Dale Wasserman: Playwright who adapted 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' for the stage

The playwright Dale Wasserman adapted Ken Kesey's novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest as a Broadway play in 1963, and wrote the libretto for one of New York's biggest musical hits, Man of La Mancha, which opened in 1965 and ran for 2,329 performances.

Man of La Mancha's hit song, "The Impossible Dream", was one of those inspirational ballads which one either loves or loathes, its lyrics (by Joe Darion) inspired by a speech written by Wasserman for his original television drama, I, Don Quixote, in which Quixote says, "To dream the impossible dream, to fight the unbeatable foe, and never to stop dreaming or fighting – this is man's privilege and the only life worth living." Wasserman also wrote the screenplay for the popular adventure movie The Vikings (1958), which starred Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis.

The rights to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Kesey's 1962 novel about rebellion in a mental hospital, were acquired by Kirk Douglas soon after publication as a vehicle in which he planned to return to the Broadway stage. When Douglas discovered that Wasserman had also tried to buy the rights, he hired him to write the play, agreeing that Wasserman should retain all rights to his dramatisation while Douglas retained screen rights to the novel.

After opening to positive reviews in Boston, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest went to Broadway, where it received reviews from New York's most influential critics that Douglas described as "murderous". Howard Taubman of the New York Times wrote of the play's "appalling taste", while Walter Kerr of the Herald Tribune declared that the "tastelessness of this character (R.P. McMurphy) should be talked about".

The play struggled through a five-month run. "It was terrible," Wasserman later said. "Kirk was so frightened to return to the live stage he took refuge in being lovable every moment of the play. But his character was half Christ and half con-man and he was not meant to be lovable."

Wasserman was known for his testy character and relished his reputation as a cantankerous grouch. He fought not only with Douglas, but with his original co-librettist on La Mancha, the poet W.H. Auden (who eventually left the project) and the show's composer, Mitch Leigh, and on a later occasion with the director John Huston, for whom he wrote the film A Walk with Love and Death (1969). He had wisely advised Huston not to cast his own daughter, the then inexperienced Anjelica, in the leading role.

Born in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, in 1914 (he had been unsure of the date until he tracked down his birth certificate in order to qualify for a pension from the writers' union), Wasserman was one of 14 children whose Russian immigrant parents ran silent-movie houses. Orphaned before he was 10, he had little formal education and spent most of his youth as a self-described "hobo", riding on freight trains and taking odd jobs including as a lumberjack, before eventually turning to writing.

He was living on a rooftop in Los Angeles in the mid-Thirties when he joined a street theatre group, The Rebel Players. Later, he directed plays for the Federal Theatre Project, as well as stage and lighting design for Katherine Dunham's dance company. In 1946 he was one of the producers of Beggar's Holiday, a short-lived adaptation of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera with a score by Duke Ellington. Starring Alfred Drake, the show was picketed for featuring an inter-racial romance.

He became a writer after observing that "everything on a stage was subservient to the text", and he became one of the most prolific television dramatists of the Fifties. He was working on a film script in Spain in 1959 when he read an erroneous newspaper report that he was adapting Don Quixote. "As it happened, I'd never read the novel," he said. "I still haven't, all the way through. As a matter of fact, I don't really like the novel".

Wasserman became fascinated, however, by the character of Cervantes. "Here, surely, was one of the unluckiest men who ever lived... five times in prison, twice excommunicated by the church, often near starvation, he bore his hardships with good humour and an unflagging faith in life. I had a notion of doing a play about Cervantes which would invoke Don Quixote as his alter ego. I presented a one-page outline to the television producer David Susskind and he said, 'Here's a cheque, start writing'. When they hand you that cheque, you're trapped. So, I began".

In Wasserman's television play, I, Don Quixote (1959), Lee J. Cobb played Cervantes/Don Quixote, and Eli Wallach was his servant Sancho Panza. "We all considered it a bit too intellectual, a bit too much for the audience," said Wasserman. "It wasn't. Letters poured in from all over the country – it was in those glorious days when television was not yet controlled by advertisers." The stage-musical version, Man of La Mancha, opened with little fanfare and hardly any advance bookings in 1965, with Richard Kiley heading the cast. It quickly became a hit and won a Tony award as best musical. "The Impossible Dream" was described by the historian Gerald Bordman as "the last major hit to emerge from Broadway before rock-and-roll overwhelmed the nation".

In 1972 it was filmed disastrously by Arthur Hiller. Despite a cast headed by Peter O'Toole and Sophia Loren, the ponderous production, badly sung, is a contender for the screen's worst major musical, but the stage version continues to be produced all over the world. "It speaks across borders, without any references to political situations," Wasserman told The New York Times. "It's about as close to universal as one can get. I didn't know that when I was writing it, of course."

Though One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest flopped first time on stage, an off-Broadway revival starring William Devane in 1971 ran for over 2,000 performances and prompted the Oscar-winning film version in 1975 (which did not involve Wasserman). The play was subsequently revived on Broadway in 2001 starring Gary Sinise, who won a Tony for the best revival of a play, and in 2004 it was successfully staged in London, starring Christian Slater and Frances Barber.

Wasserman settled with his second wife, Martha ("who remains wonderfully serene in the face of my troublesome ways") in Arizona and was still writing up until his death. Recently he told his wife that he would require obituaries to say only that he invented the phrase, "the impossible dream" – and lived it.

Tom Vallance

Dale Wasserman, playwright: born Rhinelander, Wisconsin 2 November 1914; married Ramsay Ames (marriage dissolved), married 1984 Martha Garza; died Phoenix, Arizona 21 December 2008.

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