Murray Schisgal, Who Brought the Absurd to the Mainstream, Dies at 93
Murray Schisgal, Who Brought the Absurd to the Mainstream, Dies at 93
Murray Schisgal, a playwright and screenwriter who took his offbeat brand of humor to Broadway in the Tony Award-winning comedy “Luv” and to Hollywood in the hit farce “Tootsie,” died on Thursday in Port Chester, N.Y. He was 93.
His death was announced by his son, Zach.
Over a six-decade career in theater, Mr. Schisgal employed elements from the theater of the absurd — like flooding dialogue with clichés and presenting fantastic situations as probable — to write about such domestic themes as marriage, sex, family, loneliness and failure.
His first Broadway success, “Luv,” opened in 1964, with Eli Wallach, Ann Jackson and Alan Arkin in the original cast. It ran for 902 performances, won three Tony Awards (including one for Mike Nichols’s direction) and earned Mr. Schisgal nominations for best play and best author of a play.
While the play was a hit, Mr. Schisgal, with characteristically self-deprecating humor, implied that during the previews the Broadway crowd questioned coming to a play that thematically seemed like more of a downtown experience. But the critics were encouraging.
“Whatever the truth of the old saw that misery loves company,” Howard Taubman wrote in his New York Times review, “the chances are excellent that you’ll love the company of the three recurrently miserable characters that make up the cast of ‘Luv.’”
Writing in New York magazine, Walter Kerr described Mr. Schisgal as “one step ahead of the avant-garde,” referring to the stagnant state of trans-Atlantic theater in the decade since Samuel Beckett addressed the meaninglessness of existence in a post-atomic age. The theater scene, in the early 1960s, was full of derivative playwrights stuck in Beckett’s philosophical purgatory, and Mr. Schisgal’s approach, to trade gloom for irreverence, provided an escape hatch.
“If the avant-garde, up to now, has successfully exploded the bright balloons of cheap optimism,” Mr. Kerr wrote, “Mr. Schisgal is ready to put a pin to the soapy bubbles of cheap pessimism. Whatever social and philosophical stalemates we have come to, wit at least need not be halted in its tracks.”
Mr. Schisgal explained his unusual title as an expression of his belief that the word “love” had become so misused that what people experienced, felt and thought could be discussed only by using a different word.
“L-u-v is the perversion of l-o-v-e,” he told The Times in 1964. “I don’t have the audacity to define the other.”
“Luv,” a wildly comic three-character play, opens with two men, Harry and Milt, on a bridge. Harry, feeling the vast emptiness of life, wants to kill himself, but Milt tries to convince him that love is a reason to live. The love that Milt extols, however, is realized by Milt’s persuading Harry to marry Milt’s wife, Ellen. The three proceed to compete over whose life has been the unhappiest.
Outside theater circles, Mr. Schisgal was best known as one of the writers of “Tootsie,” the smash 1982 comedy starring Dustin Hoffman as a struggling actor who secures a role by auditioning as a woman. The script is now considered one of the most successful collaborations in film history, but during years of development that involved a revolving door of writers and abandoned drafts, it came to be widely known as “the troubled ‘Tootsie.’”
The project began as a script called “Would I Lie to You?” written by Don McGuire. In a second incarnation, a draft by Robert Kaufman, George Hamilton was initially attached to it as the star, but the producer, Charles Evans, saw a different actor in the role, Mr. Hoffman, and showed him the script.
Mr. Hoffman had met Mr. Schisgal when they worked together in regional theater in 1965 in Stockbridge, Mass. Mr. Hoffman starred in Mr. Schisgal’s play “Jimmy Shine” on Broadway in 1968 and directed his play “All Over Town,” also on Broadway, in 1975. “All Over Town” flopped, but the two continued to collaborate and remained friends for more than 50 years.
By the time the project that would become “Tootsie” landed in Mr. Hoffman’s lap, according to Susan Dworkin in her book “Making Tootsie” (1983), the two had already discussed an idea for a gender-swapping role: Mr. Hoffman as a male tennis player who passes for a woman, only to be beaten in the end by a 13-year-old girl.
