Sir Ian McKellen has led the tributes to theatre and film producer Bill Kenwright, saying that showbusiness “will be dimmer now he has gone.”
The Everton FC chairman died at the age of 78 “surrounded by his family and loved ones”, according to an official statement posted on the club’s website.
Theatre and film production company Bill Kenwright Limited said in a statement published on Tuesday that he had died following a “long battle with illness” and “passed away peacefully last night”.
Sir Ian, 84, who starred in 2023 film The Critic – co-produced by Kenwright, penned a tribute to the football chair on X, formerly Twitter.
He said: “Bill Kenwright (1945-2023) Like many grateful actors I am in debt to Bill Kenwright for employment.”
He added: “We were young together, when he was in Coronation Street (as Gordon Clegg) and I was dipping a toe into Shaftesbury Avenue.
“Since then, I have admired the resilient way in which he encouraged theatre to thrive in London and in the regions.
“Whether it was yet another tour of that wonderful musical ‘Blood Brothers’ or sponsoring the Peter Hall Company in the classics.
“In private, Bill relished gossip and loved to reminisce.
“He seemed to have known everyone in the business and to care about them.
“Yet every chat would veer round to his equal passion – Everton football.
“The city that gave us The Beatles and two major football teams, also bred a unique impresario.
“Whether the West End lights will be turned off in his memory, certainly our business will be dimmer now he has gone.”
Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham described Kenwright as “big hearted” and spoke about his reaction to the Hillsborough disaster where dozens were killed due to a crush at a match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield on April 15 1989.
Speaking to the PA news agency outside Old Trafford, he said: “I saw the care he had for the Hillsborough families when they were going through everything that they went through.
“That was Bill Kenwright. Before people think about anything else, that was him, that was the man, just somebody of warmth, of generosity.”
British theatrical producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh called Kenwright “prolific” and “irresistible”.
In a statement seen by the PA news agency, Sir Cameron said: “The world of British theatre without Bill Kenwright seems impossible.”
He added: “Bill was fearless, prolific and irresistible – he couldn’t bear to see any theatre empty, so he’d conjure up a production almost overnight to fill it!
“His enthusiasm knew no bounds, employing over his long career tens of thousands of actors – occasionally, including himself – a tireless broadcaster, often also a director and above all, a champion of the people he believed in.
“And the theatre wasn’t even his day job – his real profession was running Everton!
“In my lifetime, there has never been anyone like Bill. He’s totally irreplaceable and we will miss him so.”
RIP Bill Kenwright. I'm forever grateful to him for giving me the chance to play the Emcee in Cabaret at the Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue in 2007. After the first night he said to me 'You're so brave…so brave!'
— Julian Clary (@JulianClary) October 24, 2023
Also paying tribute to the theatre giant was comedian and actor Julian Clary, who said he would be “forever grateful” to Kenwright.
He said on X: “RIP Bill Kenwright. I’m forever grateful to him for giving me the chance to play the Emcee in Cabaret at the Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue in 2007.
“After the first night he said to me ‘You’re so brave…so brave!'”
Just heard the news my friend, and mentor and the person who gave me the chance to perform on stage Mr Bill Kenwright has passed away. You were one in a million Sir…we loved talking football R.I.P Bill xx
— Antony Costa (@AntonyCosta) October 24, 2023
Meanwhile singer Antony Costa, known for being a member of boyband Blue, also posted to X and said: “Just heard the news my friend, and mentor and the person who gave me the chance to perform on stage Mr Bill Kenwright has passed away.
“You were one in a million Sir… we loved talking football R.I.P Bill xx”
Comedian Jason Manford spoke of the producer’s “love” for theatre and football in another post to X.
He said: “Saddened to hear Bill Kenwright has died.
Saddened to hear Bill Kenwright has died. Met up with him several times over the years as we attempted to work together so very sad that will now never happen. Was always funny and honest and with a deep love for theatre and football. Will be sadly missed. pic.twitter.com/m9ewD5UdV0
— Jason Manford (@JasonManford) October 24, 2023
“Met up with him several times over the years as we attempted to work together so very sad that will now never happen.
“Was always funny and honest and with a deep love for theatre and football. Will be sadly missed.”
Kenwright produced “over 500 West End, Broadway, UK touring and international theatre productions, films and music albums”, according to a statement from Bill Kenwright Limited.
Jenny Seagrove, Lucy Kenwright & everyone at BKL are devastated to share the sad news of the loss of a beloved Partner, Father, Grandfather and friend: Bill Kenwright CBE. pic.twitter.com/G90tfCizbL
— Bill Kenwright Ltd (@BKL_Productions) October 24, 2023
“His impact on the arts industry has been profound,” they said, adding: “We will remember him with huge love and admiration – the shows will of course go on, as he would have wished, and his towering legacy will continue.”
By the age of 12 Kenwright had made his entry on to the stage at the Liverpool Playhouse, attending the Liverpool Institute High School at the same time as Sir Paul McCartney and George Harrison and touring local pubs and clubs with his R’n’B band The Chevrolets.
The theatre impresario and film producer had worked with Sir Tim Rice and Lord Lloyd-Webber on Joseph And The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita and produced the hit West End show Blood Brothers.