Terrence McNally

Screenwriter, Playwright, Producer
A stalwart of the New York stage since the mid-1960s, Terrence McNally has gained distinction on and off Broadway as a playwright and, to a much lesser extent, as a screenwriter. Notably prolific and eclectic, he built ... Read more »
Born: 11/02/1939 in St Petersburg, Florida, USA

Filmography

Writer (11)

Common Ground 1999 - 2000 (TV Show)

Screenplay

Love! Valour! Compassion! 1997 (Movie)

("Love! Valour! Compassion!") (Play as Source Material)

Love! Valour! Compassion! 1997 (Movie)

(Screenplay)

Great Performances' 20th Anniversary Special 1992 - 1993 (TV Show)

Writer

Frankie and Johnny 1991 (Movie)

("Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune") (Play as Source Material)

Frankie and Johnny 1991 (Movie)

(Screenplay)

Andre's Mother 1989 - 1990 (TV Show)

Writer

Liza Minnelli in Sam Found Out: A Triple Play 1987 - 1988 (TV Show)

Writer

The Ritz 1976 (Movie)

("The Ritz") (Play as Source Material)

The Ritz 1976 (Movie)

(Screenplay)

A Good Life (TV Show)

Writer
Actor (8)

The First Ten Awards: Tony 2001 2000 - 2001 (TV Show)

Actor

Mr. & Mrs. Broadway 1999 - 2000 (TV Show)

Actor

John Steinbeck: An American Writer 1998 - 1999 (TV Show)

Actor

The 53rd Annual Tony Awards 1998 - 1999 (TV Show)

Actor

Broadway 98: Launching the Tony Awards 1997 - 1998 (TV Show)

Actor

Creating Ragtime 1997 - 1998 (TV Show)

Actor

Live Broadway USA 1997 - 1998 (TV Show)

Actor
Producer (1)

Mama Malone 1983 - 1984 (TV Show)

Producer

Biography

A stalwart of the New York stage since the mid-1960s, Terrence McNally has gained distinction on and off Broadway as a playwright and, to a much lesser extent, as a screenwriter. Notably prolific and eclectic, he built his considerable reputation by deftly penning a remarkable series of comedies ranging from a satirical take on psychiatry ("Bad Habits") to a broad physical farce ("The Ritz") to a drawing-room comedy ("It's Only A Play"). These early comedies were arguably more memorable for their intelligence and wit than for the depth of their characterization, prompting critic Harold Clurman to dub their author one of "the most adept practitioners of the comedy of insult".

Born in St. Petersburg, Florida in 1939 and raised in Corpus Christi, Texas, McNally was the son of a beer distributor and a part-time bookkeeper, both transplanted New Yorkers with a love of the theater. He first became "stage-struck", to use his preferred term, as a six-year-old when he saw Ethel Merman in the 1946 Broadway production of "Annie Get His love of opera--which would figure prominently in a number of his plays--began at age 15 when he first heard Maria Callas on the radio in Texas. At age 17, McNally moved to NYC to attend Columbia University. Visiting England as a student, McNally first saw actress Zoe Caldwell performing at Stratford-on-Avon. Dazzled, he vowed that he would one day write a play specifically for her (although it took him more than 35 years).

By age 26, McNally had already ended a long-term relationship with celebrated dramatist Edward Albee when his first full-length original, "And Things That Go Bump in the Night" was produced on Broadway. An eccentric comedy starring Eileen Heckart as a retired opera singer coping with oddball relatives, the play was savaged by reviewers but producer Ted Mann kept the play running for two weeks by lowering ticket prices. McNally recalled in PLAYBILL, "He charged $1 for balcony seats and $2 for the orchestra, and we sold out every night. For 16 performances, I felt like a playwright."

McNally made his TV writing debut with "Apple Pie and Last Gasps", produced and aired in 1966. Two years later, he had no less than three plays--"Sweet Eros/Witness", "Tour" and "Cuba Si"--produced Off-Broadway while "Noon", his segment of a program of three one-act plays collectively entitled "Morning, Noon and Night", was running on Broadway. Despite the bountiful laughs, McNally's plays often courted controversy with their sometimes bizarre and explicitly sexual situations.

