, and he was 31 and the Cameri’s CEO. They were married to others at the time and kept their affair a secret until they married in 1963. Agmon has a son from his previous marriage, and together they adopted a daughter.

In 1964, Agmon found Bimot Theater, which mounted its first production in 1966, “Luv,” by American playwright Murray Schisgal, which was a box office failure. The theater rallied and in the coming years staged “The Odd Couple” and “Bustan Sepharadi” (“Sephardic Orchard”). Bimot closed its doors in 1972.

In 1978, Agmon founded Beit Lessin Theater for the Histadrut and managed it for eight years. Among the plays put on at that time were “Ahron Hapoalim” (“The Least of the Laborers”) and “City Children.” Agmon also founded a private production company, Bimot 2000, through which in 1990 he founded the annual festival of one-person theater productions, Theatronetto. From 1992 to 1994 he was the artistic director of the Acco Festival of Alternative Israeli Theater.

In 1995, following a severe financial and management crisis at Habima Theater, Agmon was appointed CEO and artistic director, and made the theater profitable again with commercially successful productions like “Mary Lou,” based on songs by Tzvika Pik, and by appealing to younger and new audiences.

Nevertheless, Habima’s actors and other employees were unhappy with Agmon’s leadership and it was claimed that he favored Almagor over others. In 2000 it was also reported that the cost of the couple’s salary was some 1.2 million shekels ($369,000), about five percent of the government support Habima received. The couple denied the allegation over the years.

In 2005, Agmon left Habima. In 2008 he told Haaretz: “I think that many people should ask my forgiveness. When I came to Habima the place looked like the twin brother of Channel 1, in terms of work ethic and extent of work,” he said, referring to Israel’s public television channel.

“When I arrived at the theater, I signed for 305 salaries. A year later it was 205, and we created three times as much. I saved Habima. I had to raise a cultural body from the dunghills. There were moments when I said to myself, ‘Cursed be the day I got into this.’ Today I’m proud of this time and I ask to be judged on what I accomplished,” he said.

In 2007, Agmon was awarded a lifetime achievement award by the Israeli Theater Prize association. In October 2010, at the age of 79, he was appointed CEO of the Arabic-Hebrew Theater in Jaffa. For many years he hosted television and radio programs, among them “Personal Questions” on Army Radio, which he hosted from its founding, for 51 years, until last year.

In 2008, Adi Arbel directed a film about the program. In it, Almagor and Agmon talk about their lives together, from the beginning of their romance to the breakup of their first marriages, their move to New York and return to Israel, and their political protest against the first Lebanon war, which led to a breakup with the couple’s close friends, former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his wife Lily.

In addition to Almagor and his two children, Agmon is survived by grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The funeral will take place on Thursday at noon at the cemetery in Kibbutz Shefayim.

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