Henry Denker, Playwright and Author, Dies at 99

By Robert Simonson
May 29, 2012

Henry Denker, a prolific writer who over a long career wrote numerous plays, novels, teleplays and radio plays, died May 15 at his home in Manhattan. He was 99. The cause was cancer.



Giving up a career in law, Mr. Denker published his first novel, a boxing tale called “I’ll Be Right Home, Ma,” in 1949. He was in his late 30s. Making up for lost time, he would publish more than 30 more in the years to come, including "The Director," "The Physicians," "My Son, the Lawyer," "The Kingmaker," "The Actress," "Healers," "Kincaid," "Judge Spencer Dissents" and "Horowitz and Mrs. Washington."

Of his various plays, the 1951 Broadway work A Far Country is the best remembered, primarily due to its star, the celebrated "female Brando" of her time, Kim Stanley. Stanley scored a personal success in the play portraying Elizabeth von Ritter, a patient of Sigmund Freud's. The show was praised and ran for six months, and Stanley was nominated for a Tony Award.

Two days after its New York run, A Far Country was scheduled to open in Los Angeles. Mr. Denker remembered that, despite the curtain being delayed for nearly two hours while the set was being constructed, no one in the audience left his or her seat. "The all so desperately wanted to see Kim."

Denker also observed that Stanley was never diva-ish in her demands. She would never demand new scenes or line changes from the author. But, during a read-through of the play, she would occasionally pause at a word or her expression would cloud during a passage. And, by that silent communication, Denker would know that a change might be required. "But she would never ask you outright to do it."

Mr. Denker made his Broadway debut in 1956 with Time Limit!, about an American officer accused of treason while captive in a North Korean prison camp. He got the idea after watching Edward R. Murrow interview Gen. William F. Dean about his experiences being brainwashed by the North Koreans, and wrote the play in collaboration with Ralph Berkey, a chicken farmer. The play starred Arthur Kennedy and Richard Kiley and ran nearly half a year. Mr. Denker's longest run came from A Case of Libel, a 1963 play adaptation from a memoir by noted trial lawyer Louis Nizer. The story concerned a famous libel case in which writer Quentin Reynolds sued the conservative columnist Westbrook Pegler for libel and won a large cash judgment.

Other Broadway credits included Venus at Large, What Did He Do Wrong?, Something Old, Something New and Horowitz and Mrs. Washington, an adaptation of his early novel. Time Limit! was made into a movie, and A Case of Libel into a television movie.

Horowitz and Mrs. Washington made for an interesting footnote in theatre history when Mr. Denker sued playwright Alfred Uhry, saying he "had lifted characters, plot twists and ideas" from Mr. Denker's play and used them in Driving Miss Daisy. Both works dealt with "an elderly white Jewish person who in the face of advancing age and resulting loss of independence requires the assistance of a black helper and, after initial resistance, develops a friendship with the helper." A Federal judge ruled that Mr. Uhry did not plagiarize the work.

About the verdict, Mr. Denker said, "I am numb. You don't want to sue anybody, but when I saw the movie I called my lawyer. I based the charges of plagiarism on the story, the characters and their relationships and on certain specific events that happened in my book that also happened in his play. This is not the end by any means."

Mr. Denker was born in Manhattan on Nov. 25, 1912, the son of a furrier. He later was raised in Brooklyn and The Bronx, and graduated from New York University with a law degree. His entree into the theatre came when he did some legal work for theatre troupes. Mr. Denker's legal background often informed his written works, such as A Case of Libel.

His writing career began in the 1930s with various scripts for radio and television, then in its infancy. During War World II, Denker worked as a writer on the English Desk of the Office of War Information.

He was married for 61 years to Edith Heckman, a former nurse. Perhaps not coincidentally, Mr. Denker also wrote a great many works set in the medical world.