Playwright and Television Writer William Hanley Is Dead at 80

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30 May 2012

Playwright William Hanley, who after a brief heyday as a playwright in the 1960s became a successful writer of television movies and mini-series, died May 25 after suffering a fall in his home in Ridgefield, CT. He was 80.



William Hanley was born Oct. 22, 1931, in Lorain, OH and raised on Long Island. Writing was in the family. His British uncles, James and Gerald Hanley, were both novelists, though his father William was a housepainter. He attended Cornell for one year. After two years in the Army, he enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, though he never pursued an acting career.

Mr. Hanley's double-bill of the long one-acts, Whisper into My Good Ear and Mrs. Dally Has a Lover, was produced by Richard Barr and Clifford Wilder at the Cherry Lane Theatre in 1962. It was an auspicious debut. New York Times drama critic Howard Taubman opened his review with the line, "Remember the name William Hanley...he is an uncommonly gifted writer." He went on to compare the work to Albee's The Zoo Story, a recent Off-Broadway success. The double-bill won Mr. Hanley a Drama Desk Award in 1963.

Very suddenly, at a time when Off-Broadway writers like Albee, Jack Gelber and Jack Richardson were being heralded as the next wave of American playwrights, Mr. Hanley was a hot property. Multiple producers vied to produce his work, and the writer's darkly handsome face appeared aside profiles in the newspapers. By 1964, Mr. Hanley was on Broadway with Slow Dance on the Killing Ground, a brooding, introspective, three-person drama set in a Brooklyn candy shop on the night that war criminal Eichmann is executev. The production was praised by many critics, and nominated for three Tony Awards, including Best Producer of a Play. It was quickly followed in 1965 by Mrs. Daily, a longer version of Mr. Hanley's Off-Broadway success. The staging was produced by actor Hume Cronyn. A third play, Conversations in the Dark, was announced to arrive on Broadway around the same time, but was later canceled.

Despite the accolades, however, both Broadway productions were short-lived. Thereafter, Mr. Hanley's theatre prospects seemed to dim. NBC paid him a record $112,000 to televise his script Flesh and Blood. After the teleplay—about a disintegrating family, portrayed by such luminaries as Kim Stanley, E.G. Marshall, Robert Duvall, Edmond O'Brien and others—was panned, a projected Broadway production of the play evaporated. Producer David Merrick bought the rights to another Hanley play, The End of Romance and the Continued Pursuit of Happiness, but it, too, never arrived on the boards.

By the time Slow Dance was revived Off-Broadway in 1970 for a short run, the critics' attitude had altered. Mel Gussow wrote of the drama, "I still don't think it is the profound play Hanley's fans think it is, but it is a better one than I thought it was."

Mr. Hanley had more success on television, where during the 1980s he flourished in the mini-series format. He won Emmy awards for the 1988 mini-series "The Attic: The Hiding of Anne Frank," which starred Paul Scofield and Mary Steenburgen, and the 1984 television movie "Something About Amelia." The latter—arguably Mr. Hanley's most famous piece of writing—was particularly noteworthy, in that it dealt with incest, a subject then largely taboo on television. The show starred Ted Danson, then the popular star of the sitcom "Cheers," as a seemingly normal father harboring sexual feelings for his daughter. Glenn Close played his wife. The program was critically acclaimed for its restrained, sensitive treatment of a delicate subject, and won a high viewership.

He was also nominated for Emmys for "Little Gloria…Happy at Last" (1982), the 1987 miniseries "Nutcracker: Money, Madness & Murder," starring Lee Remick as a sociopathic socialite who plots the murder of her father, and the 1990 mini-series "The Kennedys of Massachusetts."

Talking in 1964, Mr. Hanley remarked, "The theme of responsibility seems to come and go through everything I've done… When I say responsibility, I don't mean just responsibility to other people, responsibility for one's acts."

He is survived by his sister, Patricia; two daughters, Kate and Nell; three grandaughters, Darsen, Sophia, and Mabel; and a niece and nephew.