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Revered as a national treasure of American theater, playwright Richard Nelson achieved fame for both his original plays as well as his interpretations of the classics. Fresh out of college, Nelson turned his interest in journalism into fodder for such early dramatic efforts as "The Killing of Yablonski" and "Jungle Coup" in the late-1970s. At New York's Playwrights Horizons, Nelson earned accolades for such plays as "The Vienna Notes" and gained recognition for his respected adaptations of the work of Chekhov and other iconic playwrights. Having lived abroad for a number of years, Nelson became interested in the differences between European and American cultures and explored those themes in plays like "Between East and West" (1983), "Chess" (1988) and "Some Americans Abroad" (1989). He later ventured into writing for the screen with the teleplay "Sensibility and Sense" (PBS, 1990) and the feature adaptation of Edith Wharton's "Ethan Frome" (1993). Over the following decade, Nelson's continued work for the stage included his Tony Award-winning book for the musical adaptation of "James Joyce's The Dead" and the biographical drama "Frank's Home." He returned to screenwriting with an adaptation of his...
Revered as a national treasure of American theater, playwright Richard Nelson achieved fame for both his original plays as well as his interpretations of the classics. Fresh out of college, Nelson turned his interest in journalism into fodder for such early dramatic efforts as "The Killing of Yablonski" and "Jungle Coup" in the late-1970s. At New York's Playwrights Horizons, Nelson earned accolades for such plays as "The Vienna Notes" and gained recognition for his respected adaptations of the work of Chekhov and other iconic playwrights. Having lived abroad for a number of years, Nelson became interested in the differences between European and American cultures and explored those themes in plays like "Between East and West" (1983), "Chess" (1988) and "Some Americans Abroad" (1989). He later ventured into writing for the screen with the teleplay "Sensibility and Sense" (PBS, 1990) and the feature adaptation of Edith Wharton's "Ethan Frome" (1993). Over the following decade, Nelson's continued work for the stage included his Tony Award-winning book for the musical adaptation of "James Joyce's The Dead" and the biographical drama "Frank's Home." He returned to screenwriting with an adaptation of his own radio play, "Hyde Park on Hudson" (2012), starring Bill Murray as Franklin D. Roosevelt. Endlessly fascinated by human nature and cultural dissimilarities, Nelson continued to probe these themes with a narrative voice as relatable as it was unique.
Born Richard John Nelson on Oct. 17, 1950 in Chicago, IL, he was the son of dancer Viola Gabriel and Richard Finis Nelson, a sales representative. Due to the nature of his fathers' work, Nelson's childhood was a nomadic one, moving throughout the Midwest, with stays in Indiana and Michigan. Initially interested in a career in journalism, he attended New York State University where a passion for drama and theater soon began to take hold. Focusing on play writing, he saw many of his earliest works produced during his time at the university. After college graduation, Nelson spent a year abroad in England before returning home in 1973 and working on several radio plays, many of which focused on such contemporary political events as the Watergate scandal. Not long after, Nelson had his first professionally mounted production at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum with "The Killing of Yablonski: Scenes of Involvement" (1975), a drama influenced by his early days in journalism about a reporter's investigation of an assassination. Journalists also figured prominently in his next two productions, "Conjuring the Event" (1976), once again at the Taper, and "Jungle Coup" (1978), one of his earliest productions at New York's Playwrights Horizons.
Nelson followed later that year with a production of "The Vienna Notes" - also staged at Playwrights Horizons - which earned him an OBIE award and firmly established his reputation as an emerging voice on the theatrical scene at a national level. Nelson picked up a second OBIE for his contributions as literary manager to the innovative programming at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Theatre Company during the 1979-1980 season. With his talents and insight in high demand, Nelson was recruited as a dramaturge for such renowned international directors as David Jones, Liviu Cliulei and Gregory Mosher in the years that followed. He further expanded his theatrical historical knowledge working on several adaptations of classic works from the likes of Brecht, Moliére and Chekhov. Nelson's experience working on the plays of the Russian playwright - as well as his own increasingly nomadic existence - greatly influenced his own evolving work, efforts that often focused on themes of cultural identity, rootlessness and perceptions of home. Nelson first attempted to explore these notions explicitly on the stages of England with 1983's "Between East and West," which involved an Eastern European couple adrift in New York City.
