Stage Manager, Writer, Designer
( b. 1914 Rhinelander, Wisconsin, USA - d. Dec 21, 2008 Paradise Valley, Arizona, USA ) Male
Dale Wasserman, an autodidact who became the playwright responsible for two Broadway hits of the 1960s, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Man of La Mancha,” died at his home in Paradise Valley, near Phoenix. The year of his birth is sometimes listed as 1917, but his wife, Martha Nelly Wasserman, said that it was 1914 and that her husband was 94 at his death. The cause was congestive heart failure.
Mr. Wasserman wrote more than 75 scripts for television, the stage and the movies, including screenplays for “The Vikings” (1958), a seafaring epic with Tony Curtis and Kirk Douglas, and “A Walk With Love and Death” (1969), a John Huston film set in 14th-century Europe. Mostly he wrote about spirited outsiders, and he himself was never one to go along to get along.
Orphaned before he was 10, he had almost no formal education and spent what he freely recalled as a wayward youth, working odd jobs and riding the rails. He never quite lost his sense of scrapping to keep his place on a moving freight train; as a writer he was known for relishing his role as a gadfly and being cantankerous in professional matters.
“Happily so,” said his longtime assistant, Beatrice Williams-Rude. He feuded with producers, with lawyers and with collaborators including Mr. Douglas, who played the lead role of Randle P. McMurphy in the original Broadway production of “Cuckoo’s Nest”; Mitch Leigh, who wrote the score for “La Mancha”; and John Huston, who gave the lead female role in “Walk” to his teenage daughter, Anjelica, against Mr. Wasserman’s wishes. And he never attended ceremonies to receive the awards he won. He had his wife attend in his stead.
“I seem to offend or intimidate people,” he once said. “But everybody loves Martha.”
After his parents died, Dale was sent to live with uncles and aunts, all in the upper Midwest, but he loved trains more than school, and he did not stick around. He was a hobo, which he described in a recently completed autobiographical monologue for the stage, “Burning in the Night,” as distinct from a tramp or a bum. A hobo, he wrote, is “a wanderer who works.”
“A lumberjack. Woodchopper. Construction stiff, barley bucker, short order cook, merchant mariner,” the character says. “You name it and there was hoboes who could do it. Wouldn’t do it for long, though; the Road was home. Other domiciles was temporary.”
Mr. Wasserman was employed as a lighting designer and eventually a director in theaters in Los Angeles and New York and in Europe. He worked for the impresario Sol Hurok and traveled with the Katherine Dunham Dance Company. Eventually, he would later explain, he learned that everything on a stage was subservient to the text, so he decided to become a writer. In 1955 an early script, “Elisha and the Long Knives,” helped the television series “Matinee Theater” win an Emmy Award, and he went on to write about 30 additional television dramas.
His adaptation of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Ken Kesey’s novel about a ribald and renegade inmate of a mental hospital, made it to Broadway in 1963 and has become a fixture in community theaters. It was revived on Broadway in 2001 with Gary Sinise in the role of McMurphy.
“Man of La Mancha,” for which Mr. Wasserman wrote the book, opened Off Broadway in 1965 and subsequently moved to Broadway. It won the Tony Award for best musical in 1967 and went on to become one of the most beloved shows of all time. The lyrics of its signature anthem, “The Impossible Dream,” come straight from the literary source of the show — not, as is usually assumed, from Cervantes’s “Don Quixote,” but from Mr. Wasserman’s own play, “I, Don Quixote,” which he wrote in the late 1950s.
“It happened by pure accident, actually,” Mr. Wasserman said in an interview that appeared in the literary journal Cervantes in 1999. “I was in Spain writing a movie when I read in a newspaper that I was there for the purpose of researching a dramatization of ‘Don Quixote.’ That was