Playwright LANFORD WILSON.

He has died at age 73. Wilson won the Pulitzer Prize for his play, "Talley's Folly." He wrote 17 full length plays and 30 one acts. Titles include "The Hot L Baltimore," "Burn This," "Fifth of July" and "Redwood Curtain," which had just come out when Terry spoke to Wilson in 1992. Wilson was one of the founders of The Circle Repertory Company in New York. He was nominated for Tony Awards for "Angels Fall," "Talley's Folly" and "Fifth of July." (REBROADCAST. ORIGINAL AIRDATE: 3/13/92)

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DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

Lanford Wilson, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1980 play "Talley's Folly," died this week with complications from pneumonia. He was 73 years old. Wilson is one of the playwrights who created the off-off-Broadway scene in the 1960s. His work was so popular it ended up on Broadway. John Malkovich starred in the Broadway production of Wilson's "Burn This," and Wilson's other acclaimed plays include "Balm in Gilead," "Hot L Baltimore," "Fifth of July" and "Lemon Sky." He also co-founded New York Circle Repertory Company, which produced plays by Jules Feiffer, Larry Kramer, Sam Shepard and others.

Terry Gross spoke with Lanford Wilson in 1992.

TERRY GROSS, host:

In the late 1960s you co-founded Circle Repertory Theater in New York. What was the philosophy of the group?

Mr. LANFORD WILSON (Playwright): Frankly, we wanted to have - we wanted to become the great American theater - the great American theater company. But we had done a number of plays with the group even before we were founded. Marshall and I and Rob Thirkield and Tanya, we'd done a number of plays that had large cast and ensemble acting that just took forever to rehearse and forever to get right.

And in order to create an ensemble you have to trust everyone else on stage with you, because otherwise you're going to make a very large choice and the actor is going to leave you hanging out there. I've seen actors on stage actually look at the audience like what in the hell was that all about when someone makes this huge enormous choice. So the actor, you have to trust that person to be there for you.

And then and if that person is there for you, you can make deeper choices and that person can make deeper choices and it just - you can just create a much fuller, farther out, more profound experience, and that can only happen in ensemble or if you happen to know the actor very well or if you happen to be directed right.

And so we wanted to create an ensemble, that kind of an ensemble that would take chances and would not leave the other person hanging out there.

GROSS: One of your early successes was "Hot L Baltimore." And this is about people in a hotel that's condemned.

Mr. WILSON: Yes.

GROSS: And in your early days in New York you lived in welfare hotels, right?

Mr. WILSON: Right. I lived at the I first lived in a place that I never did learn the name of it. I think the hotel did not have a name.

GROSS: Was it called Hotel?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILSON: Yeah, it should have been. It was right across the street from Manhattan Hotel. And they answered the phone with something incomprehensible. I never did hear what it was. It sounded sort of like hevrow(ph), and so we called it the Hevrow Hilton.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILSON: But it was - it was definitely a welfare hotel. And then I moved from there down to the down to Broadway Central and the week I moved out of the Broadway Central the hotel collapsed.

GROSS: Wow.

Mr. WILSON: It fell completely into the ground. Fortunately, it did it slowly. He did it over a period of about a day and a half so everyone got. But, so I'd had a lot of experience with that kind of hotel.

GROSS: Did you lay awake often at night overhearing fights that were happening in the halls or in other rooms?

Mr. WILSON: No. I did when I slept was the hours that I didn't go to sleep until about eight in the morning back then. And so I had a nice, quiet sleep. I was part of the people that was making the noise so other people couldn't sleep, probably.

GROSS: What were you doing all night?

Mr. WILSON: Well, I was writing and the whole neighborhood was such a - it was the middle of the Needle Park. It was such an enormous shock to me and so thrilling because the neighborhood was filled with hustlers and pimps and prostitutes and drag queens. I'd never seen anything like it in my life.

GROSS: Not everybody would find that thrilling.

Mr. WILSON: Well, it was thrilling to me. I thought it was the most colorful place I'd ever seen in my life. Also, there were a bunch of guys from Colombia, so I, you know, I was learning Spanish and, which I didn't learn...

GROSS: Not Columbia University.

Mr. WILSON: Not from Columbia University.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILSON: From Colombia and Costa Rica, and Costa Rica University. So I just found it thrilling.

I would walk right up to a pusher and say, how exactly does a drug transition work? And where do you get the dope from? And they'd say, get out of here kid. Because I just wanted to know how everything worked. I thought it was really exciting. So I was usually downstairs and this is all "Balm in Gilead." I was usually downstairs with the "Balm in Gilead" crowd in that coffee shop.

GROSS: Yeah. Let me explain that "Balm in Gilead" is a play that takes place in what, an all night diner and...

Mr. WILSON: An all night diner. Yeah.

GROSS: And it's a diner that's frequented mostly by drug dealers and pimps and prostitutes and other small-time criminals.

Mr. WILSON: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: So, now what attracted you to people like that? You were from the Midwest.

Mr. WILSON: Yeah, from a very proper upbringing in the Midwest. Farm yet, grew up on a farm. And I just think it was a, I think, you know, it was raw enterprise that attracted me. Everyone was out to make a buck, which is true of everyone everywhere, but it was just so raw and bold and obvious there that when I was writing "Balm in Gilead" I always said I could really be writing about Wall Street. It would be exactly the same, and that's why I was trying -I was looking at the economics of it.