McNally's first Off-Broadway smash, "Next", was a 1969 comedy starring James Coco as a flabby, aging movie theater manager unexpectedly summoned to report for an Army physical exam. He enjoyed a hit Broadway show in 1975 with "The Ritz", a frenetic farce about a chubby heterosexual hiding out from gangsters in a gay bathhouse. This success led to McNally's feature screenwriting debut, adapting his stage play for a 1976 Richard Lester-directed film in which Jack Weston, Rita Moreno and Jerry Stiller reprised their Broadway roles. Back onstage, McNally endured one of his greatest career setbacks in 1978 when "Broadway, Broadway", his ostensibly Broadway-bound comedy about a disastrous opening night, closed after a terrible Philadelphia tryout. The debacle drove McNally away from the stage for several years.

McNally further diversified into other media as "The Lisbon Traviata", his comedy about a gay opera fanatic, was produced as a radio play in 1979; that same year, he adapted John Cheever's story "The Five Forty-Eight" as his first contribution to PBS's "Great Performances"; he also appeared as a regular panelist on Texaco Opera Quiz, a NYC radio game show. McNally even ventured briefly into series TV, writing and producing the short-lived sitcom "Mama Malone" (CBS, 1984), about the hostess of a TV cooking show who must contend with constant interruptions from her quirky family members. McNally decisively returned to the stage in 1985 with "It's Only a Play", a more successful rewrite of the doomed "Broadway, Broadway". This also marked the beginning of the playwright's long association with Manhattan Theater Club as its unofficial writer-in-residence.

By the mid-80s, a definite shift in tone could be discerned in McNally's work: the laughs were increasingly laced with drama and elements of tragedy. The difficulties inherent in establishing and maintaining relationships were foregrounded as were the emotional voids between people. Such an evolution may be attributed to encroaching middle-age and the loss of many friends to AIDS. An early indication of this trend was his book for the John Kander-Fred Ebb musical "The Rink", which starred Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli as an estranged mother and daughter. Similarly, the romantic comedy-drama "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune" was a bittersweet look at love among the working class that scored Off-Broadway in 1988. The following year marked the beginning of McNally's fruitful collaboration with actor Nathan Lane who played an "opera queen" in the Off-Broadway stage production of "The Lisbon Traviata".

Renewed stage success did not keep McNally from pursuing other avenues of expression. With Wendy Wasserstein, he co-wrote the comedy segment of the TV special "Liza Minnelli in 'Sam Found Out: A Triple Play'" (ABC, 1988). McNally also contributed a segment, "A Good Life", to the PBS half-hour comedy anthology series "Trying Times". He won a richly deserved Emmy for "Andre's Mother" (PBS, 1990), an hour-long presentation of PBS' "American Playhouse", starring Sada Thompson and Richard Thomas in a story dealing with the emotional aftermath of an AIDS death on the surviving mother and lover. McNally returned to the movies as the screenwriter of "Frankie and Johnny" (1991), an adaptation of his Off-Broadway hit starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Pacino. Directed by Garry Marshall, the film received generally positive reviews although most considered the glamorous Pfeiffer miscast as the plain-Jane waitress Frankie. (Kathy Bates had originated the role onstage.)

The 90s proved a fecund period for the playwright as he enjoyed a string of critical and commercial hits on and Off-Broadway including "Lips Together, Teeth Apart", about two straight couples coping with the gay environs of Fire Island, featuring Nathan Lane and Christine Baranski; the Kander and Ebb musical "Kiss of the Spider Woman", for which he wrote the Tony-winning book; "A Perfect Ganesh", with Zoe Caldwell and Frances Sternhagen as a pair of New England dowagers in undeveloped India; the award-winning "Love! Valour! Compassion!", with Lane, John Glover and an impressive ensemble playing eight gay men interacting at a country home; and "Master Class", the play McNally finally wrote for Caldwell, in which she gave a tour-de-force performance as peerless opera diva Maria Callas. McNally also managed the daunting task of adapting E.L. Doctorow's novel "Ragtime" into one of the most acclaimed stage musicals of the later part of the Twentieth Century. After its premiere in Toronto in 1996, the show played in L.A. before opening the newly built Ford Center for the Performing Arts on 42nd Street in NYC in January 1998.

