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Nathan Lane: Terrence McNally Changed My Life as an Actor

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Nathan Lane is an Emmy- and Tony-winning actor.

After writing and delivering so many heartfelt tributes over the years to my dear friend, the great playwright Terrence McNally, I have felt at a crippling loss for words when it comes to his recent passing due to the coronavirus.

I have just felt gutted and heartbroken. Fortunately for all of us, he was never at a loss and always knew what to say and how to say it. That was his genius.

It’s as if my mind won’t accept that he’s gone, that maybe if I don’t write this he won’t be gone. He can’t be gone. He was too vital, too passionate, too feisty, too smart and witty to succumb to death. He fought it and won so many times before.

And yet here we are.

Early on in our relationship he explained to me that he had recently lost his two closest friends and collaborators: actor, director and former partner, Bobby Drivas, and the inimitable character actor, Jimmy Coco. He said he felt I was sent to replace them, by God or William Morris, I suppose, and that he wanted to write plays for me. He said he felt better knowing he was writing for someone specific and that I heard his voice, the music, the way they did. I was a McNally actor. It was overwhelming for a young actor to hear, and I felt moved and incredibly grateful that a writer of his caliber and stature would say such a thing to me. It was extraordinary. It was also very exciting. He was at the top of his game and had a real artistic home at the Manhattan Theatre Club. It’s where he did what I think was his best work. And I was lucky enough to go along for the ride.

The very first time I met him was by chance in the lobby at City Center where Frankie and Johnny was playing in Stage Two and I was in previews for a show on the main stage that sadly wasn’t going so well. I was sitting on some steps in despair with my head in my hands — this was way before we weren’t allowed to touch our faces — and he said, “Hi, I’m Terrence McNally. I know you’re having some trouble with your show, but I think you’re a terrific actor and I hope we get to work together someday.” I said, “Thank you, me too.” And then this very kind gentleman with the beatific choirboy face – a choirboy who knows where they hide the good wine – was gone. Just like an angel, a guardian angel.

Cut to two years later. John Tillinger and Terrence were casting The Lisbon Traviata and looking for an older actor to play the showy role of Mendy, a Maria Callas-obsessed opera queen. I thought the play was ambitious and theatrical, sexually frank and daring and hilarious and very emotional. It was a spectacular high-wire act of playwriting and the role was a tremendous gift. You saw that on the page. I was suggested for it and everyone thought I was too young, but they were having difficulty casting the part for some reason and so they thought why not?

It changed my life as an actor. I had been in New York for 11 years at that point and had made my Broadway debut with George C. Scott in a successful revival of Present Laughter, which Terrence had thankfully seen, but The Lisbon Traviata put me on the map. Suddenly it was as if the theater community stepped back, squinted at me and said, “Maybe you’re more than just funny. O.K., you can be in the club.” And that was all thanks to Terrence and his brilliance.

Playwright Terrence McNally, right, at a rehearsal for "Lips Together, Teeth Apart" in New York on June 27, 1991, with, from left, Nathan Lane, Swoosie Kurtz, Christine Baranski and Anthony Heald.
Playwright Terrence McNally, right, at a rehearsal for "Lips Together, Teeth Apart" in New York on June 27, 1991, with, from left, Nathan Lane, Swoosie Kurtz, Christine Baranski and Anthony Heald.Jack Manning—The New York Times/Redux

It also led to my first Hirschfeld caricature in the New York Times, a long-ago coveted rite of passage for actors in its famous Friday Broadway column. And as if that wasn’t enough, Terrence bought the original for me as a present.


I treasure that drawing with all my heart and I would say it was still my all-time favorite present, but he also happened to give me my beloved dog, Mabel.

YES, I KNOW! He really was an angel.

Terrence used to say that everyone should have a dog, that the world would be a better place if that were the case. Dogs teach you unconditional love. You have to take care of them and they are so grateful to you for that. It would teach us all how to take more and better care of each other as humans.

Amen to that.

We went on to have a 30-year collaboration, rather unique in the fickle world of the theater. He gave me some of the best and most important roles of my career and I will be forever in his debt. In a typically Terrence moment of great generosity, he once referred to me as his muse, but I think it was the other way around. His work inspired and brought out the best in me, as it did in the many other wonderful actors for whom he wrote. How could you not be inspired by that kind of beautiful language and raw emotion?

We had our ups and downs over the years as close friends and passionate theater folk do, but our love and friendship was profound and indestructible. In the last few years there was an underlying awareness of mortality to some of our conversations. We would express our love and gratitude for each other and how much that has meant, not forgetting to vigorously gossip and complain and laugh. He could really make me laugh.

As I write this, tears are forming in my eyes. It seems inconceivable that I’m talking of him in the past tense, that he’s not here.

But, of course, he is here. He’ll always be here. In the plays, in the musicals, in the operas, in the eloquent and moving speeches he gave, in the love and kindness he generously shared and all the people he inspired. There are countless stories, just like mine, of young artists he has supported and mentored and given their first chance. He was a huge hero to the LGBTQ community, a groundbreaker and openly gay activist and writer way before it became fashionable, while he was also able to consistently reinvent himself in the theater, prolifically playing with new forms and telling us challenging stories of people trying to connect, to matter, in love and art. Sometimes in love with art.

I think of him as the American Chekhov. Only funnier.

It’s not easy to have a biting wit while wearing your heart on your sleeve, but it was a magic trick he perfected like no one else. And somehow, in spite of all of the difficulties and stresses of being in the theater, he maintained a childlike innocence and excitement about it all.

Don’t get me wrong, no one was more amusing about the indignities of show business than Terrence, but deep down he was pure when it came to the ideals of the stage. Bless his heart.

As I have often said, no one loved the theater more than Terrence McNally. He was like the love child of a wild night between the Lunts and Noel Coward, with Ethel Merman as the midwife.

It has been very gratifying to see the enormous outpouring of love and respect for Terrence and his incredible body of work over the last week. He would be very pleased and touched.

As Maria Callas says at the end of Master Class, “The older I get, the less I know, but I’m certain that what we do matters. If I didn’t believe that…”

Believe me, Terrence mattered. A lot.

Correction, April 1

The original version of this story misstated Al Hirschfeld’s name. It’s Hirschfeld, not Hirschfield.

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