‘Writer’s writer’ won Emmys for scripts in 1950s, 1970s

Times Staff Writer

James Costigan, one of the bright lights of TV’s golden age of drama in the 1950s and the Emmy Award-winning writer of the prestigious 1970s TV movies “Love Among the Ruins” and “Eleanor and Franklin,” has died. He was 81.

Costigan died of heart failure Dec. 19 at his home on Bainbridge Island, Wash., his niece, Shannon Berry, said this week.

An actor and writer, Costigan first achieved notice in the 1950s writing for TV dramatic anthology series such as “Kraft Television Theatre” and “Studio One.”


He won his first Emmy in 1959 for his original teleplay “Little Moon of Alban,” a critically acclaimed segment of “Hallmark Hall of Fame.” Set in the early 1920s during the Irish War of Independence, it starred Julie Harris and Christopher Plummer.

“James was a wonderful writer and a wonderful man,” Harris told The Times on Wednesday. She appeared in other Costigan-written TV dramas in the ‘50s and starred in “Little Moon of Alban” during its brief run on Broadway in 1960.

Costigan also received an Emmy nomination for his 1959 adaptation of “The Turn of the Screw” for “Startime,” for which Ingrid Bergman won an Emmy.

But for the next dozen years or so, as he saw television increasingly devote itself to cowboys, sitcoms and cop shows, Costigan turned his attention elsewhere.

That included writing “Baby Want a Kiss,” a Broadway comedy in which he co-starred with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward for four months in 1964.

In the early ‘70s, however, Costigan saw that television was again becoming a medium for serious writing as he watched acclaimed movies such as “The Glass House” and “Brian’s Song,” he told The Times in 1975.


In 1972, he wrote “A War of Children,” about two Northern Ireland families -- one Protestant and one Catholic -- who find their friendship threatened by violence; it won an Emmy for outstanding single program.

In 1975, Costigan won his second writing Emmy -- for “Love Among the Ruins.” A romantic comedy set in Edwardian England, it was directed by George Cukor and starred Katharine Hepburn and Laurence Olivier.

Cecil Smith, The Times’ television critic, called it “a production so rich and lustrous that you would like to take the two-hour film and bottle it in your cellar like rare wine.”

Costigan’s third writing Emmy came in 1976 for the two-part, four-hour drama “Eleanor and Franklin,” an adaptation of Joseph P. Lash’s bestselling biography, starring Jane Alexander and Edward Herrmann.

Costigan also received an Emmy nomination for the 1977 sequel, “Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years.”

In 1979, the Writers Guild of America awarded him its Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award, citing him as a writer who “advanced the literature of television through the years, and who has made outstanding contributions to the profession of the television writer.”

“Jim Costigan was a writer’s writer,” former Writers Guild of America president Del Reisman said in a statement to The Times this week. “He was admired for his insight into the complexities of the human heart. . . . His characters throbbed with life.”

Costigan was born March 31, 1926, in Belvedere Gardens in East Los Angeles, where his parents owned a hardware store.

He launched his acting career as a teenager in 1940, first in Los Angeles then, accompanied by his older sister, Patricia, for a time in New York City.

After a stint in the U.S. Army stationed at Ft. Bliss, Texas, he moved to New York in 1947 and resumed his acting career as a stock and touring actor.

On television in the early ‘50s, he played leads in several live television productions, including “Rain No More,” a segment of “Kraft Television Theatre” that he wrote.

Time magazine later described the “slight, unprepossessing man with a boyish face and frizzly red hair” as an “actor of considerable force.”

But his “dismal” years as a Broadway hopeful, the magazine noted, “helped turn Costigan into a TV playwright.”

In 1953 alone, he turned out four original TV plays and six adaptations, which provided enough income to spend a year in France and Ireland.

After what Time characterized as 26 “frustrating weeks” under contract as a studio writer in Hollywood, Costigan “began to hit his stride” as a writer with adaptations of “Cradle Song” and “The Lark” for “Hallmark Hall of Fame.”

As a writer in the 1980s, Costigan collaborated on the feature films “The Hunger,” “King David” and “Mr. North.”

He also moved from his longtime Connecticut home to Washington, where he was known for being reclusive.

Lee Gomes, one of Costigan’s closest neighbors on Bainbridge Island, told The Times this week that Costigan once mentioned that Hepburn had visited him on the island early on.

But Gomes said he never saw Costigan receive visitors in the 18 years he knew him. “He was basically a loner,” said Gomes.

“There were two or three people here he’d talk to, but generally he’d ignore everybody. He just didn’t need or want company. . . . He was a brilliant person, no question. But he had no demonstrable ego, no ‘Hey, look who I am,’ or anything like that. He’d just as soon people ignore him.”

In addition to his niece Berry, Costigan is survived by another niece and a nephew.