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James Kirkwood; Co-Wrote ‘Chorus Line’

Times Staff Writer

Actor, novelist and playwright James Kirkwood, who won a Pulitzer Prize as co-author of “A Chorus Line,” the longest-running musical in Broadway history, died of cancer at his Manhattan apartment, friends said Saturday.

Kirkwood, 64, died Friday shortly after being released from a hospital stay in New York City, said Nicholas Dante, Kirkwood’s partner on the famed musical.

“A Chorus Line,” presented in the form of a Broadway musical audition in which dancers are asked to tell something about themselves, garnered both a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize in drama in 1976 and became the longest-running Broadway show with its 3,389th performance. It is still running.

Although Kirkwood generally said he was born in 1930, he had admitted to being born six years earlier. “As an actor, I got in the habit of lying about my age,” he once explained.

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Dante said Kirkwood’s death came as a shock “because it was so very quick. He will really be missed,” Dante said. “He had a great life force and a great curiosity about everything.”

Born in Hollywood, Kirkwood was the son of actor James Kirkwood Sr. and silent picture star Lila Lee.

His youth was spent on the move. By the time he was 17, Kirkwood had attended 18 schools, including a one-room schoolhouse in Friant, Calif., a Catholic military academy, Beverly Hills High School and a New Hampshire prep school, which he later depicted in his novel “Good Times/Bad Times.”

A boyhood tragedy would eventually produce another novel.

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In 1936, when Kirkwood was 12 and living in one of Manhattan Beach’s first cottages, his mother’s boyfriend, Reid Russell, was shot to death on the home’s garden swing. Young James discovered the body. Authorities never determined whether Russell’s death was murder or suicide.

In 1960 Kirkwood wrote about Russell’s death and the difficulty he and his mother had coping with it. The novel, “There Must Be a Pony,” was turned into a play in 1962 and a television movie in 1981.

As an actor, Kirkwood performed on Broadway in “Welcome Darlings,” “Panama Hattie” and “Wonderful Town,” and had roles in the films “Mommie Dearest” and “Oh God, Book II.” He also worked the nightclub circuit in a comedy team with Lee Goodman.

Actress Tallulah Bankhead, who appeared with Kirkwood in “Welcome Darlings” and was entranced by his storytelling, urged him to try his hand at writing.

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He subsequently wrote the best-selling novel “P.S. Your Cat Is Dead!” and also wrote the novel “Hit Me With a Rainbow” and the nonfiction work “American Grotesque,” about a conspiracy in the aftermath of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

Kirkwood was a late addition to the creative frustration that produced “A Chorus Line.”

The play had been conceived by director Michael Bennett, who tape-recorded some all-night talk sessions with a group of dancers.

Bennett and Dante edited the tapes and then developed the play in a theater workshop. But they were not satisfied and brought in Kirkwood, whose appearance marked the beginning of several reworkings.

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“A lot of sweat and work went into writing it, but we had a really wonderful time,” Dante said several years ago. “It was the best time in my life and I know it was the best time in Jimmy’s life too.”

Just before his death, Kirkwood wrote a nonfiction book, “Diary of a Mad Playwright,” about his dealings with actress Mary Martin and Carol Channing in a play called “Legends.” It was expected to be published by E. P. Dutton in June.

Known for his bleak wit, Kirkwood once remarked: “Life has got to be one huge joke. To my knowledge, nobody has ever come up with a logical explanation that fits any other alternative. But as long as we’ve been placed on the joke-board, there’s nothing to do but play along with as much humor as possible.”

Kirkwood is survived by a half-brother and a half-sister.

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A spokesman for the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel in Manhattan, where the funeral is to be held, said arrangements were pending.


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