By the mid-90s, gay-themed films were in vogue in Hollywood. "Love! Valour! Compassion!" (1997) started production in the successful wake of "Philadelphia" (1993) and "The Birdcage" (1996). Ironically, Nathan Lane chose to appear in the latter project, making him unavailable for the film version of the play that featured one of his most acclaimed performances. After a delay, Jason Alexander replaced him as the HIV-positive "musical theater queen". Marking McNally's first film credit in over five years, Joe Mantello's highly anticipated production of "Love! Valour! Compassion!" was selected to close the 1997 Sundance Film Festival. A film version of "Master Class", with Faye Dunaway (who headlined the national tour), was also in the production pipeline.

Relationships

Gary

Companion
alluded to by McNally in an interview in Theaterweek, February 27-March 5, 1995

Edward Albee Actor

Companion
together in the 1960s no longer together

Julie Brown Actor

Wife

Hubert McNally

Father
former New Yorker Edith Piaf enthusiast

Dorothy McNally

Mother
former New Yorker

EDUCATION

Columbia University

New York , New York 1960
won the Harry Evans Traveling Fellowship in creative writing from the English department

Milestones

2000

Penned the libretto for the stage musical "The Full Monty"; received a Tony nomination

1998

New play "Corpus Christi" was subject of controversy; Manhattan Theatre Club announced intention to produce but backed down when it received threats after the plot, which involves a modern-day Jesus figure, was revealed; after other writers planned to boy

1997

Adapted his Tony Award-winning play "Love! Valour! Compassion!" as a feature film directed by Joe Mantello; premiered at 1997 Sundance Film Festival

1996

Wrote book for "Ragtime, The Musical"; premiered in Toronto in December; opened on Broadway in January 1998

1995

Film version of "Love! Valour! Compassion!" delayed when Nathan Lane left the project

1995

"Love! Valor! Compassion!" opened on Broadway and received the Tony Award

1995

"Master Class" opened on Broadway starring Zoe Caldwell; wrote part of opera diva Maria Callas for her; dedicated play to Elaine Steinbeck

1995

Contributed one of three short plays to "By the Sea, By the Sea, By the Beautiful Sea"; premiered at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor; other one-acts were by Lanford Wilson and Joe Pintauro

1994

Devoted much of the year to co-teaching playwriting with John Guare at Juilliard

1994

Premiered the successful comedy-drama "Love! Valor! Compassion!" at the Manhattan Theater Club; another successful collaboration with Lane

1993

Contributed one of nine one-act plays, "The Wibbly, Wobbly, Wiggly Dance That Cleopatterer Did", to "Naked at the Coast", the West Coast debut of the NYC theater company Naked Angels

1993

First collaboration with actress Zoe Caldwell, "A Perfect Ganesh"; produced Off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theater Company

1992

Wrote book for the Kander-Ebb revised musical version of Manuel Puig's novel "Kiss of the Spider Woman"; premiered in London before moving to Broadway

1992

Wrote "The Last Mile", a segment of PBS' "Great Performances' 20th Anniversary Special", starring Bernadette Peters as a soprano making her debut at the Met

1991

Had an Off-Broadway hit with "Lips Together, Teeth Apart"; another collaboration with Lane and Baranski

1991

Wrote the screenplay adaptation of his stage play "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune" as "Frankie and Johnny"; the Garry Marshall-directed film starred Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Pacino

1990

Won an Emmy for writing "Andre's Mother", an hour-long drama for PBS' "American Playhouse", dealing with the emotional aftermath of AIDS; starred Sada Thompson and Richard Thomas

1989

Wrote "A Good Life", a half hour episode of "Trying Times", a PBS comedy-anthology series

1989

First collaboration with actor Nathan Lane, the Off-Broadway stage production of "The Lisbon Traviata"

1988

Had Off-Broadway hit with the romantic comedy-drama "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune"; role of Frankie written for actress Kathy Bates

1988

With Wendy Wasserstein, co-wrote the comedy segment of the ABC special "Liza Minnelli in Sam Found Out: A Triple Play"

1985

Rewrote the failed "Broadway, Broadway" as "It's Only a Play"; produced at the Manhattan Theater Club; first collaboration with Christine Baranski

1984

TV series debut, produced the short-lived CBS sitcom, "Mama Malone"; also wrote for series

1984

Provided the book for the John Kander-Fred Ebb musical "The Rink" starring Liza Minnelli and Chita Rivera; first collaboration with Kander and Ebb

1979

First work performed on PBS' "Great Performances", his adaptation of "The Five Forty-Eight", a John Cheever story

