Hugh Leonard, 82; playwright won four Tonys for ‘Da’
NEW YORK – Hugh Leonard, the prolific Irish playwright, memoirist, travel writer, and dyspeptic newspaper columnist whose autobiographical play “Da” won four Tony Awards in 1978, including best play, died Thursday in Dublin. He was 82 and lived in Dalkey, the Dublin suburb where he grew up.
He died of multiple ailments in a hospital after having been ill for some time, his daughter, Danielle Byrne, said.
Mr. Leonard was a celebrity in Dublin, where his plays were produced at the city’s famed theaters – the Abbey, the Gate, and others – beginning in 1956; where his two volumes of autobiography, “Home Before Night” and “Out After Dark,” were widely read; and where he wrote a weekly column in The Sunday Independent, Ireland’s largest Sunday newspaper.
But in the United States he is largely known for “Da,” which was first produced in 1973 at the Olney Theater Center in Maryland. It tells the story of a successful playwright who returns home to Ireland after the death of his father – his “da” – and finds himself revisiting all the frustrations of their relationship.
“Da” reached Broadway at the tail end of the 1977-78 season and won Tonys for best play, best director (Melvin Bernhardt), best featured actor (Lester Rawlins), and best actor. It was a career-making performance in the title role for Barnard Hughes, who went on to star in the movie version, with Martin Sheen.
Shortly before the play opened on Broadway, Mr. Leonard said in an interview with The New York Times that it is “pretty nearly totally autobiographical.” The title character was based on his own adoptive da, a man named Nicholas Keys who worked as a gardener for a wealthy Dublin family.
Mr. Leonard was born John Joseph Byrne in Dublin to a woman who gave him up for adoption and whom he never met again. Growing up in the Keys family in Dalkey, he assumed the name John Keyes Byrne. (Why he changed the spelling of their name is a mystery, his daughter said.)
Hughie Leonard was the name of a character he created in an early play that was turned down by the Abbey, so as a ruse he submitted his next play, “The Big Birthday,” to the theater with Hugh Leonard listed as the author. The play, a comedy about a party scheduled for the oldest, and possibly the most disagreeable, man in Ireland, was accepted, and a pen name was born.
Of his 30 or so plays, two others reached Broadway, including “The Au Pair Man,” a semi-allegorical tale about relations between England and Ireland, which starred Julie Harris.