John Bishop, Playwright and Member of Circle Repertory Theatre, Dead at 77

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29 Dec 2006

John Bishop, a playwright who was for many years a member of Circle Repertory Company, the Off-Broadway troupe prominent in the 1970s and 1980s and known for nurturing new dramatic voices, died Dec. 20 in a clinic in Bad Heyburn, Germany, far from his home in Encino, CA. The cause was cancer. He was 77.



Though his work made it to Broadway twice—The Trip Back Down in 1977 and The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 a decade later—Mr. Bishop made his mark in the Off-Broadway world, first directing and then writing plays at the Greenwich Village-based Circle Rep.

Plays of his that were produced at Circle Rep included Borderlines, The Great Grandson of Jedediah Kohler and The Harvesting. Imbued with a dark view of human behavior, his works often featured a murder and a tortured male protagonist. "The men in his plays," wrote New York Times critic Frank Rich of Borderlines, "driven nearly mad by their fears of impotence and intimacy alike,…tend to be over-the-hill athletes or embittered Vietnam veterans. They are still haunted by their ancestral prototypes, the brawling cowboys who first unleashed trouble in the promised American paradise."

Among the titles he directed at the company were The Beaver Coat, El Salvador, Florida Crackers and his own work Empty Hearts.

Given his interests, Mr. Bishop found a perfect subject in the fraudulent evangelist Elmer Gantry. He wrote the book for a musical version of the popular book and film. It was produced at Ford's Theatre in Washington in 1988 and again in 1995; it had its West Coast premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1991.

The Trip Back Down—starring John Cullum as a once-great stock car racer who returns home to his family after many years of channeling all his energies into his sports career—was the play that won John Bishop an artistic home. After Circle Rep founder Marshall W. Mason saw the drama on Broadway, he invited Mr. Bishop to become a member of Circle Rep.

"John was one of our major writers," Mason told the L.A. Times. "I think next to Lanford Wilson, he was our most prominent writer; he wrote many plays for us." One of those plays was The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940,, a send-up of murder mysteries which Mr. Bishop also directed. The story concerned the creators of a recent Broadway flop in which three chorus girls were murdered by the mysterious Stage Door Slasher. The show ran on Broadway for 136 performances in 1987. After Circle Rep dissolved in 1997, Mr. Bishop moved west. In 1997, he founded Circle West, which carried on many of the artistic missions of the original Circle Rep. He served as artistic director until his death. Among the plays the company produced was Mr. Bishop's Legacies, a police-detective drama.

While in Los Angeles, Mr. Bishop began to write screenplays. His screen credits include "The Drop Zone" and "The Package." He also used his knowledge of and interest in male behavior and police procedures to do rewrites on the big-budget thrillers "Sliver," "Primal Fear," "Clear and Present Danger" and "Beverly Hills Cop III."

John Bishop was born on May 3, 1929, in Mansfield, OH, the son of a foreman for Westinghouse. He majored in theatre at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and began his career as an actor at the Cleveland Playhouse. He also served in the Marines.

At the time of his death, he was working on his first novel, a thriller called "Where Evil Lives."

He is survived by Lisa Maurer Bishop, his wife of 12 years, and his children, Matthew, Michael and Christopher, from his previous marriage, and two grandchildren.