Playwright And Screenwriter Murray Schisgal Was Known for Setting Irascible Man Against Coolly Intelligent Women

Murray Schisgal.

From a Washington Post obit by Harrison Smith headlined “Murray Schisgal, playwright and screenwriter who helped create ‘Tootsie,’ dies at 93”:

Murray Schisgal, a playwright and screenwriter who brought his off-kilter brand of black comedy to Broadway with the screwball hit “Luv,” and who later forged a partnership with actor Dustin Hoffman that led him to co-write the gender-bending blockbuster “Tootsie,” died Oct. 1.

Whether in plays, movies, or a novel involving a hunchbacked musician, Mr. Schisgal was known for creating angst-ridden characters who were often more ludicrous than endearing, struggling with family conflict or professional failures that served as a backdrop for Mr. Schisgal’s examinations of self-loathing or modern romance.

His work often set irascible men (played by Hoffman, Alan Arkin or Eli Wallach) against coolly intelligent women, frequently portrayed by Anne Jackson, Wallach’s wife. . . .

Mr. Schisgal wrote dozens of plays but came to the theater relatively late, after practicing law, teaching junior high English and playing saxophone and clarinet in a jazz band. In his early 30s he wrote one-act plays produced in London and New York, then made his Broadway debut with “Luv,” about a husband who sets his wife up with a downcast friend so he can marry another woman.

Directed by Mike Nichols in his second Broadway outing, “Luv” premiered in November 1964 and ran for more than 900 performances, winning three Tony Awards and earning Mr. Schisgal two nominations, for best play and best author. (He lost to Frank D. Gilroy’s “The Subject Was Roses” and to Neil Simon, for “The Odd Couple.”)

“Luv” opened with Arkin, looking forlorn, preparing to jump off a bridge. That effort failed, as did a subsequent attempt to hang himself from a lamp post.

Mr. Schisgal’s exploration of suicide and despair recalled other absurdist plays by European writers like Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet and Eugène Ionesco, whom he cited as key influences. But Mr. Schisgal was “one step ahead of the avant-garde,” theater critic Walter Kerr wrote in a review for the New York Herald Tribune.

“If the avant-garde, up to now, has successfully exploded the bright balloons of cheap optimism, Mr. Schisgal is ready to put a pin to the soapy bubbles of cheap pessimism,” he wrote. Mr. Schisgal, he added, was “out for people who wear black on black while lovingly congratulating themselves upon the profundity of their losses.”

The play marked Mr. Schisgal’s only major Broadway hit, although like his subsequent works it divided critics, with John Simon writing that “Luv” was neither “devastating social satire” nor “avant-garde theater,” but “plain and simple burlesque or vaudeville.”. . .

The 1968 comedy starred Hoffman, fresh off his success in Nichols’s movie “The Graduate.” He and Mr. Schisgal had met a few years earlier, working on regional theater in Massachusetts. They went on to develop movies together, carouse with “Catch-22” author Joseph Heller — once belting out “Hava Nagila” while driving through the streets of Southampton, N.Y. — and work on Broadway plays such as “All Over Town,” which Hoffman directed in 1974.

But their most acclaimed collaboration was “Tootsie” (1982), in which Hoffman played Michael Dorsey, an out-of-work actor who dresses as a woman to win a role on a soap opera. The movie was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including best screenplay, and won one, for supporting actress Jessica Lange.

Reviewing “Tootsie” for the New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote that Mr. Schisgal and his fellow screenwriters “have taken a wildly improbable situation and found just about all of its comic possibilities, not by exaggerating the obvious, but by treating it with inspired common sense.”

The movie spawned a Broadway musical as well as years of debate over who contributed what behind the scenes. According to Susan Dworkin’s 1983 book “Making Tootsie,” the earliest version of the script was written by Don McGuire and reworked by Robert Kaufman, with help from producer Charles Evans and director Dick Richards.

That screenplay was then shown to Hoffman, who had been working with Mr. Schisgal on a gender-switch project about a male tennis player. Mr. Schisgal became the movie’s primary screenwriter before being joined by Larry Gelbart, a creator of the television series “M.A.S.H.”

While writers including Elaine May and Barry Levinson made additional contributions, the final screenplay was credited to Gelbart and Mr. Schisgal, who said that director Sydney Pollack “blended” their two versions. Mr. Schisgal had a cameo as a party guest but seemed exhausted by the writing process, and returned to the stage with an off-Broadway play, “Road Show.”. . .

The older of two children, Murray Joseph Schisgal was born in Brooklyn on Nov. 25, 1926. His mother was a bank clerk, and his father — a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe — was a tailor who had received a Purple Heart while serving in the Army during World War I.

Mr. Schisgal dropped out of high school to join the Navy, served as a radio operator during World War II and earned his diploma in night school, supporting himself while setting up pins at a bowling alley and pushing a hand truck in the Garment District.

He graduated from Brooklyn Law School in 1953 and received a bachelor’s degree from the New School for Social Research in 1959, throwing himself into writing all the while. A career as a novelist seemed unpromising — he later published “Days and Nights of a French Horn Player” in 1980 — so he turned to theater.

In 1963 he won the Vernon Rice Award for a pair of off-Broadway one-act plays, “The Typists” and “The Tiger.” He adapted “The Tiger,” about a postal worker who kidnaps a suburban woman, into a 1967 movie, and also wrote “The Love Song of Barney Kempinski,” a 1966 TV movie that earned Arkin an Emmy nomination in the title role. . . .

Mr. Schisgal described playwriting as both an “addiction” and “a form of therapy,” even if it was frequently unsatisfying. “I have never done anything which has held up over a period of time so that I feel I have fulfilled the potential of an idea,” he told the Times in 1987.

“In part, yes, there are little things, the moments here and there, the 10 minutes or the 5 minutes that work, that make it worthwhile,” he said. “Don’t for a minute think it is not terrifically gratifying to see something written done well onstage. But like everybody who writes, or paints, or composes, or whatever, I always feel what I’m going to do next is going to explain everything I’ve done before. And everything I’ve done before is a muddle and a mess.”

Harrison Smith is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. Since joining the obituaries section in 2015, he has profiled big-game hunters, fallen dictators and Olympic champions. He sometimes covers the living as well, and previously co-founded the South Side Weekly, a community newspaper in Chicago.

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