November 3, 1939
St Petersburg, Florida, United States
Playwright, Screenwriter, Producer, Stage manager, Journalist, Tutor
Gary, Julie Brown
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 "