He died the death of a wise man or prophet.

As director, playwright and actor Marion McClinton was taking his last few breaths at Regions Hospital in St. Paul, artists and community members drummed, sang and draped his failing body in African garb, a royal send-off to the beyond.

"King, sage, storyteller, prophet — Marion was all of those things and more to a lot of people," said veteran actor and director James A. Williams, a longtime collaborator and sparring partner.

Best known for piloting the plays of August Wilson across the country to Broadway, McClinton died Thanksgiving morning. He was 65.

"He was a titan of the field," said Jack Reuler, founder of Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis.

McClinton had long suffered from kidney disease, a condition he used as inspiration in a life where he often converted setbacks into solutions, bitter experiences into theatrical beauty.

"I was supposed to be on dialysis for 10 years max, then gone, but here I am, year 16, and I've still got work to do," McClinton told the Star Tribune in a Sept. 17 interview, his last. "I've learned a great deal about humanity, and I have a great deal to share."

McClinton would often say that theater saved his life. The middle child of a mother who took in foster children and a father who worked as an elevator operator while running a riverboat gambling operation on the side, McClinton was fonder of partying and drinking than of school in his youth. He left the University of St. Thomas after one year because of a racial incident and enrolled at the University of Minnesota. He was unfocused there, hearing the call of the streets.

"If not theater, then I would've been into some larceny," he said in September. "I was a little bit of a hellion."

He fell into the acting life, dreaming of becoming the next Marlon Brando. Penumbra Theatre director Lou Bellamy directed him in his first production, "The River Niger," at Theatre in the Round in 1976.

"He had so many things to get over to get where he wanted to go," Bellamy said. "He wasn't a college graduate. He had a challenging speech condition and asthma real bad. But Marion was such a fighter, and he turned adversity to advantage."

Those who acted with him describe McClinton as someone of integrity and trust.

"He was a generous scene partner," said Faye Price, producing artistic director of Pillsbury House Theatre, where McClinton regularly worked. McClinton was supposed to stage Athol Fugard's "Blood Knot" as his last play at Pillsbury House but bowed out because of illness.

Working to Broadway

McClinton directed three shows on Broadway — Wilson's "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" and "King Hedley II," for which he was nominated for a Tony, and Regina Taylor's "Drowning Crow."

His work with Wilson defines him. The two date back to the early years of Penumbra Theatre, where McClinton was a founding member.

In 1981, he played the narrator in "Black Bart and the Sacred Hills," Wilson's first professionally produced work, staged at Penumbra. Later, Wilson tapped McClinton to be his director of choice after the playwright had a falling out with Lloyd Richards, dean of the Yale School of Drama.

"Working with August is like getting an opportunity to work with Chekhov," McClinton said in September. "You don't pass that up."

Wilson famously worked on his plays at regional playhouses across the country on their way to New York. McClinton was his collaborator for 15 years, staging plays such as "The Piano Lesson," "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," "King Hedley II" and "Fences."

"You have to understand that when we work on these shows, we're partners, like people in a band," said Bellamy of Penumbra, where McClinton honed his style. "Marion was deep in August's stuff. I believe he even suggested the name 'Fences' for that play."

McClinton and Wilson worked in Los Angeles, Kansas City, Baltimore and Boston before landing in New York, on Broadway and off. Their revised production of "Jitney" netted McClinton an Obie, the off-Broadway honor. The same production won an Olivier Award, Britain's Tony, for its production on London's West End.

While he was celebrated for his artistry as one of the finest interpreters of Wilson's epic 10-play cycle, he staged works by Shakespeare and Chekhov as well as brilliant youngblood playwrights such as Lynn Nottage, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Cori Thomas and Marcus Gardley.

"Marion was very instrumental in my life," said Nottage, who won Pulitzers for "Sweat" and "Ruined." "He was my mentor early in my career and was the first professional playwright I had the honor of sitting down with and learning from."

Ten years ago, McClinton staged an indelible production of Nottage's "Ruined" at Mixed Blood Theatre, another venue where he worked regularly.

McClinton would probably have had a long working relationship with Nottage if not for the chance to work with Wilson. McClinton worked on Nottage's breakout play "Intimate Apparel" in workshops.

"His DNA is part of 'Intimate Apparel,' " Nottage said. "I always remember him as warm and generous, as someone who was willing to nurture and help a young playwright."

McClinton also had an eye for talent. His "Hedley" cast, for example, included then little-known stage actor Viola Davis, who won her first Tony for her performance as the title character's love interest. McClinton worked with a raft of luminaries, including Whoopi Goldberg, Charles Dutton and Brian Stokes Mitchell.

"Marion made me the actor I am and the woman that I am," said Tracie Thoms, best known for roles in "Cold Case" and "The Devil Wears Prada." "When I was just three months out of Juilliard, he cast me in my first professional show, accelerating my learning process. I made the leap from student to professional very quickly under his tutelage."

Thoms said McClinton was particularly gifted at getting the best out of actors in the rehearsal room. He didn't tell them what to do. Instead, he would tell them stories and they would see his aim.

"His whole thing about acting was that it was jazz," Thoms said. "There are notes that are written that you as a jazz musician are supposed to be able to play but you're also supposed to play all the other notes that are not written. You can't go so far from the song that it doesn't resemble the written notes, but at the same time you have to play and dance between the notes."

While his directing eclipsed his playwriting, he also was a good craftsman. His drama "Police Boys" premiered at Baltimore Center Stage in 1992 and was produced elsewhere.

"He was an intellectual," Bellamy said. "When we would get a little money back in those days, some of us would want to go party. Marion always bought books. People like [late Penumbra company member] Claude Purdy were worldly because they had traveled the world. Marion knew so much because he read a whole lot."

"Marion left on Thanksgiving to remind us of everything we have to be thankful for," said actor Yvette Ganier, who worked with McClinton on Wilson's oeuvre. "He did great work and he left us with work that we have to do."

Survivors include his wife, Jan Mandell of St. Paul; a son, Jesse Mandell-McClinton of Oakland, Calif.; a brother, Fred McClinton of Maple Grove, and a sister, Jean McClinton-Herther of Roseville.

Services are being planned.

"The top three shows I ever directed were [Wilson's] 'Jitney,' which I took around the country, [Wilson's] 'The Piano Lesson' at Penumbra, which I still think is the best thing I ever directed, and [Eisa Davis'] 'Bulrusher' at Pillsbury House," McClinton told the Star Tribune in his last interview. "I loved that play. The writing was so beautiful, it just flew off the page."

Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390