1979

Had "The Lisbon Traviata" produced as a radio play

1979

Appeared regularly as a panelist on "Texaco Opera Quiz", a syndicated radio show

1978

"Broadway, Broadway", his comedy about a disastrous opening night, closed after a terrible Philadelphia tryout

1976

Feature screenwriting debut, an adaptation of stage farce, "The Ritz"; directed for the screen by Richard Lester

1975

Had a Broadway hit with "The Ritz", a broad farce about intrigue in a gay bathhouse

1970

"Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone?", one of his favorites of his plays, premiered at the Yale Repertory Theatre with Henry Winkler and James Naughton before opening Off-Broadway

1968

Had first Off-Broadway hit with "Next", a comedy starring James Coco

1968

Removed name from the book of the stage musical "Here's Where I Belong", based on "East of Eden"; show closed after one performance

1968

Had three plays--"Sweet Eros/Witness", "Tour", and "Cuba Si"--produced off-Broadway; had "Noon", his segment of a program of three one-act plays collectively entitled "Morning, Noon and Night" produced on Broadway

1966

Had first teleplay produced, "Apple Pie and Last Gasps"

1965

At age 26, had "And Things That Go Bump in the Night" produced on Broadway; play flopped critically and commercially

1963

Broadway debut, "The Lady of the Camellias," his adaptation of the Alexander Dumas novel; was "devised, designed and directed" by Franco Zeffirelli

1963

Returned to NYC; settled in Greenwich Village (date approximate)

1961

At Molly Kazan's encouragement, interned as a stage manager at Actors Studio (date approximate)

1961

Referred by Mrs Kazan to spend a year traveling around the world as the tutor of author John Steinbeck's two sons

1960

First writing for the theater, the book for the Columbia Varsity Show of 1960

1956

Moved to NYC at age 17 to attend Columbia University

1955

Around age 15, first heard opera star Maria Callas on radio broadcasts in Texas

1952

Around age 12, visited NYC with parents and saw Gertrude Lawrence in "The King and I" about three nights before she left the show and several weeks before her death

1946

At age six, taken by family to NYC where they saw Broadway production of "Annie Get Your Gun" starring Ethel Merman

Traveled to Mexico for six months with prize money from English department fellowship from Columbia University

Work began to shift from relatively broad joke-oriented comedy to more character-driven, dark-tinged comedy

Traveling in England as a Columbia student, first saw actress Zoe Caldwell at Stratford-on-Avon; swore that he would write a play for her one day

Returned to NYC; wrote This Side of the Door, a long one-act, one-character play

During summer vacations from college, worked as journalist for his hometown paper The Caller-Times

Sent play to Elia Kazan's wife, Molly, who ran the Actors Studio's Playwrights and Directors Unit in New York

Had first original full-length play, "And Things That Go Bump in the Night", produced in Minneapolis

Raised in Corpus Christi, TX

Bonus Trivia

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As of the end of 1996, McNally had received two Guggenheim Fellowships, a Rockefeller Grant, a Lucille Lortel Award, and a citation from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

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"... The fact remains that for the past 25 years Terrence McNally has been writing plays like 'The Ritz', 'And Things That Go Bump in the Night', 'Bad Habits', that have both shocked and delighted audiences. His has been a theater of controversy and passion, and his works have been reviewed as everything from decadent, immoral, blasphemous and obscene to thoughtful, witty and provocative." – from "Provocative Playwright" by Linda Smith, Playbill, Vol. 88, No. 6 (June 1988)

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"... Writers get type-cast as quickly as actors. After 'The Ritz', people wanted another physical farce, and I think they were dissatisfied that 'It's Only a Play' was a drawing room comedy. But after seeing that play they wanted another just like it, and instead with 'Frankie and Johnny [in the Clair de Lune]' I gave them a love story about blue collar workers." – from "Provocative Playwright" by Linda Smith, Playbill, Vol. 88, No. 6 (June 1988)

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"John Guare and I taught at Juilliard last year and one of the things we did 'for fun' was to go back and read Aristotle. And it's all there. It's kind of terrifying to think that this man, B.C., came up with the real nuts and bolts of playwriting. The best playwriting is always the action, the characters revealed through action, not through monologues or people talking about them while they're off stage." – McNally interviewed by Carol Rosen in Theaterweek, Feb. 27-March 5, 1995

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