Thompson, (Richard) Ernest 1949(?)-
THOMPSON, (Richard) Ernest 1949(?)-
PERSONAL: Born November 6, 1949 (one source says 1950), in Bellows Falls, VT; son of Theson Barker Thompson (a college professor and administrator) and Esther (an educator) Thompson Brown-John. Education: Attended University of Maryland, 1967-68, Colorado College, 1969, and Catholic University, 1970; American University, B.A., 1971.
ADDRESSES: Home—1 Spinnaker St., No. 12, Marina del Rey, CA 90292. Offıce—9000 Sunset Blvd., No. 1115, Los Angeles, CA 90069. Agent—Earl Graham, Graham Agency, 317 West 45th St., New York, N.Y. 10022.
CAREER: Actor in television and stage productions, 1971—; playwright and screenwriter, 1977—.
MEMBER: American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, Actors Equity Association, Writers Guild, Screen Actors Guild, Dramatists Guild.
AWARDS, HONORS: Best Play Award, Broadway Drama Guild, 1978-79, for On Golden Pond; Academy Award, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Golden Globe Award, Hollywood Foreign Press Association, and Writers Guild Award for best dramatic screenplay adaptation, all 1981, all for motion picture "On Golden Pond."
Answers (three one-act plays), contains The Constituent, first produced in San Francisco at One-Act Theatre, 1981; Twinkle, Twinkle, first produced in Hartford, CT, at Lunchtime Theatre—The Old Place, October 5, 1981; A Good Time, produced for television, Columbia Broadcasting System, 1982.
On Golden Pond (two-act play; first produced in New York at Hudson Guild Theatre, September 13, 1978; produced on Broadway at New Apollo Theatre, February 28, 1979), Dodd (New York, NY), 1979.
The West Side Waltz: A Play in Three Quarter Time (two-act play; first produced in San Diego at Spreckle Theatre, December, 1980; produced on Broadway at Ethel Barrymore Theatre, November 19, 1981), published with an introduction by Katharine Hepburn, Dodd (new York, NY), 1982.
A Sense of Humor (two-act play; first produced in Denver at Auditorium Theatre, November 16, 1983.
The Kindness of Strangers (one-act play; first produced in Los Angeles at Odyssey Theatre, October, 1980.
The One about the Guy in the Bar, first produced in New York at the Ensemble Studio Theatre, May, 1987.
On Golden Pond (adapted from original stage play of the same title; also see above), Universal, 1981.
Also author of unproduced play Hospice.
SIDELIGHTS: Ernest Thompson, who is best known as the author of both the stage and motion picture versions of On Golden Pond, began his career as an actor before becoming a playwright. His earliest dramatic training was in college theatre productions, and after his graduation he starred in the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) soap opera Somerset for two years. Thompson subsequently performed in two short-lived television drama series, Sierra and West-Side Medical, and acted in stage productions with celebrated actresses such as Jean Stapleton and Alexis Smith. In an interview with Elizabeth Nist of Writer's Digest, he recalled his first attempt at dramatic writing, when he submitted a plot synopsis for an episode of the television series Emergency. The show's story department advised: "Why don't you stick to acting? You'll never be a writer."
Undaunted, Thompson took up playwriting in 1977 out of a sense of "creative frustration" from failing to find employment as an actor in more than a year. "I suppose the major trait I have is self-discipline," he remarked to Richard L. Coe of the Washington Post. "It was that discipline that kept me writing when I couldn't get acting jobs." His first dramatic writing was a group of three one-act plays titled Answers, which initially attracted attention in Hollywood and were finally produced for television by the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) in 1982. Thompson followed these with his first full-length play, Lessons, a comedy about college dramatics.
In September of 1978 Thompson got his first big career break when the respected Hudson Guild Theatre, Off-Broadway, produced his play On Golden Pond. An immediate success, the play moved to the New Apollo Theatre on Broadway within five months. Audiences warmed to Thompson's unabashedly optimistic and sentimental story about a crotchety former college professor named Norman Thayer, who comes to terms with his own mortality and relearns the value of love while spending the summer at his lakeside cottage in Maine. The catalyst for Norman's transformation is a lonely and misunderstood thirteen-year-old named Billy, the son of Norman's daughter's fiance, who is staying with the Thayers for the season. The play examines generational conflicts, the passage to manhood, and the marital bond, as Norman opens his heart to the boy, learns to appreciate his devoted wife, and is reconciled with his estranged daughter. In the opinion of Chicago Tribune critic Richard Christiansen, On Golden Pond is a "glowing hymn to the renewal of life, a gentle poem to the sweet sadness of growing old, and a serene acceptance of life ending in death."
In March of 1980, shortly after On Golden Pond opened at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, actress Jane Fonda bought the film rights to the play. Fonda had been looking for several years for a movie in which to appear with her father, veteran screen actor Henry Fonda, and she found a strong vehicle in Thompson's play. She hired Thompson to write the screenplay, and the movie was released in 1981 with Jane Fonda, Henry Fonda, and Katharine Hepburn in the starring roles. On Golden Pond won an Oscar for best screenplay adaptation for Thompson, and best actress and actor Oscars for Hepburn and Fonda respectively. In addition, Thompson was awarded a Golden Globe Award and a Writers Guild Award for the screenplay.
His next dramatic production, The West Side Waltz: A Play in Three Quarter Time, opened on Broadway in 1981, once again starring Hepburn in a leading role. This time she played Margaret Mary Elderdice, a proud and bossy pianist who is confronting a physical decline that she fears will compromise her independence. Forced to supplement her income by renting out a room in her New York apartment, she passes over an old friend, choosing instead a young aspiring actress to be her tenant. Margaret Mary gains a new enthusiasm for life as she sets out to organize her young roommate's career and to teach her to be more self-confident. The actress blossoms under the older woman's counsel, but she eventually falls in love and moves out of the apartment, leaving Margaret Mary hurt and upset over this unexpected display of initiative. The experience ends as a much-needed exercise in humility for Margaret Mary, who finally concedes to let her silly but good-hearted friend move in. Critics found The West Side Waltz somewhat cliched and dramatically incoherent, but they deemed Hepburn's performance a tour de force.
Thompson offered a startlingly new dramatic vision with his next play, A Sense of Humor. At its trial run at Denver's Auditorium Theatre in November, 1983, the drama stunned audiences with its bleak and abrasive humor, which was a break from the tradition of his earlier works. A Sense of Humor starred Jack Lemmon as a supermarket manager who makes brutal jokes in an attempt to deal with the rage and guilt he feels over his daughter's suicide. Because the initial Denver audience found parts of the play very offensive, Thompson rewrote those parts before A Sense of Humor opened in Los Angeles in December, 1983. But he argued that the play was intentionally jarring. "This isn't just a labor of love; it's my 'essential' play," Thompson explained to Sylvie Drake of the Los Angeles Times. "It comes from a point of real anger and pain. . . . This one's from the gut." The star of the controversial play, Jack Lemmon, conceded that A Sense of Humor is a "very rough play—extraordinary, shocking, different, and strange." But he added, "Never, with all the good fortune I've had . . . have I been involved in anything I've considered more worthwhile."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Chicago Tribune, January 23, 1981.
Los Angeles Times, December 1, 1983.
New York Times, November 20, 1981, December 4, 1981.
Time, November 30, 1981, April 12, 1982.
Washington Post, October 1, 1978, March 18, 1982, March 19, 1982.
Writer's Digest, July, 1982.*