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Celebrated playwright Israel Horovitz directs first movie

Playwright and filmmaker Israel Horovitz sits on the back of his car showing his vanity plate.

Mark Lorenz for the Boston Globe

Playwright and filmmaker Israel Horovitz sits on the back of his car showing his vanity plate.

Israel Horovitz’s summer home on East Gloucester’s Beacon Hill doesn’t look like the palace of a celebrated playwright. Built around 1829, it feels like the funky fisherman’s cottage it probably was. A 1980 Fiat convertible, once bright yellow and now a faded lemon, sits in the driveway. The license plate -- “AUTHOR” -- is the only sign of a creative mind at work.

Horovitz, 75, also has an apartment in New York’s West Village where he lives much of the year. He spends four months in France, where he holds the record as the most-produced American playwright in the country’s history. He has written more than 70 works for the stage, won two Obies, and was named a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government. He has written a celebrated cycle of plays set in Boston’s blue-collar North Shore towns and produced many of them at the theater company he founded 35 years ago in Gloucester. His son, Adam Horovitz, was a Beastie Boy. His daughter Rachael produced “Moneyball” and “About Schmidt”. What hasn’t Horovitz done?

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Direct a feature film. Until now.

With the world premiere of “My Old Lady” at the Toronto International Film festival on Sept. 7, the Wakefield-born Horovitz takes a big item off his bucket list. An adaptation of Horovitz’s 1996 play, “Lady” stars Kevin Kline as a down-and-out New Yorker who comes to Paris to claim an inherited apartment only to find an elderly woman (Maggie Smith) living there with her middle-aged daughter (Kristin Scott-Thomas). Revelations, bleakly comic melodrama, and expertly calibrated performances ensue.

Israel Horovitz’s “My Old Lady” stars Maggie Smith and Kevin Kline.

Israel Horovitz’s “My Old Lady” stars Maggie Smith and Kevin Kline.

The kid’s got promise, and he’s looking forward to his trip to Toronto next week to show off his baby. But why now? Sitting in the side yard of his Gloucester home on a glorious late-summer morning, Horovitz muses over his career with the energy of a man half his age. “It comes from being 75 years old,” he says. “I wanted to do something that scared me -- something that really was new.”

Horovitz’s career first took flight in New York in 1968, when the 27-year-old playwright had four works staged, one of which was the Obie-winning “The Indian Wants the Bronx,” a one-act drama that starred two unknowns named Al Pacino and John Cazale. (Four years later they’d be cast as brothers Michael and Fredo Corleone in “The Godfather.”) He has written for the movies -- notably 1982’s “Author! Author!,” in which Pacino played a suspiciously Horovitz-ian playwright -- and made a personal documentary about his reaction to 9/11 (2002’s unreleased “3 Weeks After Paradise”), but “My Old Lady” is the first movie that belongs to Horovitz alone.

So how does a respected writer who has never taken charge of a film set go about the job? Surround himself with experts. “I got a designer from [director Philippe] Le Guay,” Horovitz admits. “I got [Pedro] Almodovar’s sound guy. For years I admired a director of photography named Michel Amathieu. I lined the crew up and just said, ‘Can you help me?’”

Part of the pleasure of the shoot was that it provided family bonding time with the writer’s daughter Rachael, who co-produced “My Old Lady” with Hollywood veteran Gary Foster. For the younger Horovitz, it turned out to be a cherished experience. “We have a very close relationship, but my father is all about work in that way that artists are,” she says in a phone interview. “So working with him was like having a window into an aspect of his inner life. I’ve dealt with other first-time directors before, but none as experienced in the world as he is.”

The older Horovitz first came to Paris in the late 1960s to see a production of “The Indian Wants the Bronx” -- starring a very young Gerard Depardieu -- and was approached by an actress who said Samuel Beckett wanted to meet him. “When my heart started beating again I said yes. I was 27 and we met and talked for three hours. That started a relationship. I had a tough time with my own father growing up; we have fathers of chance and fathers of choice and Beckett was definitely my father of choice. He used to say, ‘How can you bring children into a world like this?’ and I would say ‘What am I supposed to do with my three kids? Shoot them?’”

So Europe has a large claim on Horovitz’s life and imagination. So does his slice of New York, where he and second wife, the British marathon runner Gillian Adams, sometimes putter about in the front yard just to watch the grandchildren walk by on their way to school. (The writer’s first wife, painter Doris Keefe, died in 1986, many years after their divorce.)

And the towns and people of Boston’s North Shore communities own a sizable chunk of his psyche as well. There’s the bygone Wakefield of his youth, and Gloucester, where he co-founded the Gloucester Stage Company in 1979 and ran it for 28 years before handing the reins to others. (The GSC will be holding a benefit screening of “My Old Lady” on Sept. 15 at the Cape Ann Playhouse in town. The film opens theatrically in the Boston area on Sept. 19.)

He has written many plays about the places and the people in this neck of the woods. “North Shore Fish,” about the long, slow fade of the area’s fishing industry, was first staged in the mid-’80s and as recently as last year in Gloucester. Horovitz also wrote about the scourge of heroin addiction in 1985’s “Henry Lumper” and had a bucket of fish heads thrown on his lawn in response.

“People said to me, ‘You’ve just put the dirtiest possible line of laundry out for everyone to see,’” he recalls.

Over time, though, he has come to seem the region’s ambassador to the world. Says Robert Boulrice, Board President of the Gloucester Stage Company, “To me the most remarkable thing about Israel is that he’s writing about fishermen and mothers and husbands in Gloucester, and it’s translated into French, German and God only knows how many other languages. And people love it. That’s a special craft and Israel has it.” Horovitz himself is warier to commit to North Shore sainthood. “I’ve been here for 40 years, and I’m still a newcomer, and that’s just the way it is,” he says.

Even though he talks with the broad “a” of a local, it took Horovitz some time to find that voice in theatrical terms. “When I was young, Thornton Wilder was a kind of mentor at the end of his life. ... I wrote a seven-play cycle called the Wakefield plays that were set in Massachusetts and full of literary allusions and grad student [nonsense]. And Wilder said, ‘There isn’t a lot of Wakefield in those plays.’ I was really startled. I thought, the guy who created Grover’s Corners just said that.

“Later I wrote four short plays that I thought really captured the dialect and attitudes that I grew up with. For the first time, I had a sense of place. I took them to Wilder and he said, ‘It’s wonderful: If you write about one place and you get it right, its going to be right for the world.’”

Maybe that’s why they love Israel Horovitz in France -- and everywhere else.

Playwright and filmmaker Israel Horovitz at his Gloucester home.

Mark Lorenz for the Boston Globe

Playwright and filmmaker Israel Horovitz at his Gloucester home.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.
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