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Israel Horovitz dies at 81; playwright and Gloucester Stage founder had faced numerous sexual assault accusations

Playwright Israel Horovitz shown in 2009 at Gloucester Stage Company, the theater company he cofounded.Maisie Crow for The Boston Globe/The Boston Globe

Israel Horovitz, whose substantial legacy as a playwright and the longtime leader of Gloucester Stage Company was greatly tarnished by a blizzard of sexual assault allegations, died Monday at his Manhattan home. He was 81.

Gillian Horovitz, his wife, told The New York Times the cause was cancer.

A prolific dramatist with a knack for sharp-edged dialogue and volatile scenarios who was sometimes criticized for thin plots, Mr. Horovitz wrote more than 70 produced plays, many of which he directed himself. His dramas helped to launch a number of actors who went on to prominence, including a young Al Pacino.

Mr. Horovitz’s identity and that of Gloucester Stage Company were deeply entwined. After cofounding the company in 1979, Mr. Horovitz served as its artistic director and resident playwright from then until 2006 and was instrumental in building its reputation for punching above its weight artistically. He frequently used the small theater on East Main Street as a showcase for his own plays, and the city served as the setting or inspiration for characters in such works as “North Shore Fish,” “Park Your Car in Harvard Yard,” and “Gloucester Blue.” Mr. Horovitz’s plays were usually a big draw at Gloucester Stage, part of the reason a summer season seldom passed without a production of one of his new or older works.

But his nearly four-decade relationship with Gloucester Stage, as well as his career, came to a crashing halt at the end of 2017. That was when The New York Times published a bombshell story in which Mr. Horovitz was accused by nine women of sexual abuse, ranging from forceful kissing and groping to rape.

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His accusers were actresses, proteges, or Gloucester Stage staffers, most of them in their teens or 20s at the time of the assaults, which allegedly took place over a period extending from the mid-1980s to 2016, when Mr. Horovitz was 77. The woman who accused him of rape was the ex-girlfriend of Adam Horovitz, the playwright’s son and a former member of the Beastie Boys. In a statement to the Times in 2017, Adam Horovitz said: “I believe the allegations against my father are true, and I stand behind the women that made them.”

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Israel Horovitz was not criminally charged. In his own statement to the Times, he claimed he had “a different memory of some of these events,” adding: “I apologize with all my heart to any woman who has ever felt compromised by my actions. . . . To hear that I have caused pain is profoundly upsetting, as is the idea that I might have crossed a line with anyone who considered me a mentor.”

It was not the first time Mr. Horovitz had been accused of sexual abuse. In 1993, the Boston Phoenix reported on 10 women, including actresses and Gloucester Stage staffers, who accused Mr. Horovitz of sexual misconduct. Mr. Horovitz managed to survive those allegations, but in the very different climate of 2017 — with the #MeToo movement intensifying awareness of sexual misconduct and insisting that the voices of victims be heard and heeded — Gloucester Stage quickly took steps to sever all ties with him. When the company moved to oust him from the board of directors, Mr. Horovitz requested a meeting with the board, but then resigned before it could take place.

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Gloucester Stage also canceled a planned production of one of Mr. Horovitz’s plays, a course of action adopted by numerous other theater companies across the country. Still more allegations of previous cases of sexual misconduct surfaced not long after the story in the Times. In the years following that report, Mr. Horovitz was absent from the public eye.

There’s no question that Mr. Horovitz was an exceptionally productive writer, one who sustained a busy pace from his early success to his late 70s while creating many meaty roles for actors. In the 1967-1968 season alone, before he was 30, four of Mr. Horovitz’s plays — “The Indian Wants the Bronx,” “It’s Called the Sugar Plum,” “Line,” and “Rats” — were presented in New York theaters. Then the 1968-1969 season brought three more Horovitz plays to Gotham’s stages.

