Israel Horovitz obituary

Michael Coveney
·5 min read

Although he came to prominence in the off-Broadway counterculture melting pot of Greenwich Village in the late 1960s, Israel Horovitz, who has died of cancer aged 81, was an Anglophile who trained at Rada, spent a year with the Royal Shakespeare Company as their resident dramatist and had many plays performed on BBC Radio.

He was also dubbed the most produced American playwright in French theatre history. So it was a special pleasure to him that his last screenplay – and debut as a film director – My Old Lady (2014) starring Maggie Smith and Kevin Kline, was based on one of his own “French” plays and co-produced by the BBC.

Kline plays a twice-divorced recovering alcoholic and failed writer who comes to Paris to claim the apartment left to him by his father, only to discover Smith in situ as an immovable sitting tenant. The film slides into a tangle of family secrets and subtle revelations when the tenant’s daughter, a teacher played by Kristin Scott Thomas, enters the fray, just as the mystery of the flat, and of the writer’s father’s relationship with the tenant, begin to emerge.

Maggie Smith in My Old Lady (2014)
Maggie Smith in My Old Lady (2014), Horovitz’s last screenplay, and debut as a film director. Photograph: Alamy

The film toys with several regular Horovitz themes of jolting domestic revelations, complicated private lives, teachers and pupils, and intergenerational conflict. In the real world his career came to be overshadowed by allegations of sexual misconduct.

My Old Lady seemed a world away from the double bill of short, violent plays that made his name in 1968, The Indian Wants the Bronx and It’s Called the Sugar Plum. In the first (starring an unknown Al Pacino), an Asian boy waiting for a night bus home to the Bronx is assaulted by two white punks; in the second (starring Marsha Mason and Jill Clayburgh), a student who has killed a man in a road accident turns up on the bereaved fiancee’s doorstep.

The first play won an Obie (an off-Broadway Tony), presented at a ceremony hosted by Groucho Marx. This recognition may explain Horovitz’s lurch into surrealism and French adulation – he lived in Paris, as well as New York, and became a close friend of Samuel Beckett – in plays that included Line (1970), about five people standing in line behind a piece of white tape (Richard Dreyfuss was the main man); and The Primary English Class (1975), in which a neurotic night-school teacher (Diane Keaton) fails to control a class of mixed races with not a word of English between them, nor one of each other’s native tongue.

Born in Wakefield, Massachusetts, Israel was the son of Julius Horovitz, a truck driver who retrained as a lawyer aged 50, and his wife, Hazel Rose (nee Solberg), a nurse. He attended Salem Teachers’ College in the late 50s, intending to graduate as a teacher, but left to try playwriting while working as a taxi driver and stagehand.

In 1962 he won a fellowship to study at Rada in London and stayed on as resident playwright with the RSC at the Aldwych during the tumultuous 1964-65 season of Peter Brook’s Theatre of Cruelty, culminating in Peter Weiss’s play Marat/Sade with Glenda Jackson.

Returning to New York, Horovitz worked in advertising before his 1968 Obie-winning double bill sent up one of several flares in a vintage off-Broadway season featuring plays by John Guare, Jules Feiffer and Lanford Wilson, alongside the premieres of Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band and the rock musical Hair. In 1975 he founded the New York Playwrights Lab and in 1979 co-founded the Gloucester Stage Company near his seaport summer home in Massachusetts.

Both organisations proved a fertile ground for new playwrights, and he wrote and produced a cycle of his own plays in Gloucester, set in Boston’s blue-collar north shore towns. One of them, Park Your Car in Harvard Yard – the title is a pronunciation spoof on the “posh” Boston accent – reached Broadway in 1991 with Jason Robards as an ageing teacher whose ex-student (Judith Ivey) comes to work as his housekeeper.

Back in Britain, where he kept a house in Dulwich, south London, he wrote seven plays for BBC Radio between 1996 and 2004, most of them directed by Ned Chaillet, with casts including Ian Carmichael, Maureen Lipman, Rosemary Harris, Clayburgh and Lily Rabe.

His first major movie screenplay was for a sexy and sentimental frontline report from the 1960s culture wars, The Strawberry Statement (1970), and his screenplay for Arthur Hiller’s Author! Author! (1982), with Pacino as a stressed playwright, reflected his own complicated private life, with a dissenting wife and various stepchildren causing havoc before a glowing first night review in the New York Times calms things down. But his biggest screen success was Sunshine (1999), which he wrote for, and with, the director István Szabó. Ralph Fiennes gave a scintillating performance across three generations of a Hungarian Jewish family into the middle of the 20th century.

Sunshine (1999) starring Ralph Fiennes.
Sunshine (1999), starring Ralph Fiennes, was Horovitz’s biggest screen success. Photograph: United Archives GmbH/Alamy

In 2016, an earlier play, Out of the Mouths of Babes, about four women drawn together by the death of a teacher at the Sorbonne with whom each of them had been involved, was revived at the Cherry Lane theatre in New York. This did not help rumbling allegations against him of sexual indiscretions over many years, highlighted in 2017 by the New York Times and the #MeToo movement. None of these accusations reached court and Horovitz withdrew from public life.

He was married to Elaine Abber in 1959, Doris Keefe in 1961 – both marriages ending in divorce – and Gillian Adams, the British marathon champion, in 1981. She survives him, as do three children – Rachael, a film producer, Adam, one of the Beastie Boys, and Matthew, a television producer – from his second marriage, and twins, Hannah and Oliver, from his third; by five grandchildren; and by his sister, Shirley.

• Israel Arthur Horovitz, playwright and screenwriter, born 31 March 1939; died 9 November 2020