John Bishop, 77; playwright and screenwriter

Times Staff Writer

John Bishop, a playwright and screenwriter who was a longtime member of the acclaimed off-Broadway Circle Repertory Company in New York as both a writer and director and later founded the Circle West theater company in Los Angeles, has died. He was 77.

Bishop, an Encino resident, died of cancer Dec. 20 in a clinic in Bad Heilbrunn, Germany, said his wife, Lisa.

Once described in the New Yorker as “one of our best dramatists,” Bishop had two of his plays produced on Broadway: “The Trip Back Down,” a drama about a washed-up stock car driver, in 1977; and “The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940,” a sendup of vintage murder-mystery comedies that he wrote and directed, in 1987.

Bishop also wrote the book for the musical “Elmer Gantry,” which was produced at Ford’s Theatre in Washington in 1988 and again in 1995; it had its West Coast premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1991.


A member of the now-defunct Circle Repertory Company from the late ‘70s to the mid-'90s, when he moved to Los Angeles full time, Bishop had several of his plays produced by Circle Rep, including “Borderlines” (the umbrella title for two of his one-act plays), “The Great Grandson of Jedediah Kohler,” “Winter Signs” and “The Harvesting.”

He also directed Circle Rep productions of “The Beaver Coat,” “El Salvador,” “Florida Crackers” and several of his own plays, including “Empty Hearts,” which received a Kennedy Center grant.

“John was one of our major writers,” Marshall W. Mason, founding artistic director of the Circle Repertory Company, told The Times this week. “I think next to Lanford Wilson, he was our most prominent writer; he wrote many plays for us,” including “The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940.”

Mason had seen Bishop’s “The Trip Back Down” on Broadway in 1977 and invited him to join Circle Rep, which was once described in the New York Times as “one of Off Broadway’s most enduring and valuable spawning grounds for new work.”


“The Trip Back Down,” Mason said, “was about a race-car driver who had achieved great success and now is on the downside of his career, and he revisits the wife that he left behind and other people from his hometown. It’s a very, very moving play; quite wonderful.”

Mason said that Bishop “had a remarkable insight into the dark side of human nature, which he saw in both a comic and satiric way. He wrote a lot about the police and various murder-mystery kinds of things. ‘The Harvesting’ was about a policeman tracking down a serial killer, as I recall. All this served him very well when he came to Hollywood because of that sardonic view, and also he was very into action. He made a good screenwriter as a result.”

Bishop’s screen credits include co-writing “Drop Zone,” a 1994 action-thriller starring Wesley Snipes; and writing “The Package,” a 1989 crime-drama starring Gene Hackman. In 1993, after doing rewrites on several Paramount Pictures films, including “Sliver” and “Beverly Hills Cops III,” Bishop signed an exclusive two-year deal with the studio and did rewrites on “Clear and Present Danger” and other films.

In 1997, he founded Circle West and served as artistic director until his death. The company produced five plays, including Bishop’s “Legacies,” a police-detective drama that was performed at the Matrix Theatre in 2001.


James Burke, a Circle West producer and board member, said that a number of actors from Circle Rep who had moved to Los Angeles to pursue work in film and television approached Bishop and said they would like to start a West Coast version of the respected theater company.

“It really started in John and Lisa’s living room,” Burke said. “It was readings of plays -- actors and a few directors coming together to explore writing mostly.”

Added Burke, a partner in a film and theater production company: “I really believe that John was one of the great playwrights and writers of film. He had an extraordinary ability to understand the sort of emotional complexities of men. ‘Legacies’ is a perfect example of a play he wrote that is really geared toward the power and the struggle of men.”

The son of a foreman for Westinghouse, Bishop was born in Mansfield, Ohio, on May 3, 1929.


He majored in theater at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and launched his career in the theater as an actor at the Cleveland Playhouse. He also served in the Marines.

Bishop made his directing debut in New York in 1964 with a musical version of “Little Women.” Two of Bishop’s one-act plays -- “Cabin 12" and “Confluence” -- were included in volumes of “Best Short Plays.” He also wrote the multimedia presentation “The Baseball Experience” for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.

His last project was his first novel, “Where Evil Lives,” a thriller that he completed shortly before his death.

In addition to his wife of 12 years, Bishop is survived by his children, Matthew, Michael and Christopher, from his previous marriage; and two grandchildren.


A memorial celebration for Bishop is pending.