“The Indian Wants the Bronx,” a one-act drama about a man from India who is tormented by a pair of young thugs while waiting for a bus to see his son in the Bronx, won the Obie Award for best play. The cast included not just Al Pacino but also John Cazale, who would team up with Pacino again a few years later in “The Godfather.” It ran on a double-bill with Mr. Horovitz’s “It’s Called the Sugar Plum,” which featured Marsha Mason, who would go on to star in films such as “The Goodbye Girl.” Later in the run, Mason was replaced by Jill Clayburgh.

The casting of Cazale, wearing a turban, as the title figure in “The Indian Wants the Bronx” drew criticism for the use of “brownface.” Mr. Horovitz defended the choice of Cazale, writing: “True, John’s Italian, not Hindu . . . from Winchester, Massachusetts, not Delhi. But it’s also true that John Cazale is a fine, sensitive actor.”

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Screenwriter and playwright Israel Horovitz stood in front of the North Shore Cinema in Gloucester on June 15, 1982, at the film premiere of "Author! Author!" John Blanding/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

It was not the last time Mr. Horovitz’s career meshed with those of Pacino and Cazale. In the semi-autobiographical 1982 film “Author! Author!,” scripted by Mr. Horovitz, Pacino portrayed a playwright struggling to balance the pressures of family life with the production of his play on Broadway. When Cazale appeared in a revival of Mr. Horovitz’s “Line” in 1971, his performance caught the eye of Fred Roos, the casting director for “The Godfather.” Roos suggested Cazale to “Godfather” director Francis Ford Coppola, and Cazale landed the role of Fredo Corleone.

When another revival of Mr. Horovitz’s “Line” opened at the 13th Street Repertory Company in Greenwich Village in 1974, it proceeded to run for more than four decades, making it one of the longest-running plays in New York history. It’s a one-act, absurdist play about five people striving to be first in line for something that is never specified. New York Times critic Clive Barnes noted that “Line” is about “man’s efforts to be first” and “the slippery pole of success” in “the frenetic world of overachievers.”

“Yes, the idea does go on a little too long,” Barnes wrote in 1976. “Yet the style is very sure, the dialogue has the bite of accuracy to it. Mr. Horovitz’s five characters, in search not of an author but of some kind of reality, are both fun and meaningful. This is not an easy trick.”

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Barnes was less enamored of another Horovitz play that year, “The Primary English Class,” which starred Diane Keaton as a beleaguered teacher. Voicing a criticism periodically registered against Mr. Horovitz over the years, Barnes wrote: “It is possibly true that Mr. Horovitz is better at setting a situation than plotting a play.”

Whether he drew pans or raves, Mr. Horovitz seldom slackened his writing pace. In addition to stage plays like “Fighting Over Beverley,” “Lebensraum,” "The Widow’s Blind Date,'' and “Sins of the Mother,” he penned several other screenplays besides “Author! Author!,” including “The Strawberry Statement” (1970), about campus unrest in the late 1960s. He also turned out TV scripts and wrote poetry, essays, and fiction. In addition to directing many of his own plays for the stage, he shouldered directorial duties for the 2014 film adaptation of his play “My Old Lady,” with a cast that included Kevin Kline, Maggie Smith, and Kristin Scott Thomas.

In 1974, he was forced to resign from a teaching position in the English department of City College of New York for falsely claiming that he had a degree from Harvard. In 1975, he founded the New York Playwrights Lab, where he was artistic director.

He was born Israel Arthur Horovitz on March 31, 1939, named after his grandfather. “All during my childhood I was called Arthur,” Mr. Horovitz told The New York Times in 1986. “But at some point when I started writing plays I took the name Israel back.”

Raised in Wakefield, Mr. Horovitz showed early evidence of precocity. At 13, he wrote a novel titled “Steinberg, Sex, and the Saint.” At 17, he wrote his first play, “The Comeback,” a drama about a father-and-son acting duo in which the son kills the father. It was performed at Emerson College, with Mr. Horovitz playing the son.