Mr. Schisgal was hired as the project’s third writer, and it was during this period that the script became “Tootsie.” But executives at Columbia, saying they wanted a different voice, replaced him with Larry Gelbart, a creator of the television series “M*A*S*H.”
Mr. Gelbart worked on the script for almost two years before leaving the project, but Sydney Pollack, the director, continued to tweak it with Elaine May, who acted as a script doctor. During this time Mr. Schisgal returned to work on the script with Mr. Hoffman, who frequently argued with the director about changes.
Mr. Schisgal gave himself a cameo role.
“I wrote a speech for myself in the party scene,” he told The Times in 1983, “but it was cut. You just see me in a brief shot, going to the refrigerator. Whenever I look at it, I just miss it, but I picked up a couple of hundred bucks doing it.”
At least three other writers contributed to the script before shooting commenced. In the end, the only two people who received screenplay credit were Mr. Schisgal and Mr. Gelbart, who never collaborated. The movie was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including for best original screenplay, but it won just one — for best supporting actress, which went to Jessica Lange as Mr. Hoffman’s unwitting love interest.
“Tootsie” won several awards for screenwriting. When the two writers accepted their certificates at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards, Mr. Schisgal feigned a rivalry.
“I think I’ll take both of these,” he said.
Murray Joseph Schisgal was born in the East New York section of Brooklyn on Nov. 25, 1926, to Abraham and Irene (Sperling) Schisgal, Jewish immigrants from Europe. His father was an Army veteran and Purple Heart recipient who worked in the garment industry; his mother was a bank clerk.
Murray showed a passion for storytelling from an early age.
“I couldn’t fall asleep without telling myself a story,” Mr. Schisgal wrote in an introduction to a collection of his plays. “I needed another reality, another set of circumstances that had nothing to do with my conscious life.”
“From the bits and pieces of the day’s events,” he added, “I scrounged about for the thread of a story. Once I had one, my imagination took over and wove a facsimile of myself into an elaborate melodramatic narrative, at the conclusion of which I inevitably triumphed and was loudly applauded by my relatives and neighbors.”
Mr. Schisgal dropped out of high school to volunteer for the Navy and was inducted soon after turning 17. While serving in the Pacific, he read everything he could.
He was honorably discharged as a radioman third class after the war. When he came home, he played saxophone and clarinet in a jazz combo and went to night school to get his high school diploma. He wrote fiction in his spare time.
Under the G.I. Bill, Mr. Schisgal attended Long Island University for two years and earned a degree from Brooklyn Law School. He practiced law from an office on Delancey Street in Lower Manhattan until 1956, then taught English for three years at James Fenimore Cooper Junior High School in East Harlem. He quit to devote his time to writing while working on a bachelor’s degree from the New School. In 1959, he married Reene Schapiro.
When he was unable to publish his short stories and novels, Mr. Schisgal switched to writing for the theater, and the people who read his plays offered encouragement. His first break came in London in 1961, when Charles Marowitz produced and directed three of his one-act plays, followed by the Off Broadway success of a double bill, “The Typists” and “The Tiger,” which starred Mr. Wallach and Ms. Jackson (who were husband and wife in real life) in 1963.
Several of Mr. Schisgal’s works have crossed from the stage to the screen. He wrote the screenplay for “The Tiger Makes Out,” which was based on “The Tiger” and featured the original stage actors. “Luv” was adapted as a film in 1967 starring Jack Lemmon, Elaine May and Peter Falk. Conversely, “Tootsie” was adapted as a musical for the stage in 2018 and ran on Broadway the next year. (Mr. Schisgal had no role in its development.)
In addition to his son, Mr. Schisgal is survived by a daughter, Jane Schisgal; his sister, Diane Troy; and four grandchildren. His wife died in 2017.
While Mr. Schisgal accepted that as a screenwriter he held little control over his words, he found it audacious that anyone should tell a playwright what to put on the page.
“The theater is not a place for propaganda or where one seeks consolation,” he told The Times in 1965. “What we should seek is an aesthetic experience.”