NEW YORK — Jack Richardson, a playwright who burst onto the New York theatrical scene in the early 1960s and then almost as quickly vanished from it, died Sunday at his home in Manhattan. He was 78.
His wife, film editor Susan E. Morse, said that he had many health problems in recent decades, including heart attacks and cancer, but that there was no specific cause of death.
Mr. Richardson’s first play — ‘‘The Prodigal,’’ a reimagining of the drama ‘‘Orestes,’’ by Euripides — was produced off Broadway in 1960 and won Obie and Drama Desk awards. Walter Kerr, in The New York Herald Tribune, said that with ‘‘The Prodigal,’’ which used Greek mythology to illuminate 20th-century man’s subservience to society, Mr. Richardson ‘‘may very well have made a permanent contribution to the contemporary repertory.’’
At the outset of the 1960s, four young playwrights — Edward Albee, Arthur Kopit, Jack Gelber, and Mr. Richardson — were frequently mentioned as the American theater’s best prospects for the future since the emergence of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. The four were simultaneously active in the playwrights unit of the Actors Studio in New York in the 1962-63 season.
Mr. Richardson definitively claimed a position in this quartet in 1961 with ‘‘Gallows Humor,’’ a play in two parts that told the tale of an execution from the perspectives of the executioner and the condemned man. Death has a speaking part and complains that it has become difficult for him to ‘‘to tell the hangman from the hanged.’’
In his 1964 book, ‘‘The Theater of Protest and Paradox,’’ George Wellwarth wrote that Mr. Richardson had the ability to put across a didactic message while being entertaining.
Two of Mr. Richardson’s plays were produced on Broadway: ‘‘Lorenzo’’ in 1963 and ‘‘Xmas in Las Vegas’’ in 1965, but both closed after four performances. In 1976, Mr. Richardson said he was not inclined to return to Broadway as ‘‘the frustrations are just too much.’’
After those failures, he turned to writing magazine articles and books and for years was drama critic for Commentary. Among his books was ‘‘Memoir of a Gambler’’ (1979), which he wrote after persuading a publisher to send him around the world to immerse himself in gambling of all kinds, and which included a presumably fanciful conversation with the devil.
Jack Carter Richardson was born on Feb. 18, 1934, and grew up in Jackson Heights, Queens. (His wife said she was not sure where he was born; published reports say both Bristol, Va., and Manhattan.) His father, Arthur, co-wrote the popular ‘‘Too Fat Polka (She’s Too Fat for Me)’’ and played piano in speakeasies during Prohibition. After his mother died and his father remarried, Jack was raised by his grandmother.
His original ambition was to be a tap dancer, and he had a small role in a road company of ‘‘Pal Joey.’’ He enlisted in the US Army after graduating from Collegiate High School in Manhattan and served in Frankfurt and Paris writing items about soldiers for their hometown newspapers. In his spare time, he studied philosophy and fine arts at the University of Paris.
After his discharge, he studied philosophy at Columbia. In 1957 he received a Konrad-Adenauer Fellowship to study philosophy at the University of Munich. He returned to New York believing important ideas can be more effectively conveyed onstage than in the classroom.
In 1957 he married Anne Roth, who, after their divorce and under her new name, Anne Roiphe, wrote an autobiographical novel, ‘‘Torch Song’’ (1977), in which the character modeled on Mr. Richardson is portrayed in a highly unflattering light. Mr. Richardson dismissed the portrayal as trash.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Richardson leaves a daughter from his first marriage, Emily Carter, and a son from his second, Dwight.
Morse speculated that her husband did not return to writing plays because of fears that he could not match his early success, as well as repeated illnesses and an addiction to cocaine, which he overcame. In 1976, The Times suggested that Mr. Richardson and other playwrights of the early 1960s had struggled to adjust to changes in theatrical presentation.
Not all of Mr. Richardson’s achievements involved writing. In 1963, he helped his friend Elaine Kaufman establish her Upper East Side restaurant, Elaine’s, as a hangout for the literati and other celebrities. He advised her to get larger tables, so people could visit one another, as they do in Paris cafes. He promised to provide writers. And he did.