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Gilroy Was There 

click to enlarge JENNIFER MAY
  • Jennifer May

There’s a thumb-shaped hole in the space bar of Frank D. Gilroy’s typewriter, where the metal’s succumbed to six decades of use. The black Royal manual, which Gilroy bought with his winnings from a crap game on a World War II troop ship, now rests in its case in the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright’s home office. The hardest-working keyboard in show business now has an understudy—not some upstart Mac or PC but an identical vintage Royal, bought by a friend.

Gilroy’s credentials are legion, but he’s a canny enough storyteller to know that the view from the top doesn’t play half as well as the scramble to get there. His recently published memoir, Writing for Love and/or Money, begins:

As the man introducing me at the local community college goes on about my loftier achievements and awards, the audience (kids from families straining so they can get a higher education) openly yawns.

Scrapping prepared remarks, I tell them 90 percent of my career has been failure.

“I’ve been dead broke six times and if I don’t sell something soon it’ll be seven.”

I have their attention.

He has ours as well. Gilroy’s tales of scraping together a paycheck from live TV shows like “Playhouse 90,” “Kraft Television Theatre,” and “Omnibus,” and of Hollywood during its studio heyday, are short and salty, addictive as popcorn. We see him pitching to Jackie Gleason while he gets a haircut and manicure. Telling Walt Disney he’s quitting the studio. Scouting locations with Dick Powell in Havana as Castro’s rebels attack. We also hear jazz trumpet riffs, gambling sagas, and grueling war stories etched in a few unforgettable sentences.

“I like concision,” Gilroy says, leaning into a comfortable chair in his Orange County living room. He and his wife, Ruth Gaydos, have lived in the same house for 45 years, and its wood-paneled rooms and stone walls have a reassuring solidity. The framed photos on the grand piano mix family snapshots of various generations with theatre and movie premieres. The Gilroys’ oldest son, Tony, was nominated for two Oscars as writer/director of Michael Clayton, which was edited by his younger brother John and features his wife and son in small roles. John’s twin Dan is a screenwriter whose credits include Two for the Money, starring his wife Rene Russo and Al Pacino.

Ruth seems to be the only show business refusenik—the house is full of her striking bronze and clay sculptures—but she wields a quiet authority. Besides retyping her husband’s scripts on a computer, she serves as a valued first reader. “She’s very honest, a very tough critic,” Gilroy admits. Writing for Love and/or Money describes Ruth’s first response to the play he wrote during the 1960 Writers Guild strike. After saying she liked it, she commented, “I think you shortchanged the mother.” Gilroy flew into a rage, but soon realized she was right; the mother’s big scene is one emotional high points of “The Subject Was Roses.”

The new memoir evolved from a housecleaning project, Gilroy explains. “Ruth and I thought we’d do our heirs a favor and start weeding out some of my papers.” The family house came with a walk-in vault, which he commandeered for his massive backlist. “There were piles of old scripts: jobs for hire, spec projects that did and did not get made. As we went through, I’d jot down a couple of notes about the circumstances surrounding each one on a Post-It. The things kept getting longer and longer.”

Gilroy realized he had the bare bones of a book. The anecdotal form was not new to him. His 1970 novel Private, based on his experiences in Patton’s Third Army—he was one of the first American soldiers to enter a concentration camp—is written in stark, impressionistic vignettes. “I was thinking about Matthew Brady’s Civil War photos,” he says. “I wanted to do with words what he did with photographs.”

He also published a 1993 memoir called I Wake Up Screening! Everything You Need to Know About Making Independent Films, Including a Thousand Reasons Not To. Culled from diary entries, it details the making of Desperate Characters, Once in Paris, The Gig, and The Luckiest Man in the World, all written, directed, and produced by Gilroy. (The last two were filmed locally; Cleavon Little and friends played their eponymous gig at Sacks Lodge in Saugerties, and Kingston stood in for New York in The Luckiest Man.) Shot in the ‘70s and ‘80s, these low-budget gems were part of the first wave of indies. “I define ‘indie’ as high-wire, no net. You don’t have a distributor beforehand, you’ve raised the money from private backers, just like a play; you open the picture yourself....I went from gambling on dice and things to making independent movies. This house has been put on the line more than once.” Gilroy pauses. “That’s gambling.”

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