Robert Anderson, Tea and Sympathy Playwright, Dead at 91

Obituaries   Robert Anderson, Tea and Sympathy Playwright, Dead at 91
Robert Anderson, the American playwright and screenwriter whose popular plays explored relationships between men and women and children and parents — in Tea and Sympathy, I Never Sang for My Father and You Know I Can't Hear You When the Water's Running — died Feb. 9 at his Manhattan home.
Robert Anderson
Robert Anderson

His stepdaughter, Mary-Kelly Busch, told that the 91-year-old author, a native New York City resident, had lived with Alzheimer's disease for the past seven years. The cause of death was pneumonia.

Busch is the daughter of Mr. Anderson's second wife, the late Teresa Wright. That marriage ended in divorce, but the couple remained close friends until Wright's death in 2005.

Mr. Anderson's most popular title may be the sentimental 1953 Broadway drama, Tea and Sympathy, about a sensitive prep school student named Tom, accused of homosexuality, who sleeps with Laura, a teacher's unhappy wife. The Broadway cast of Deborah Kerr (Laura), Leif Erickson and John Kerr (Tom) also appeared in the 1956 film, for which Mr. Anderson wrote the screenplay (which sanitized the gay plot point).

Tea and Sympathy has the famous line spoken by the wife to the boy: "Years from now — when you talk about this — and you will! — be kind."

Dated though it may seem, the play was nevertheless groundbreaking for asking the question of what defines "manliness" in the age of conformity. Mr. Anderson's plays were interested in relationships rather than political issues. Busch said his best-known plays, including I Never Sang for My Father (1968) and the collection of one-acts You Know I Can't Hear You When the Water's Running (1967), were about "people having trouble communicating their desires, their conflicting desires, and other things that prevented them from seeing what's in front of them."

I'm Herbert, a play within You Know I Can't Hear You…, concerned a husband and wife who had previous marriages but could not remember with whom they did what. Busch said she could hear her mother and stepfather's voices in that comedy.

Mr. Anderson's 1940 first marriage to Phyllis Stohl ended with her death in 1956. He married Teresa Wright, the actress, in 1959.

In addition to the Broadway plays Solitaire / Double Solitaire (1971), Silent Night, Lonely Night (1959), All Summer Long (1954), Mr. Anderson wrote the screenplays for "Until They Sail" (1957), "The Nun's Story" (1959) and "The Sand Pebbles" (1966). He was Academy Award-nominated for "The Nun's Story" and for the 1970 screen adaptation of I Never Sang for My Father. He also wrote the novels "After" (1973) and "Getting Up and Going Home" (1978).

Before Alzheimer's took hold, Mr. Anderson was a passionate theatregoer and continued writing and plotting. Busch said, "He loved going to the theatre and thinking about it, and thinking about the business. He always looked at life in terms of, 'Oh, that's an interesting idea for a story!' Everything he heard was a possible story…"

Mr. Anderson, born Robert Woodruff Anderson and educated in prep school, graduated from Harvard in 1939 and received his M.A. in 1940. He met his future wife, Phyllis, at Harvard. She was head of drama at Erskine School for Girls, which enlisted Harvard boys — including young Mr. Anderson — for roles. She encouraged him to be a playwright. While at Harvard he wrote a musical comedy called Hour Town (1938), an apparent spoof of the current Our Town, for which he wrote book, music and lyrics; he also acted in it and directed.

An early play, Come Marching Home, which he wrote while serving in World War II, won top place in the National Theatre Conference contest for plays by servicemen overseas. It was produced at the University of Iowa and in New York City, and helped him win a 1946 playwriting fellowship by the National Theatre Conference. On that fellowship, he studied under John Gassner in the Dramatic Workshop of the New School.

His first work on Broadway was creating sketches for the revue Dance Me a Song (1950). His play Love Revisited was produced by Westport Country Playhouse in 1951. An early play, The Eden Rose, was first presented by the Theatre Workshop of Ridgefield, CT, in 1949.

Mr. Anderson also wrote for radio and television.

In 2004, Polly Holliday starred in the Asolo Theatre Company's premiere production of a little-known play by Mr. Anderson, Free and Clear, in Sarasota, FL. Free and Clear had a brief regional showing 21 years earlier at Long Wharf Theatre, though the nature of that staging is not fully clear. Asolo billed its new staging as the play's world premiere and characterized the Long Wharf staging as an "evaluation production" and a "tryout," terms not usually used in resident theatre.

Free and Clear was a family story about two brothers who return home for their mother's birthday, each with hopes not fully embraced by his parents. According to Asolo notes, the play asked, "What obligations do children have to their parents? How much can a parent expect of their children?"

Producer Richard G. Fallon said at the time, "Producing this play has been a consummate mission of mine for the past 10 years. I am fulfilling a promise I first made to Robert's agent, Audrey Wood, before she died and then to Robert Anderson, with whom I have become very close. Audrey deeply believed in Robert and his work. I promised to help get this play produced in a way that will truly do it justice. That's why now, at a time when Robert's health is failing, it is so very important to see my promise fulfilled soon. We have a responsibility to produce the play both for Robert and for the play's relevance as his last work. My belief is that, because of the course of events that brought it here, the play was destined for the Asolo stage."

In 1991, his three-character one-act, The Last Act Is a Solo, about a frail actress, was aired in a TV production that starred Olympia Dukakis, Edward Hermann and Gavin MacLeod on "The General Motors Playwrights Theater." In addition to the 1970 Gene Hackman-Melvyn Douglas feature film of "I Never Sang for My Father," there was also a 1988 TV movie version starring Harold Gould and Daniel J. Travanti. The drama dealt with a grown son and his aging dad.

Mr. Anderson's awards over the years included received The Edward Albee Last Frontier Playwright Award (1997) and The William Inge Lifetime Achievement Award for a Playwright (1985), among other honors.

He also taught playwriting for many years.

In addition to his stepdaughter, survivors include stepson Niven Terence Busch, nieces Patricia Anderson and Roberta Pagon and nephew James Anderson.

A memorial service will be held at Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home at 81st Street and Madison at 1:30 PM Feb. 13. Burial will be private. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made too the Dramatists Guild Fund and the Taub Institute for Research on Alzheimer's Disease.

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