Max Wilk, Playwright, Showbiz Journalist and O'Neill Center Dramaturg, Dead at 90

By Kenneth Jones
24 Feb 2011

Max Wilk, a novelist, a nonfiction chronicler of show business subjects, playwright, screenwriter — and a dramaturg for the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center for more tham 25 years — died Feb. 19 at his home in Westport, CT, the O'Neill Center reported. Mr. Wilk was 90.



At the O'Neill, Mr. Wilk helped both emerging and established playwrights develop their new works. Among the authors who benefited from his expertise were Pulitzer Prize winners August Wilson, David Lindsay-Abaire and John Patrick Shanley; Lee Blessing; OyamO; James Yoshimura; Jeffrey Hatcher; Wendy McLeod; Doug Wright; Willy Holtzman; Judy GeBauer; Charles Shulman; Sam Hunter; Ursula Rani Sarma; and Lucy Caldwell.

Amy Saltz, a frequent director for the National Playwrights Conference said in a statement, "Max loved the O'Neill and he loved show business. He was smart and sassy and blunt. He had great knowledge and experience, both of which he was anxious to share. I was at the O'Neill for 17 summers and he was there every year and long after, helping writers, offering support, and demanding the best of everyone. He made an indelible impression and will be missed."

Preston Whiteway, O'Neill executive director. said, "Max will remain a legend at the O'Neill always. His intelligence, wit and friendship shaped the O'Neill and the National Playwrights Conference for decades, impacting hundreds of playwrights and the American theatre itself. I will miss Max holding court on the porch, and his insights, which were invariably correct."

Skip Mercier, scenic and costume designer for NPC and a longtime friend of Mr. Wilk, said, "In typical Max form, plagued with growing dementia for his last week, he told me how hard it was not to have any ideas. Then his eyes got wide and he said: 'You know all the pictures on the wall in my study?' [Many friends covered his walls; most deceased and famous]. I nodded. 'Well they are all in train windows — there's a train just behind the walls you know. It's waiting for me but I don't know where it's going! I hope it's fun.' …To the end, he was creative, funny, and with a unique take on life and whatever is beyond."

Mr. Wilk graduated from the Yale School of Drama in 1941. Following his graduation, he toured with Irving Berlin's This is the Army and wrote training films in the First Motion Picture Unit AAF. After the war, Mr. Wilk continued writing — for theatre, film and television. He wrote three Broadway shows (the revue Small Wonder in 1948-49, the play Cloud 7 in 1958 and the revue A Musical Jubilee in 1975-76). He also wrote the play Mr. Williams and Ms. Wood, about Tennessee Williams and literary agent Audrey Wood, which he adapted for the stage from his book "Represented by Audrey Wood," which he co-wrote with Wood.

Mr. Wilk's other books include "They're Playing Our Song: The Truth Behind the Words and Music of Three Generations"; "OK! The Story of Oklahoma!: A Celebration of America's Most Beloved Musical"; and "The Golden Age of Television: Notes from the Survivors," among many others.

Ted Chapin, president of Rodgers & Hammerstein: An Imagem Company, told Playbill.com, "Max Wilk lived an extraordinary life, and here at the office of Rodgers & Hammerstein, where we also look after Irving Berlin and other great catalogs, he will be missed for his passion, his intellect and his friendship. He was part of Irving Berlin's all-soldier WWII revue, This Is the Army, a true historian of Broadway's 'golden age' and a scholar of the American songbook. For his 1993 book 'OK! The Story of Oklahoma!,' Wilk interviewed an amazing group of people — Alfred Drake, Agnes de Mille and Dorothy Rodgers among them — who also happened to be his friends. Max was not only a chronicler of that world, but a vital part of it."

Mr. Wilk won both an Emmy and Peabody award for his two-hour television show "The Fabulous Fifties."

A memorial service to celebrate the life of Mr. Wilk is currently being planned by the family in Westport for April. The O'Neill is planning a gathering during its 2011 summer season.

Mr. Wilk was pre-deceased by his wife, artist Barbara Wilk, and is survived by his three children, seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild, according to Connecticut's The Ridgefield Press.