Robert Anderson, 91; wrote ‘Tea and Sympathy,’ other plays

Posted on February 11, 2009. Filed under: Anderson Robert |

Robert Anderson, at a rehearsal hall in New York City.

Robert Anderson, at a rehearsal hall in New York City. (ap/file 1967)

By Bruce Weber

New York Times / February 11, 2009

NEW YORK – Robert Anderson, a playwright whose intimate emotional dramas, such as “Tea and Sympathy” and “I Never Sang for My Father,” attracted big names to the Broadway stage if not always substantial audiences to theaters, died Monday at home in Manhattan. He was 91.

The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, according to his family.

Mr. Anderson was a contemporary of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, and though his reputation never ascended to the artistic heights theirs did – his plays often walked a tightrope between realism and sentimentality – he was among the theater’s most visible, serious playwrights of the 1950s and ’60s.

Mr. Anderson also wrote screenplays, including those for “The Sand Pebbles” (1966), with Steve McQueen, and “The Nun’s Story” (1959), with Audrey Hepburn. But he thought of himself as a playwright who wrote movies for money.

He had six plays on Broadway between 1953 and 1971, beginning with “Tea and Sympathy,” the story of a sensitive, artistic boy who is ostracized by his prep school classmates as a supposed homosexual but who is befriended – and ultimately sexually initiated – by the housemaster’s wife.

“Tea and Sympathy,” directed by Elia Kazan, starred Deborah Kerr in her Broadway debut, fresh from her steamy role as an adulteress in “From Here to Eternity.” The play, which later became a film, ends with a scene considered salacious at the time and a famous final line. The housemaster’s wife, after leaving her husband, draws the student into her arms and says, “Years from now when you talk of this – and you will – be kind.”

The play “Tea and Sympathy” ran for nearly two years and made a name for Mr. Anderson as a writer who tackled serious subjects with sensitivity and accessibility, qualities that, as the years went by, drew both praise and scorn.

Mr. Anderson followed “Tea and Sympathy” with a series of works that were also emotionally high-pitched but nowhere near as successful. They included “All Summer Long,” with Carroll Baker and Ed Begley, adapted from a novel by Donald Wetzel, about a family so absorbed in its own acrimony that it ignores the rising river that is a threat to their home.

“Silent Night, Lonely Night” starred Barbara Bel Geddes and Henry Fonda as lonely strangers with marital woes who are placated by a night of adultery. “I Never Sang for My Father” concerned a middle-aged man (played by Hal Holbrook) and his unthawable relationship with his mean-spirited father (Alan Webb). The play was made into a better known film, also written by Mr. Anderson, starring Gene Hackman and Melvyn Douglas.

Mr. Anderson’s final Broadway play, “Solitaire/Double Solitaire,” was an odd mix of one acts, one an ironic science-fiction fantasy, the other a grimly realistic portrait of a disintegrating marriage.

Mr. Anderson’s plays attracted not only top-flight actors, but first-rate directors as well. “Summer ” and “I Never Sang” were directed by Alan Schneider, a leading interpreter of Edward Albee, Harold Pinter, and Samuel Beckett.

In 1967, Mr. Anderson scored his second Broadway hit, a series of four one-act comedies (also directed by Schneider) about a playwright who is having a hard time reconciling his own prudishness with his desire to write honestly about sex. Titled “You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running,” it ran for more than 750 performances from 1967 to 1969.

Robert Woodruff Anderson was born in New York City on April 28, 1917. His father was a business executive whom he drew on for his intractable male characters. He was sent to Phillips Exeter Academy, which he described as a lonely experience and where he fell in love with an older woman, all of which was grist for “Tea and Sympathy.”

Mr. Anderson received a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from Harvard, and he served in the Pacific in the Navy during World War II. On his return he adapted plays, movies, and novels for radio and television and taught playwriting for the American Theater Wing.

He was married twice, first to Phyllis Stohl, a director and playwright’s agent. She died of cancer in 1956, and his care of her over several years was the material for a 1973 novel, “After.”

Mr. Anderson married actress Teresa Wright in 1959. They divorced in 1978. Mr. Anderson had no children. In addition to his stepson, Busch, who lives in Indianapolis, he leaves a stepdaughter, Mary-Kelly Busch of Clinton, Conn.

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