The Life and Death of Leonard Melfi

Playwright Leonard Melfi (1932-2001) would have been 90 years old today. In a time when many people live to that advanced age, it’s worth looking at the circumstances as to how and why Melfi didn’t, but first a little something about him.

Melfi’s was a name that I’d long known, as one knew all the foundational Off-Off Broadway playwrights: Sam Shepard, Jean-Claud Van Itallie, Maria Irene Fornes, Lanford Wilson, Jack Gelber, and Kenneth Brown (who passed away just a few days ago). His name was legend at two theatres where I’ve worked a lot, La Mama and Theater for the New City (the former produced 21 of his plays, the latter, 7). Both places tout Melfi’s name; you’ll find it on posters on the walls, in blurbs in the programs. Downtown, he mattered.

But Melfi’s work also found its way into the wider world. In fact, in recent blogposts I’ve had a couple of occasions to mention projects he was connected to. Robert Klein’s third job on Broadway was in Morning, Noon and Night (1968-69), an evening of one acts by Melfi, Terrence McNally and Israel Horovitz, which also featured Charlotte Rae and Sorrel Booke. (20 years later the trio revived the concept with Faith, Hope and Charity, which starred Marilyn Sokol). And in 1981, Melfi acted in a film called Rent Control which also featured Beatrice Pons (we wrote about the film and Pons here). Melfi’s professional summit was probably Oh, Calcutta! (1969-72), which placed him in the heady creative company of Samuel Beckett, John Lennon, Jules Feiffer, Sam Shepard, and Kenneth Tynan. Melfi also co-wrote the comedy film Lady Liberty (1971) starring Sophia Loren and William Devane and featuring young unknowns Danny De Vito and Susan Sarandon. Melfi’s best known and most produced play is Birdbath (1965) originally directed by Tom O’Horgan, who later went on to direct the original productions of Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar. A TV version of the play was presented on PBS in 1971 starring Patty Duke and James Farantino. It’s a two hander that has elements in common with Albee’s The Zoo Story and McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. (Shout out to my friends at Peculiar Works Project, who produced a version of it in 2007 as part of their East Village Fragments).

Melfi was an experimental playwright. He was successful in his day because the ’60s and ’70s were experimental times. His dialogue was poetic, as in this excerpt from Times Square (1966) which I found here, courtesy Papa Joe: “We’ll keep a crystal vase near our pink and blue pillows, and after we wish and then after we kiss, we’ll lower our faces to the very brim, the very delicate edge of the crystal vase, and then we’ll let the syrup flow from our eyes into the gentle crystal vase. And every Christmas and every Easter and every other holiday known to man, we’ll feed the syrup to our seventeen children, and they will remain children forever. Their imaginations will be in full bloom forever…and they will never die. Everything will be forever…”

I found this seemingly lysergic-fueled vision surprisingly beautiful. And yet nothing does last forever. Like many a great writer before him, Melfi was a hardcore alcoholic. By his last years, he was virtually at Skid Row level, living in a seedy SRO called the Narragansett Hotel. His heart gave out on October 28, 2001. Look at the date again. Less than two months after September 11; less than a month after the start of Afghanistan War, which as anyone could tell you would become another Vietnam. Jingoism through the roof. The strongest of us were boozing it up; one can only imagine what Melfi was putting away in those days. But he also had other reasons to be despondent. His glory days were decades behind him. His last play on Broadway had been Taxi Tales (1978), which lasted only six performances. He’d had some important Off-Broadway productions since then, like Porno Stars at Home (1981) and Niagara Falls (1984), and he was continuing to be produced hither and yon, but this was now the 21st century. Playwrights make less income than janitors — and are roughly as anonymous. Yet he was still making an impact. For example, in the ’90s he was my wife’s first playwriting teacher, when she was at the Strasberg Institute. She says he changed her life.

So…the end of Leonard Melfi was ignominious, worse than we’ve already said. It speaks both to how shoddily America treats its artists, as well as how inhumanely we treat all our homeless and poor. According to accounts which I’ll link to below, surviving paperwork indicates that little or no effort was made to revive Melfi, at least none that anyone took the trouble to write down. No effort was made to inform his family (with whom he was in contact). His body was taken to Nassau Community College, where it was dissected by students, and then finally buried in Potter’s Field. It wasn’t until Melfi’s niece, on behalf of his alarmed family, came knocking on his door that his death was discovered by those who loved him, and weeks more until the remains were recovered and brought to his hometown of Binghamton (same as that other poetic playwright Rod Serling!) for final interment.

Naturally, La Mama held a memorial. This Playbill item from May 5, 2002 tells about that, as well as his life and legacy. A piece here from The New York Times, from around the same time. Naturally his family sued over what had happened. It took 12 years but they finally found justice in the courts; this 2014 New York Post piece describes that.

We conclude with a call to action. People love to call America the Greatest Nation on Earth. But we’re not, we’re really not. Melfi’s end is not remotely unique. I’ve told a hundred stories like it on this very blog. A country that valued distinguished artists and cared for its troubled and sick and poor? That might be a great nation. Some day, maybe.

Care to support the voluminous and variegated work of Travalanche? Please do so by joining our Patreon Posse here. As little as $1 a month gets you all sorts of extra content over and above what we do here, including our Daily Digest; lots of old time movie, radio, TV and record clips; and exclusive audio and video presentations by Your Humble Servant. Hither to the 411.