Robert Anderson: Playwright and screenwriter best known for 'Tea and Sympathy'

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The Independent Online

Robert Anderson was a playwright of stature in the American theatre, and though rarely mentioned alongside the country's master dramatists such as Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller, he was a fine craftsman who was superb at dissecting family relationships and depicting the emotions that lie below the surface of conventional behaviour.

His best known play, Tea and Sympathy, though perhaps simplistic and naïve by today's standards, was immensely brave in its time for its challenge to conformity. The story of a young man taunted for his sensitivity and his possible homosexuality, it has one of the most famous closing lines in American theatre. When the sympathetic housemaster's wife, whose macho sports-teaching husband has latent homosexual tendencies, decides to restore the young man's self-esteem by sleeping with him, she says to him, "Years from now, when you talk about this – and you will – be kind."

He had another big hit with a collection of four one-act plays, You Know I Can't Hear You When the Water's Running, and his other works include I Never Sang for my Father, a powerfully moving (and autobiographical) play about a fraught father-son relationship. He was also a superb screenwriter, twice nominated for an Oscar, though he preferred to think of himself as "a playwright who writes movies for money". As well as the film versions of Tea and Sympathy and I Never Sang for my Father, he wrote superior scripts for Until They Sail, The Nun's Story and The Sand Pebbles. Anderson was noted, too, for his kindness, and for the help he gave to young writers.

Born in 1917 in New York City, where his patriarchal father was a business executive, he was sent as a youth to a military academy, where he recalled being lonely and falling in love with an older woman (the seeds of Tea and Sympathy), before attending Harvard University. After serving as a lieutenant in the Pacific during the Second World War, he studied with John Gassner at the New School's Dramatic Workshop in New York and wrote plays for radio and television before being hired by the American Theatre Wing to teach playwriting at evening classes.

"Anderson was teaching evening classes at the American Theatre Wing, and I got into his class," the screenwriter Arnold Schulman recalled. "My basic diet at the time was gallons of thick, black coffee, which I had read that Balzac drank, and day-old bread that a neighbourhood baker sold for pennies. I enjoyed the fantasy of being a starving young writer, but my body didn't. One night, in the middle of Bob's class, I got so weak and dizzy I had to leave. I had no idea that Bob knew it was because I hadn't eaten for days, until about midnight there was a knock on my door and there was Bob Anderson, having walked up five flights, with two enormous paper bags of groceries. In the morning I found an envelope he had stuck into my mailbox. In the envelope were five hundred-dollar bills. There's no way I can describe the impact that this act of pure kindness had on me and no way to repay it except to pass it on, which I've tried to do ever since."

Anderson had his first work on Broadway when he contributed sketches to a revue, Dance Me a Song (1950), which featured Bob Fosse but ran for only 35 performances. Around the same time, the Dramatists Guild formed a group, The New Dramatists, and selected 30 promising writers to sponsor, among them Paddy Chayefsky, William Inge, Stephen Sondheim, Schulman and Anderson, who eventually made his breakthrough in 1953. "It restores the theatre to an art again," wrote the New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson of Tea and Sympathy. "It's a fine play put on the stage with great skill and beauty."

Directed by Elia Kazan, it starred Deborah Kerr as the wife of the housemaster, and John Kerr (not a relative) as the young man, Tom. They recreated their roles (as did Leif Erickson, who played the housemaster) in the 1956 film version, skilfully adapted by Anderson to get around the censor's objections to suggestions of homosexuality. His script, the performances and Vincente Minnelli's stylish direction resulted in an enjoyable melodrama, its theme less diluted than one might expect.

London's stage censor (in the person of the Lord Chamberlain, whose power was abolished in 1968) also had strict rules about such subject matter, and banned the play, but since he had no power over a private club, a special theatre club was formed enabling three prohibited plays to be staged in the West End; the others were Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge.

Anderson's next play, Silent Night, Lonely Night (1959), starring Henry Fonda, was not a success, but a collection of four one-act plays, You Know I Can't Hear You When the Water's Running (1967) ran for over 700 performances, and was seen in London, starring Tom Ewell. The following year Anderson wrote I Never Sang for My Father, a powerfully moving tale of an anguished father-son relationship which was turned into a memorable film in 1970, with Gene Hackman and Melvyn Douglas in the lead roles. Hackman and Anderson were both Oscar-nominated for their work.

Anderson's screenwriting, mostly adaptations of ambitious novels, was of a consistently high standard. His reworking of James Michener's short story Until They Sail (1957) turned what was basically a soap opera into the compelling saga of four sisters in a New Zealand town during the Second World War, describing how an influx of American servicemen affects their lives. Directed by Robert Wise, with a talented cast which included Jean Simmons, Paul Newman, Joan Fontaine and Piper Laurie, the story of the four girls was skilfully woven, with emphasis placed on the romance between the widowed Simmons and the cynical officer Newman who feels that his men are being exploited by the women.

Anderson's next film (1959), based on Kathryn C. Hulme's autobiographical novel, The Nun's Story, was another finely crafted and sincere work which won him an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay. In 1966 he worked with Robert Wise again on the epic drama The Sand Pebbles, starring Steve McQueen. Adapted from Richard McKenna's novel, it focused on a little-known episode of American foreign involvement when US gunboats cruised China's Yangtze River in the Twenties. Anderson's handling of this weighty material was lauded for its intelligence and its authenticity, the dialogue faithful to the time in which the film was set.

Anderson later started writing novels, including After (1973) and Getting Up and Going Home (1978), and he wrote many television scripts. He expressed annoyance with much modern theatre, stating that "I'm tired of theatricalism for theatricalism's sake, where everything is moving around on stage, but nothing moves an audience."

For many years he had a country home near his friend Arthur Miller. "Arthur has never acknowledged the fact that I've ever written a play," he said. "We don't talk about plays when we're together. We talk about tennis." His first wife died in 1956, after which he married the actress Teresa Wright. Though they divorced in 1978 they remained close friends and Wright, who died in 2005, always talked warmly about him.

Robert Woodruff Anderson, writer: born New York 28 April 1917; married 1940 Phyllis Stohl (died 1956), 1959 Teresa Wright (marriage dissolved 1978, died 2005); died New York 9 February 2009.