Photo by Kathleen Clark

THE SUDDEN DEATH OF RON LINK AT 54 has shocked the theater community; his passing Monday from a pulmonary embolism removes a key figure from Los Angeles' Equity Waiver golden age of the 1980s. The terse specifics of Link's career can be found in the program notes for any of the 18 productions he directed in Los Angeles — Women Behind Bars, Delirious, Bouncers, Melody Jones, The Killing of Michael Malloy and Blade to the Heat were among the local triumphs he enjoyed during the past 16 years. Along the way, Link picked up an armful of plaques from the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle, Drama-Logue and this paper, which awarded him its career-achievement award two years ago. But the substance of Link could only be appreciated in his tireless devotion to an art form increasingly marginalized by mass culture and in an almost superhuman work schedule that made him one of this city's busiest directors.

He was an old-school craftsman who learned his trade not from a college theater program, but after buying a bus ticket from Columbus, Ohio, to New York City as a teenager in the early 1960s. (He caught the theater fever in high school while directing The Song of Norway and quickly scuttled plans to become a violinist.) It was in New York that he worked as a production assistant for both playwright Edward Albee and producer Richard Barr, while taking acting lessons from Stella Adler. His acting ambitions came to an abrupt end one day when Lee Strasberg offered a withering critique of his work: “You have the same problem that Marilyn had — you're dead from the waist down.”

Devastated, Link turned to directing, eventually staging 22 productions at the fabled La Mama and Caffe Cino spaces, while working with drag divas Candy Darling, Holly Woodlawn, Jackie Curtis and, later, Divine. He came to Los Angeles in 1983 to direct Tom Eyen's camp romp Women Behind Bars, which he first mounted at the Cast Theater before moving it to the Roxy on the Sunset Strip. It was during this time that he met his life and business partner, actor Dan Gerrity. Link's signature style was marked by frenetic pacing, sexual heat and a focus on ordinary people consumed by larger-than-life dreams. “Ron wasn't interested in small emotions,” Gerrity told the Weekly. “He took the actor's sensitivity toward characters that he got from Stella Adler and applied it to directing.”

Link was a self-taught maverick in a field increasingly dominated by academically trained technicians and grant writers. When a project captured his imagination, he didn't spend weeks filling out funding applications, but shopped the play directly to prospective private backers. Although associated with Paula Holt's Tiffany Theater, Link didn't belong to one venue, theater group or camp, but operated as a lone wolf who never benefited from corporate or government connections; he was, as Gerrity says, a pirate in the theater.

Like many in Los Angeles, Link despaired over the increasing use of the live stage by individuals for vanity productions designed to benefit nonstage careers. He also disdained identity theater focused on specific social or ethnic audiences, and once declined the stewardship of a venue devoted to homosexual work with the remark “I thought all theater was gay.” Still, he was never tempted to return to New York, which he regarded as past its heyday. “That whole image of New York being the center of the theater universe is a publicist's delight,” he said. “But it's not [the case] — unless you want to be in Cats.”

A man not given to flattery or small talk, Link could be combative with reviewers, and rough on colleagues and subordinates he thought weren't taking the productions they were working on seriously enough. Yet he was no harder on them than he was on himself. “He liked to discover and perfect an emotional moment, and polish and appreciate it like a piece of jewelry,” Gerrity said.

Brusque and generous, profane and funny, Link will be remembered as an elemental force in Los Angeles theater, a charming big kid in sneakers who readily said what he believed yet translated his beliefs most eloquently onstage into gestures and glances that spoke louder than dialogue.

Link died following surgery for a recent illness, and his ashes will be scattered in California and Columbus. He is survived by Gerrity; his mother, Rita, and sister, Elizabeth, both of Columbus, Ohio; and his brother, Carson, of New York City. Details of a memorial service to be held for him later this month are pending.

LA Weekly