Terrence McNally (shown here in his early days) survived a previous epidemic, when AIDS decimated the gay community.
Two of his boyfriends died, but he survived; he also overcame alcoholism and bias, but couldn’t beat the current ;pandemic. He died recently at 81 of complications from COVID-19; now PBS will have its excellent “American Masters” portrait available until Wednesday (April 1) at www.pbs.org/americanmasters.
Praise for McNally flowed in quickly. Lin-Manuel Miranda, the “Hamilton” creator, called him “a giant in our world.” Bill de Blasio, the New York City mayor, called him “a great New Yorker, one of the most renowned members of our cultural community.”
And that wasn’t just eulogy fluff; McNally’s life and work kept gathering praise. He won four Tony awards – for writing “Ragtime,” “Master Class,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and “Love! Valour! Compassion!” – and then a lifetime award.
That last one came “just in time,” McNally joked, bringing his oxygen with him. He had a chronic obstructed pulmonary disorder, which later made him more vulnerable to the virus.
That award was last June, the same month he was profiled by PBS’ “American Masters.” Earliert in the year, he talked to the Television Critics Association about the documentary and his life.
“I was never in the closet,” he said. “I think that was probably my salvation.”
He had arrived in New York City at 17, a sweet-faced kid from Corpus Christi, Texas. Edward Albee, the acclaimed playwright, reportedly said he had the most beautiful face he’d ever seen.
They dated for a while, but only in secret. Albee was in the closet; McNally wasn’t.
By then, he had graduated from Columbia University, been a tutor to John Steinbeck’s sons and – against Steinbeck’s advice – began writing plays. His first show drew brutal reviews, but McNally soon prospered.
Like Truman Capote before him, he was considered as an exotic in New York – a babyfaced Southerner with witty words. The turning point, he said, came from Angela Lansbury.
“I didn’t know her well,” McNally said. “I revered her as an actress, had all my life.”
Then she pulled him aside at a party and said he was ruining himself with alcohol. He transformed.
Clearly, McNally was open to criticism. He recalled another time when actors were rehearsing his “Lips Together, Teeth Apart.” Christine Baranski, told him it was awful.
“It was the first time, maybe, an actor had been that candid,” he recalled. “I went home and stayed up probably 48 hours and did the work.”
Mostly, though, actors would speak fondly of him. “He’s one of the most profoundly compassionate playwrights,” Michael Shannon told the TCA. “just so humane and not trying to make any point other than that human beings are here for one another.”
F. Murray Abraham, who did several McNally shows, agreed. “I would add ‘love,’” he said. “I mean, the whole title (“Love! Valour! Compassion!”) says it to me.”