Playwright, screenwriter, producer

Born: August 21, 1935;

Died: March 7, 2020.

MART Crowley, who has died aged 84, was a taboo-busting playwright whose best-known work, The Boys in the Band, broke the mould of how gay life was depicted onstage. Taking its title from a line James Mason says to Judy Garland in A Star is Born (1954), his depiction of gay characters at a party to celebrate the birthday of one of them was a serious, grown-up dissection of inter-personal relationships that chimed with the rise of gay rights.

Originally scheduled for a five-night off-Broadway run in 1968, it ended up playing for more than 1,000 performances, and and was said by some to have helped inspire the 1969 Stonewall riots. A film version directed by William Friedkin was released in 1970.

Edward Martino Crowley was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi to what he described as an alcoholic father and a drug-dependent hypochondriac mother. He studied drama at Catholic University in Washington, graduating in 1957. Back in Mississippi, he introduced himself to director Elia Kazan, who was filming Baby Doll there. Crowley talked his way into a job as a production assistant, and went on to work on Sidney Lumet’s film, The Fugitive Kind (1960), and another Kazan film, Splendour in the Grass (1961).

That film starred Natalie Wood: Crowley was hired to drive her to the film set each day. They struck up a friendship, and after the shoot finished, she hired him as her assistant, primarily to give him enough free time to write. He ended up writing the The Boys in the Band while house-sitting for another wealthy friend, Diana Lynn.

While initially resisted by some theatre managements and agents for its frankness, the play was championed by the likes of playwright Edward Albee and producer Richard Barr. While it was never Crowley’s intention for it to be an activist play, The Boys in the Band opened the door for a canon that included The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer, and Angels in America, by Tony Kushner.

Crowley’s other plays included Remote Asylum (1970), the auto-biographical A Breeze from the Gulf (1973) and For Reasons that Remain Unclear (1993), about a sexually abusive Catholic priest.

Having become friends with Wood’s husband Robert Wagner, Crowley became executive script editor and then producer on detective show, Hart to Hart (1979-80), starring Wagner with Stefanie Powers. For film, he was one of several uncredited writers on John Carpenter’s Eyes of Laura Mars (1978), and for TV he penned There Must be a Pony (1986), starring Wagner and Elizabeth Taylor.

Other TV movies included Bluegrass (1988) featuring Cheryl and Diane Ladd, and People Like Us (1990) with Ben Gazzara and Eva Marie Saint. Crowley also wrote episodes of Dynasty (1987) and The Colbys (1987), and a couple of Hart to Hart reunion specials (1995-1996).

Crowley’s 2002 sequel to The Boys in the Band, The Men from the Boys, caught up with the same characters thirty years on. A 50th anniversary Broadway production of the original play featured The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons in the cast, and won a Tony Award in 2019 for Best Revival.

A new film version by Glee producer Ryan Murphy is being made for Netflix. This is testament enough to Crowley’s pioneering spirit with a play that gave voice to a community that took it as a cue to make their presence felt, loud and proud.