Paul Zindel, Pulitzer-Winning Playwright of Effects of Gamma Rays, Dead at 66

Obituaries   Paul Zindel, Pulitzer-Winning Playwright of Effects of Gamma Rays, Dead at 66
Paul Zindel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, died of cancer March 27 in Manhattan.
Paul Zindel
Paul Zindel

The playwright who wrote a handful of plays but whose reputation rests largely with the bulkily-titled domestic tale, Effect of Gamma Rays, was 66 and lived to see the play produced regionally, Off-Broadway, on Broadway, on TV and in a film version directed by Paul Newman and starring Joanne Woodward.

The play, about an opinionated, pushy mother named Beatrice and the impact she has on her two daughters, is a staple of regional, college and community theatres. The work also won a New York Drama Critics' Circle Award.

Mr. Zindel came to the theatre scene out of nowhere. He was a chemistry teacher on his native Staten Island before his works were widely produced.

He also penned a series of books for young people. Titles include "The Pigman," "My Darling, My Hamburger," "Confessions of a Teen Age Baboon" and "Pardon Me, You're Stepping on My Eyeball."

The Effect of Gamma Rays had twisted path toward greater fame. It was first staged at Houston's Alley Theatre in 1965, then at the White Barn Theatre in Connecticut in the summer of 1966. A trimmed version starring Eileen Heckart as the mother appeared on television (NET's New York Television Theatre, according to the book, "Best Plays of the '70s"). The Cleveland Playhouse then produced it, subsequent to its Off Broadway bow in 1970 at the Mercer-O'Casey Theatre. Critics embraced it (Variety said it was the best play of its kind since The Glass Menagerie) and it transferred to The New Theatre for an 819 performance run. A Broadway production played briefly in 1978. The play made Sada Thompson a star. She subsequently landed a role on TV's popular drama, "Family." The daughters in the drama were played by Pamela Payton Wright and Swoosie Kurtz.

Mr. Zindel was born and raised on Staten Island, and his family was run by a suspicious, defensive mother who would become the inspiration for the mother on Effect of Gamma Rays, he said in interviews. At Wagner College, his major was chemistry, but he maintained an interest in creative writing. One of his creative writing teachers was Edward Albee. Mr. Zindel earned B.S. and M.S. degrees in chemistry.

After college, he was a technical writer for a chemical company and later taught chemistry at Tottenville High School on Staten Island. He wrote plays during his time as a teacher. In 1964, A Dream of Swallows was produced Off-Broadway.

His play after Effect of Gamma Ray was And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little, produced on Broadway in 1971 with a trio of actresses considered an embarrassment of riches: Julie Harris, Nancy Marchand and Estelle Parsons (who was Tony Award-nominated for it). Rae Allen won the Best Featured Actress (Play) Tony Award.

In 1972, Maureen Stapleton starred in Broadway's The Secret Affairs of Mildred Wild, a Walter Mitty-like tale of a woman who fantasizes in the back room of a Greenwich Village candy shop cluttered with cinematic memorabilia.

In 1977, his Ladies at the Alamo was staged on Broadway.

His other credits include the screenplays to "Mame," "Runawau Train," "Up the Sandbox," "Let Me Hear You Whisper," and the short play The Ladies Should Be in Bed. A play called Dimensions of Peacocks was produced Off-Off Broadway in 1959.

Mr. Zindel received and honorary doctor of humane letters from Wagner College. He is survived by children David and Lizabeth, sister Betty Hagen and his former wife, Bonnie.

Services are 11:45 AM March 30 at The Riverside, 76th Street and Amsterdam Avenue.


Coincidentally, Jean Cocteau Repertory is currently presenting a revival of The Effect of Gamma Rays, in rep with The Triumph of Love, in Manhattan. For information, call (212) 677-0060. The play returns to the repertory April 4. Visit

Sada Thompson in <i>Effect of Gamma Rays</i>, Estelle Parsons, Julie Harris, and Nancy Marchand in <i>And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little</i>.
Sada Thompson in Effect of Gamma Rays, Estelle Parsons, Julie Harris, and Nancy Marchand in And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little. Photo by Photofest (<i>Gamma</i>)
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