Playwright William Luce, whose work included The Belle of Amherst and Barrymore, died December 9 at age 88. His passing was confirmed by his godson, Grant Menzies, in a Facebook post.
Mr. Luce made his Broadway playwriting debut in 1976 with the solo show Belle of Amherst, based on the life of Emily Dickinson. The play earned Julie Harris a Tony Award for her performance as the 19th century American poet. Two decades later, Christopher Plummer earned a Tony for his work as theatre star John Barrymore in Mr. Luce’s Barrymore. Two other plays of his appeared on the Main Stem, Lillian and Lucifer’s Child.
Mr. Luce was born October 16, 1931, in Portland, Oregon, to Chauncey Darrel Luce and Eleanor Marie (Kuul) Luce. Before playwriting, he worked as a musician—majoring in piano at college and writing songs for stars like Doris Day. As a singer, he traveled with the Norman Luboff Choir and recorded with the Roger Wagner and Robert Shaw choruses. In addition, he appeared on The Hollywood Palace, where he met frequent collaborator Charles Nelson Reilly.
That connection is how Belle of Amherst made it to the stage. Originally written as a TV play, it never materialized on screen, and Reilly suggested mounting the play to theatre producers in New York City; the rest was history.
From there, Mr. Luce specialized in one-person plays tackling rich characters, with Reilly frequently serving as director for the playwright, and star Harris as his muse. The six-time Tony recipient earned a second Tony nomination for her work in Lucifer’s Child, about Danish writer Dinesen.
Some of Mr. Luce’s work did make it to the small screen on CBS with The Last Days of Patton, starring George C. Scott and Eva Marie Saint, and The Woman He Loved, starring Harris, Olivia de Havilland, and Jane Seymour.
Mr. Luce is survived by godson Menzies, niece Susan Elizabeth Wilkerson, grandniece Rebbekah Marie Galindo, and great-grandnephew Alexander James Galindo. He is predeceased by his sister Ethlyn Iris Luce and his partner of 50 years, designer Ray Lewis.