Frank Gilroy, a playwright whose searing 1964 family drama “The Subject Was Roses” won the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award and overshadowed an extensive career writing and directing movies, died Sept. 12 in Monroe, New York. He was 89.
The family announced the death but did not cite a cause.
After his return from the battlefields of Europe in World War II, Gilroy studied playwriting at Dartmouth and Yale and earned a steady income writing scripts for TV anthology shows in the 1950s. For one, he created the character of the millionaire detective Amos Burke, later played by Gene Barry on the popular mid-1960s ABC show “Burke’s Law.”
From his TV training, Gilroy developed a taut, incisive approach to playwriting. His earliest, best-regarded dramas focused on the submerged rages and breakfast-table hostilities from which egos are bruised, raw emotions are exposed and plots of intrafamily tensions unfold.
“The Subject Was Roses,” which marked his Broadway debut and ran for two years, became his signal contribution to theater. Although the drama contained an autobiographical kernel — the war veteran who returns to his childhood home in the Bronx — Gilroy said the similarities to his own experiences largely ended there.
The story concerned a young man who becomes the center of a power struggle between his parents: the father, whose outwardly sunny Irish disposition masks the miserly, caustic treatment toward his wife, and the mother, who has been worn down to a desiccated shell of herself.
The show was a risky venture, with a largely unknown cast that included the vaudevillian Jack Albertson and Irene Dailey as the parents and a young Martin Sheen as the son.
Ticket sales were initially underwhelming. But a monsoon of praise from major theater critics — who noted the precision of the writing, the deft pacing and the superb performances — led to a commercial breakthrough.
In addition to the Pulitzer for drama and the Tony for best play, the show earned the prestigious New York Drama Critics Circle award. Albertson, who won a Tony for best featured actor, reprised his role with Sheen in the 1968 film version. Movie star Patricia Neal portrayed the mother on screen, earning an Academy Award nomination for the role. Albertson won the Oscar.
The Broadway staging of “The Subject Was Roses” marked Gilroy’s professional apex. It became his signature play — much revived over the decades — as well as his albatross.
“I’d like to walk into a room sometime and be introduced as the author of something other than that play,” he told the New York Times in 1991. “There’s always one thing in a career that has more impact than anything else. In my case, ‘The Subject Was Roses’ was that thing.”
The Hollywood version, for which he wrote the screenplay, lacked the speed and power of the original production. And Gilroy’s subsequent Broadway outings — “That Summer — That Fall” (1967), “The Only Game in Town” (1968), “Last Licks” (1979) and “Any Given Day” (1993) — shuttered within weeks.
Of “That Summer — That Fall,” based on Euripides’s tragedy Hippolytus, Gilroy later quipped, “What I learned was that a boy from the Bronx shouldn’t mess around with the Greeks.”
Frank Daniel Gilroy was born on Oct. 13, 1925, and he grew up in the Bronx. His father, whose parents had emigrated from Ireland, was a coffee broker. The younger Gilroy said he was an indifferent student. He preferred playing pool, gambling and reading magazine fiction.
After high school graduation in 1943, he served in the Army in Europe. Upon his discharge, he once told the Associated Press, he had little direction for a career but he had observed one thing in the military: “I noticed that the guys who had the best jobs and were in the least danger were all educated — and that war is the worst for those who are poor and uneducated. I made up my mind then to go to college.”
He graduated in 1950 from Dartmouth College, where he won awards for playwriting, and attended the Yale School of Drama.
In 1954, he married Ruth Gaydos, with whom he had three sons. To support his growing family, he began contributing scripts to TV shows, gaining especially strong reviews for his work for programs such as “Studio One” and “Playhouse 90.”
He expanded his script for a Western TV series into a screenplay, “The Fastest Gun Alive” (1956), which starred Glenn Ford. Gilroy also co-wrote “The Gallant Hours” (1960), a well-received biopic of William “Bull” Halsey Jr. that featured James Cagney as the Navy admiral.
Although his Hollywood credits paid the bills, Gilroy wanted foremost to establish himself as a playwright. His drama “Who’ll Save the Plowboy?,” a meditation on bitterness and failure arising from the post-World War II era of promise, was mounted off-Broadway in 1961.
The show did not last long, but it earned Gilroy an Obie (off-Broadway) award for best American play of the year and helped solidify his theater credentials.
Besides his wife, survivors include three sons, filmmakers Tony Gilroy and Dan Gilroy and film editor John Gilroy; and five grandchildren.
The film adaptation of Gilroy’s “The Only Game in Town” (1970), directed by George Stevens and starring Elizabeth Taylor and Warren Beatty as a showgirl and a pianist-gambler who fall in love, proved an expensive bomb.
Based on his own novel, Gilroy directed the Western spoof “From Noon Till Three” (1976) as a starring vehicle for Charles Bronson. Reviewers found it a witty and welcome change of pace from the usual Bronson-as-vigilante thriller, but it proved one of the actor’s few commercial flops.
Shunning the big-studio system, Gilroy also wrote and directed “Once in Paris . . .” (1978), a romantic comedy with Wayne Rogers and Gayle Hunnicutt; “The Gig” (1985), a comedy with Rogers and Cleavon Little as musicians; and “The Luckiest Man in the World” (1989), starring Philip Bosco as a scoundrel who is spiritually reborn after narrowly missing a doomed airplane flight.
He considered independent filmmaking a creatively liberating venture, if not always a lucrative one.
“I remember how I would wait for a play idea,” Gilroy told the Times in 1989. “I wasted a tremendous amount of time. I didn’t realize that (non-play) ideas could be made into movies or novels. I hope I live long enough to write about all the ideas that have come to me since.”