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    HomeLifeStyleRobert Patrick, Early and Prolific Playwright of Gay Life, Dies at 85

    Robert Patrick, Early and Prolific Playwright of Gay Life, Dies at 85

    Robert Patrick, a wildly prolific playwright who rendered gay (and straight) life with caustic wit, an open heart and fizzy camp, and whose 1964 play, “The Haunted Host,” became a touchstone of early gay theater, died on April 23 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 85.

    The cause was atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, said Jason Jenn, a friend.

    Mr. Patrick’s story is intertwined with that of Caffe Cino, the West Village coffee shop that was the accidental birthplace of Off Off Broadway theater. One day in 1961, a 24-year-old Mr. Patrick followed a cute boy with long hair into the place, where the playwrights John Guare, Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson and, soon, Mr. Patrick, all got their starts. The cute boy was John P. Dodd, who went on to be a well-known lighting designer and die of AIDS in 1991.

    The cafe, run by a former dancer named Joe Cino, was scrappy, original and unpretentious, decorated with tinsel and silver stars that hung from the ceiling. Actors performed among the tables and chairs until they built a small stage. No one was paid, except the cops, because Mr. Cino was not just running an unlicensed cabaret but also a gay hangout, which was illegal in the early 1960s. Its young playwrights, particularly Mr. Patrick, churned out plays, playlets and monologues akin to TikToks, as Don Shewey, the author and theater critic, said in a phone interview.

    Mr. Patrick told Broadway World in 2004: “We wrote for each other, and it turned out there was an audience that without knowing it had been dying for personal, political, philosophical theater. And a few years after the Cino began doing original plays, there were over 300 Off Off Broadway theaters.”

    Mr. Patrick worked at the cafe as a doorman, a dishwasher and a waiter before writing his first play, “The Haunted Host.” It features Jay, a gay playwright who is haunted by the ghost of his lover, who died by suicide. Frank, a hustler who happens to be straight, wants help with a play and needs a place to spend the night.

    The dialogue is tart and snappy, as Jay rebuffs the young man and his work, razzes him about his sexuality — “Tell me, Frank, how long have you been heterosexual? Started as a kid, huh? Tsk-tsk” — and finally throws him out in the morning and in so doing exorcises the ghost.

    Early in the play, when Frank asks Jay how his lover died, Jay answers curtly, “Alone.”

    “Oh. Suicide?” Frank asks, to which Jay replies, “No, thanks, I just had one.”

    The play was not exactly a runaway hit in 1964, but it found new life in 1976, when it was revived in Boston with a very young Harvey Fierstein in the lead role. Mr. Fierstein reprised it again in 1991, at La MaMa in the East Village.

    “All these years later,” Howard Kissel wrote in his review for The Daily News, “‘Host’ has taken on a certain poignancy. It predates the gay rights movement and AIDS. It radiates an innocence no longer attainable.”

    Its significance was recognized in hindsight as an early example of a work with a gay person as the hero, and with themes that were universal: love, grief, self-respect.

    “It was so much before its time,” Mr. Fierstein said in a phone interview. “Here you have a play where the strange person, the bizarre person, the person who was the antagonist, was the heterosexual. The normal person, the one with real emotion and real love, was the gay character. We forget our history, and now we have people who want to erase our history. This is why Robert’s work is so important.”

    Mr. Cino died by suicide in 1967, and Caffe Cino limped along for a year afterward. Mr. Patrick kept writing, and writing. Over the decades he wrote hundreds of plays as well as countless songs, poems and short stories, a memoir and at least one novel.

    “They just poured out of him,” Mr. Fierstein said.

    One work, many years in the making, was “Kennedy’s Children,” an affecting drama set in a bar on the Bowery one Valentine’s Day in the early 1970s. Five characters, including a disillusioned actor who was a proxy for Mr. Patrick, declaim their isolation and anomie in monologues that ruminate on the legacy of the ’60s — its failed promise and heartbreak.

    Mr. Patrick began working on the play in 1968. It was first produced in 1973 at Playwrights Horizons in Manhattan, but, as Mr. Patrick said, nobody came and nobody reviewed it. It then made its way to a tiny theater in London and had runs in similar small theaters around the world before returning to London and opening to great acclaim in the West End, followed by a Broadway production in 1975, for which the actress Shirley Knight won a Tony.

    “The wit is as hard as nails and as sharp,” Clive Barnes of The New York Times wrote in his review. “Mr. Patrick hears well and writes so colloquially, so idiomatically, that you could actually be eavesdropping on the drunken but revealing, paranoid but illuminating meanderings of the barstool set of bad cafe society.”

    Later work included “T-Shirts” (1980), which Mr. Shewey, in his review for The Soho News, described as a comic romp about the gay generation gap as well as “a schematic attack on the values of the gay male world, charging that money, youth and beauty have become as interchangeable as, well, T-shirts.”

    “Blue Is for Boys” (1987) is a nutty farce about an apartment converted into a dorm for gay male college students. “Camera Obscura,” a playlet about a boy and a girl who struggle to communicate, was first performed at Caffe Cino in 1966 and became a staple of high school drama festivals and regional theaters.

    For a while, Mr. Patrick was known, perhaps a bit hyperbolically, as the world’s most produced playwright, with his work performed at small theaters in Minneapolis, Toronto, Vienna, Brazil and New Zealand, often all at the same time. In 1978, The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported, “Certain works, such as ‘Kennedy’s Children’ and ‘Camera Obscura,’ are quite probably being done somewhere every day of the year.”

    Robert Patrick O’Connor was born on Sept. 27, 1937, in Kilgore, in eastern Texas. His parents, Robert and Jo Adelle (Goodson) O’Conner, were itinerant workers who moved constantly throughout the Southwest. The family lived in tents, Mr. Patrick said, until he was 6. He recalled attending 12 schools in one year.

    He spent two years in college before joining the Air Force because he had fallen in love with a “flyboy,” he said. He was kicked out during basic training, however, when a love poem he had written to the airman was found in the man’s wallet. As Mr. Patrick told it, it was discovered during an Air Force sting operation in the restroom of a local hotel that gay servicemen were using as a rendezvous spot. Mr. Patrick’s love poem was for naught anyway; the man had already ditched him, he wrote, for a captain with a Cadillac.

    Mr. Patrick never stopped writing plays, but in later years he paid the rent by working as a ghost writer and as an usher for the Ford Theater in Los Angeles, where he moved in the 1990s; he also wrote reviews of pornographic movies. For the last decade or so, he performed a cabaret act at Planet Queer, a riotous variety show held weekly at a bar in Los Angeles.

    He is survived by his sister, Angela Patrice Musick.

    In 2014, Henrik Eger of The Seattle Gay News asked Mr. Patrick if there was anything he hadn’t yet done but wished he had.

    “True love,” he said. “And I would like to have the money to build or buy a theater in L.A. with enough ground space that I could call it Robert Patrick’s Free Parking Theater, because in L.A. the theater would fill up for every performance no matter what show was on, just because of the magic words ‘Free Parking.’ Then I could do whatever plays I liked.”

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