He attended Salem Teachers College (now Salem State University), but lost interest after a year. While playing a small role as spear carrier in a Cambridge production of Shakespeare’s “Henry VI,” he met a student from London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. “I thought that was the coolest. So I sent a letter to Royal Academy along with copies of my plays, and I got accepted,” Mr. Horovitz told the Gloucester Times in 2009. “But I had to work a couple of years to get the money to go over.”

When he enrolled at the Academy, he was 20 years old, married, with a young daughter. He studied on a fellowship at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art from 1961 to 1963, then became a playwright-in-residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Moving to New York in 1967, Mr. Horovitz wrote plays for the legendary La MaMa in the East Village, while also performing and occasionally serving as stage manager.

As he built his career, his Massachusetts hometown served as the inspiration for a seven-work cycle called “The Wakefield Plays” that included “The Alfred Trilogy.” But Mr. Horovitz didn’t forget Gloucester, the city where his family would take him on day trips for special occasions as a child. After he was established as a New York playwright, Mr. Horovitz bought a summer home in East Gloucester.

In 1979, desiring a venue for himself and his theater friends to present plays during the summer, Mr. Horovitz cofounded Gloucester Stage Company with Geoffrey H. Richon and Denny Blodget. The world premiere of Mr. Horovitz’s “The Former One-on-One Basketball Champion” was presented in the theater’s first season in 1980.


Initially, the young company performed in the cramped back room of the Blackburn Tavern, operating on a shoestring budget. After each performance, the sets had to come down to make way for the rock bands scheduled to perform next.

A 1985 production of Mr. Horovitz’s “Henry Lumper,” constructed to parallel Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2” and set in the fictitious town of “Glossop,” attracted wide attention for its focus on Gloucester’s severe drug problem. When the Blackburn Tavern was sold and the new owners raised the rent, Mr. Horovitz and Gloucester Stage decided to move. The company purchased a squat brick building near the Rocky Neck art colony section that had formerly been a warehouse where Gorton’s Seafoods stored industrial equipment. “It had rats about this big,” Mr. Horovitz told the Globe in 2005. “It was the filthiest place I ever saw.”

The new theater was inaugurated in 1986 with a production of Mr. Horovitz’s “North Shore Fish.” The play, which was later adapted by Mr. Horovitz into a film, depicts the escalating tensions and economic desperation among workers whose livelihoods are threatened by the decline of their frozen-fish processing plant.

Israel Horovitz (center) shown at a 2016 rehearsal for his play "Man in Snow" at Gloucester Stage Company.KieranKesner/The Boston Globe

Speaking of the connection between Gloucester, his theater company, and his plays, Mr. Horovitz said: “This place defines the theater, and, of course, the theater defines the place, because it’s art.”

But his portraits of Gloucester engendered a mixed response from the city’s inhabitants. Some were flattered by the attention from a nationally known playwright, but others thought Mr. Horovitz exaggerated the city’s gritty aspects and rolled their eyes at his egocentricity. He relished the limelight and was never shy when it came to self-promotion.

Still, Mr. Horovitz’s tenure as artistic director at Gloucester Stage was an impactful one, yielding more than 35 world premieres and nearly 20 US premieres as the theater presented works by playwrights such as David Mamet, Wendy Wasserstein, Harold Pinter, Yasmina Reza, and Michael Frayn.

Whether new plays or older ones, his works were a mainstay at Gloucester Stage. During the 1999 season, for instance, all four plays at Gloucester Stage were by Mr. Horovitz.

“Somehow I got terribly caught up in the life here,” he told American Theatre magazine in 1992. “I started to write the Gloucester plays. They grabbed hold of me. . . . I felt that if I could create a body of work that showed what life was like on our little dot of the planet earth, that would be an accomplishment.”

In addition to his wife, Horovitz is survived by six children: Julie (from his marriage to Elaine Abber); Rachael, Matthew, and Adam (from his marriage to Doris Keefe); and Hannah and Oliver (from his marriage to Gillian Horovitz).


Don Aucoin can be reached at donald.aucoin@globe.com. Follow him @GlobeAucoin.