I’m sorry to note the unexpected passing of the man Samuel French Inc. once called New York’s “most-produced playwright,” Robert Patrick. He was 85.
Robert was a source of inspiration for me long before I ever imagined we might be friends. And he was certainly kind to me. I learned a lot from this brilliant, honest, generous man.
He was perhaps best-known for his play Kennedy’s Children–produced successfully on Broadway and on the West End, and in many cities, internationally. He also gave us some 60 other published plays, including Camera Obscura, which was filmed for PBS starring Marge Champion, and The Haunted Host, which helped launch the acting career of a terrifically talented young Harvey Fierstein. They met when Fierstein was 16; Patrick gave Fierstein his first leading role in an Equity production, and they became good friends for life, (I have good memories of Harvey performing a striking monologue from that play, years later, during an appearance at the club Eighty-Eights).
A founder of Off-Off-Broadway theater and one of the brave, pioneering playwrights who brought gay themes into the mainstream, Robert was born in Texas to migrant workers. He grew up in poverty.. He pretty much educated himself. He wound up writing for film and TV, too, as well as for theater–his true passion.
And he was vital until the end. The seated photo of him dressed in black that I’m posting was taken at the world-premiere of a play of his, in California just last month!
When Robert failed to show up for a coffee date with a friend today (Sunday, April 23rd), the friend called the police and asked them to check his apartment to see if he was OK; they found that he’d died in his sleep.
He posted on Facebook, the day before he died: “REALITY is so horrible, you wonder why the people who hate it most are the ones who are most excited when they see a notice that a movie or TV series is ‘based on’ it. But now and then in some awful movie, one will catch a gratuitous glimpse of hummingbirds, cheetahs, crystal mountains, rippling seas which remind one what a miracle life and its environment are.”
He taught me that the main thing for any playwright was to get your play up in front of an audience–any audience, anywhere. He told me: “It doesn’t matter if you have no money, if you search hard enough you can find places to rehearse, and to put a production up; and don’t be shy about asking friends for help.” I took his advice, and I’ve rehearsed plays in the damnedest places (like a restaurant on 42nd Street after hours).
When I mounted the first production of a show I wrote/directed, One Night with Fanny Brice, in Wayne, NJ (with thanks to producer Naomi Miller), I mentioned to Robert that I didn’t have a dime to hire a photographer for PR shots. He told me to videotape the whole show, get him the video, and let him pull the best possible stills from the video. He believed–correctly, as it turned out–he could get me photos more representative of the play that way than if we had a photographer take posed PR shots. He did all of that for me, as a friend. And the photos he selected from the video became our official production photos for the subsequent Equity production, Off-Broadway at St. Luke’s Theater in New York. The photos he pulled from our video wound up gracing our show’s cast album, the posters and flyers, etc. We thanked Robert in the Playbill and on the cast album. He did all of that out kindness. He made time for people he liked.
He wrote of his own process of becoming the terrific artist he became: “Eventually it comes down to whether you like yourself. It takes a long time. I went into a room all alone, and I spread out my work, and I said, ‘Whatever isn’t me, I will throw away.’ And it was hard. But I managed it. Bit by bit. I got rid of everything that didn’t come from deep in me.“
R.I.P., Robert Patrick, playwright.