The writer that probably first comes to mind when you think about the modern classic film Tootsie is Larry Gilbert. But the co-writer of the script was Murray Schisgal. The Oscar and Tony-nominated Schisgal was born in Brooklyn and turns 90 in November. He had his Broadway debut in 1965 with a play he’d written called Luv.
I tracked down an interview he did in 1992 for the theater collection of the American Jewish Committee Oral History Library. Ruth Simon asked Murray this question; “Mr. Schisgal, you are as prolific as any playwright today. What brought you to the theater?”
“Frustration, bitterness and hate for my fellow human beings. I started out writing novels and short stories and I could not get any of it published and so, out of frustration, I started writing plays, being ill prepared to do so, having taken no classes or doing anything other than reading plays, reading every play I could get my hands on. I didn’t even go to the theater that much. But nonetheless, the first plays I wrote included The Tiger and The Typist and I was able to get them produced within a short period and so my future was cast.”
NYPL Digital Collections
I’m not sure how long Schisgal toiled in writing novels and short stories, but he said he began writing plays in 1958, and his Oscar-nomination for Toostie that hot theaters in 1982—so put that down as a 25-year dramatic writing journey to hit that plateau.
He also spent time in the South Pasific after he joined the Navy as a teenager during World War II. And he attended college and law school and worked as a lawyer for a couple of years before realizing he couldn’t practice law and commit enough time to writing. So he quit law and got a part time job to “pay the bills” and found he was able to write three or four hours a day.
His approach to writing was instinctual and self-taught so he shunned learning from teachers or books on writing. He admitted that lead to some sloppy work, but added “I would rather write and throw it away than go through all the steps that are asked for in some of these books I’ve read about how to go about writing a play.”
He was 31 when his first play was produced, but he didn’t start making a living until he was 35 or 36 year old. Find what path works for you. And when you get discouraged remember Schisgal saying “I started out writing novels and short stories and I could not get any of it published.” But he kept writing—and switched to writing plays—and eventually people started noticing his work.
But thanks for the inspiration Mr. Schisgal, because you’ve shown you can be “ill prepared” for the writing task (not even taken a writing class) and still find a way to capture the magic. And his personal story also shows that it can take a little time.
P.S. And as a follow-up to yesterday’s post (How to Get an Agent), UTA agent Peter Dodd said in the Scriptnotes podcast that he does read plays looking for that unique voice that he can rep for TV and film projects.
Tootsie at 30