Nelson made his Broadway debut with an adaptation of Dario Fo's dark political farce "The Accidental Death of an Anarchist" in 1986. The production, starring Jonathan Pryce as a lunatic trickster toying with a corrupt, incompetent police force, unfortunately failed to connect with audiences on the Great White Way, and closed after a mere 20 performances. On a better note, back in the U.K., Nelson won a 1987 Giles Cooper Award for the first of his several radio plays with the BBC, "Languages Spoken Here," a comedy involving themes familiar to the playwright, in which a morally ambiguous writer offers to translate the work of a Polish émigré for reasons not readily apparent. Attempting a triumphant return to Broadway after the disappointment of "Anarchist," Nelson penned the book for the U.S. version of the pop musical "Chess" (1988), from a concept by Tim Rice and ABBA masterminds Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus. Part Cold War tale, part love triangle and set against the backdrop of an international chess tournament rivalry, it failed to generate the consistently large ticket sales that would have ensured a lengthy run.
Continuing to find a more receptive climate on the other side of the Atlantic, Nelson had begun his association with the U.K.'s Royal Shakespeare Company a few years earlier on a production of "Principia Scriptoriae." He continued the fruitful collaboration with the Olivier Award-nominated comedy "Some Americans Abroad" (1989), a companion piece to Mark Twain's popular comedic travel book, The Innocents Abroad. Nelson's hilarious, albeit less than flattering take on Yankee Anglophiles devouring everything and digesting nothing on a theatrical tour of England garnered substantial critical acclaim off-Broadway the following year before moving on to a brief Broadway run. After picking up another Giles Cooper Award for BBC Radio 4's "Eating Words," Nelson made his screenwriting debut when he adapted his play "Sensibility and Sense" for a 1990 episode of "American Playhouse" (PBS, 1981- ). Just on the heels of this auspicious milestone was Nelson's first Tony nomination for the 1992 Broadway mounting of his original play "Two Shakespearean Actors," which had also originated across the pond with the RSC.
The firsts continued for Nelson when he made his feature film debut as the screenwriter for director John Madden's "Ethan Frome" (1993). Based on the tragic New England romance novel by Edith Wharton, the intelligently presented adaptation starred Liam Neeson and Patricia Arquette as two corners of a doomed love-triangle. On the stages of the U.K., the playwright's ongoing collaboration with the RSC continued with 1992's "Columbus and the Discovery of Japan," "Misha's Party" (1993) and "New England" (1995). A sort of mirror image of "Some Americans Abroad," the latter play was another critique of U.S. culture as a group of British ex-pats express their mutual dismay at vulgar stateside behavior, even as they confess their own attraction to it. At last ready to try his hand at directing, Nelson helmed the 1999 production of his Chekhovian play "Goodnight Children Everywhere," yet another investigation of cultural displacement. In one of his bolder ventures, Nelson provided both book and lyrics for a musical interpretation of "James Joyce's The Dead" at Playwrights Horizons in 1999. Featuring a stellar cast that included Blair Brown, Marni Nixon and Christopher Walken, the production's Broadway run of 120 performances the following year earned Nelson a Tony Award for Best Book for a Musical in 2000.
By now more comfortable in the director's chair at his de facto New York home with Playwrights Horizons, Nelson wrote and directed a production of "Rodney's Wife" (2004), starring veteran actor David Strathairn and future film sensation Jessica Chastain. In the summer of 2005, Nelson began a three year stint as the Chairman of the Yale School of Drama's Playwriting Department, during which time he wrote "Frank's Home" (2007), which premiered at Playwrights with Peter Weller as famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Having finished his tenure at Yale Drama, Nelson found the time to write and direct a production of "Conversations in Tusculum" in 2008. Later that year, Nelson was named as a Grand Master of American Theater when he was bestowed with the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award. On a yearly basis from 2010 to 2012, "That Hopey Changey Thing," "Sweet and Sad" and "Sorry," were presented at New York's Joseph Papp Public Theater, all of which were penned by Nelson, who also directed the latter two.
Nearly 20 years after his last cinematic effort, Nelson returned to screenwriting with "Hyde Park on Hudson" (2012), a work based on his earlier produced BBC radio play of the same title. Directed by Roger Michell, it starred Bill Murray as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who while entertaining the visiting British Queen and King (Olivia Colman and Samuel West) at his family retreat in New York in 1939, attempts to manage his growing affection for his cousin, Margaret (Laura Linney), who would eventually become his mistress. While the unconventional casting of Murray as FDR garnered the lion's share of attention from the press, Nelson's witty screenplay drew notice on its own merits and earned the sophomore screenwriter an Independent Spirit Award nomination.
By Bryce Coleman
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CAST: (feature film)
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