Also they had such a great sense of humor about themselves. There were at least five- there was a drag queen and a drug dealer and a fantastic prostitute, who just would sit around dishing the dirt and it was the funniest dialogue I'd ever heard in my life.

There were - I didn't ever get the prostitute into a play until I wrote "Hot L Baltimore" and then finally the part that Conchata Ferrell played, April, April Green, finally I got that prostitute into it. You couldn't say a word to that woman without a comeback.

GROSS: So what did all the hustlers and con men and drug dealers bring out in you? What surfaced in you?

Mr. WILSON: Oh, I was their pet. I mean they knew I was writing down every word they said because I was - and I would walk up and say, would you repeat that, please? And they thought I was the cutest thing they'd ever seen. You know, they thought I was really very silly. You know, they kind of protected me. I think they felt very protective. When I finished the play "Balm in Gilead," I gave it to a couple of people I had written about, like an idiot, to read and check for errors.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILSON: And they read it and said well, that's more or less what it's like, you know.

GROSS: You know, if you weren't so naive it wouldn't have been that easy.

Mr. WILSON: Oh, I'm sure. If I hadn't been that naive I would probably have been horrified. But - and now I'm a little bit shocked at the society that I moved in back then. I still, yeah, I can't quite believe that I was in the place when someone was murdered there. That was really horrifying enough.

GROSS: What happened?

Mr. WILSON: Well, someone walked in with a knife and stabbed someone and turned around and walked out. We didn't know the person was stabbed at all. They were from another neighborhood and we didn't know the people who stabbed him. It was just very alarming but it was the sort of thing that could easily have happened there at any time, it just hadn't.

GROSS: Well, after your plays like "Balm in Gilead" and "Hot L Baltimore," you eventually turned to completely different subject matter, which was a family from the Midwest, the "Talley" series.

Mr. WILSON: The "Talley" series. Right.

GROSS: It's a family from the Midwest, from Lebanon, Missouri, which I think is where you're originally from.

Mr. WILSON: Yeah, I was born in Lebanon.

GROSS: Yeah. So this is a family that's not your family but not probably unlike...

Mr. WILSON: Not at all my family.

GROSS: OK. But, yeah. But your family must have some connection to them. So how did you turn from this family that was very exotic, very not like you at all, you know, the...

Mr. WILSON: Mm-hmm. Correct.

GROSS: ..."Balm in Gilead" crew, turn from that to a Midwestern family, who absorbed you for five plays?

Mr. WILSON: Yeah, I think they were kind of exotic to me. My connection with that family is my mother cleaned for them.

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. WILSON: So they were sort of - these were the rich people that lived up on the hill, and they were exotic to me. I'd always wanted to write about them. I had spent hours talking to various members of this family and other people like this, so the whole class. I'd go with my mother and she would clean the house and I would talk to the cook and the lady of the house and the kids that lived there. So I always was very strongly attracted to all of those rich kids because we were very poor and examined them.

I mean, you know, I would, on the rare times when I went to their houses, you know, I would ask the mother to take me through the house so I could see the way they lived. It was fascinating to me.

GROSS: Explain what it was about the Talley family that you created, the family that was originally loosely based on the family that your mother cleaned for. I mean...

Mr. WILSON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: What absorbed you in that family enough to bring you back about five different times?

Mr. WILSON: I think they were America for me. I think they were - and they were changing so much. The war had been so, had had a very profound effect on them. The country was changing and they were changing. They were not coping particularly well with the change, and that I think was the first thing that drew me to them.

The whole idea of family is very interesting to me because it's not at all the way the politicians talk about. We have to create a strong family unit and everything is for the family. Well, bull hockey. I mean families are about the most destructive things that's ever been invented. They're horrible. And there are so few families that work, half the families in - half the people in the country don't have two parents.

You could name on one hand anyone in a class of say 60 that has one meal with the entire family sitting down together. It doesn't happen anymore. I wonder if it ever did. And also the meals that we had at home were the most horrible experiences of my life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What kind of food?

Mr. WILSON: Well, the it wasn't the...

GROSS: Was it the food the problem - the company?

Mr. WILSON: It wasn't the no it wasn't the food so much, it's everyone yeah, it was the company. As my stepfather telling us all how to eat and, you know, and it was his only chance to torture the family altogether and so he made the most of it.

GROSS: Do you have a group of people you think of as being your family, even though it's not a nuclear family?

Mr. WILSON: It - yes. Yes. The Circle Rep is my family. Yeah. Either Circle Rep or there's another small little adjunct to that. I live in Sag Harbor and there are a few people, few neighbors there that are I also feel love as very, very important to me.

GROSS: So what are you going to wear to the opening tonight?

Mr. WILSON: I have to find a shirt. I've got a really nice suit, a sport coat and a pair of gray pants that don't quite match. I've got my hard shoes in town, I'm going to wear my hard shoes and a pair of clean socks. I got clean pair of shorts, new T-shirt, and I have to find a shirt. Either that or I have to iron a shirt.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILSON: I did all of my laundry and so all of my shirts are very clean but they're really kind of rumpled. So I have to go out and find a shirt or a sweater or something to wear with that jacket.

GROSS: Well, I'll let you get to it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILSON: Thanks a lot.

GROSS: Thanks a lot for talking with us.

Mr. WILSON: It's been fun.

BIANCULLI: Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lanford Wilson who died this week at age 73. He spoke with Terry Gross in 1992, just hours before the opening of his play "Redwood Curtain."

Coming up, critic at large John Powers notes the passing of another significant arts figured this week: actress Elizabeth Taylor.

This is FRESH AIR.

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