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Peter Masterson, a ‘Best Little Whorehouse’ creator, dies at 84

“The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” a bawdy Broadway musical, ran for 1,584 performances and inspired a film version.
“The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” a bawdy Broadway musical, ran for 1,584 performances and inspired a film version.(Universal Pictures)

NEW YORK — Peter Masterson, who co-wrote and co-directed the bawdy hit Broadway musical “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” and later directed “The Trip to Bountiful” from a screenplay by Horton Foote, a distant cousin, died Dec. 18 at his home in Kinderhook, N.Y. He was 84.

Actress Mary Stuart Masterson, his daughter, confirmed the death. He had received a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease 14 years ago.

Mr. Masterson had played various movie, television, and stage roles when he read an article by Larry L. King in a 1974 issue of Playboy magazine about the shuttering of the Chicken Ranch bordello in Texas. When Mr. Masterson called King to suggest that the article had the makings of a musical, King laughed.

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“It seemed as incongruous as if someone had asked me to assist in open-heart surgery,” King wrote in The New York Times in 1978.

King’s doubts did not last long. He began collaborating with Mr. Masterson on the book of “The Best Little Whorehouse” while Carol Hall, a friend of both men (who died in October), wrote the songs. In late 1976, they presented several scenes in a workshop at the Actors Studio, of which Mr. Masterson was a longtime member.

“Actors Studio is a tough place to play,” Mr. Masterson said in an interview with The Atlanta Constitution in 1980. “They look at a work like doctors, very clinically. No one laughs or cries. But that wasn’t true with ‘Whorehouse.’ They reacted, laughed a lot, and we knew we had something good right away.”

The Actors Studio subsequently financed a showcase production of the musical before its brief off-Broadway run and its opening in June 1978 at the 46th Street Theater on Broadway. One of its stars was Carlin Glynn, Mr. Masterson’s wife, who played Mona Stangley, the brothel owner.

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“She’s a good actress, but she’d never been a singer,” Mary Masterson said in a telephone interview. “She was already part of the Actors Studio, and she studied with a singing coach, and she turned out to be amazing.” Glynn won the Tony Award for best featured actress in a musical.

The musical, co-directed by Tommy Tune, ran for 1,584 performances and inspired a film version, in 1982, starring Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton.

Peter Masterson lost out on directing the “Whorehouse” film because of creative differences with the studio, Mary Masterson said. It was directed by Colin Higgins.

But Peter Masterson’s success with “Whorehouse” led him to spend time as a directing adviser to the Sundance Institute, which nurtures independent filmmaking. While there, Mr. Masterson told Robert Redford, the institute’s founder, that he wanted to adapt “The Trip to Bountiful,” which was originally a television play, into a movie. Redford’s father-in-law at the time, Sterling Van Wagenen, founding executive director of the institute, produced the film.

Mr. Masterson had been familiar since high school with Foote’s work — dramas about the resilience of ordinary people as they shoulder the burdens of everyday life — from watching television productions of them.

“Bountiful,” set in 1947, is the story of Carrie, an old woman who lives in a cramped apartment in Houston with her son and daughter and wants to return to her rural hometown. It was adapted for Broadway in 1953, a few months after it was first seen on TV. The movie, released in 1985, starred Geraldine Page as Carrie, John Heard as her son, and Glynn as her daughter.

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“This kind of material is like Chekhov,” Mr. Masterson said in an interview with the Associated Press in 1986. “It’s full of all kinds of underlying things, and if you don’t bring that to it, it’s not very interesting.”

In his review of the film in The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote that “Bountiful” “works perfectly as a small, richly detailed film,” and that it “doesn’t have the constructed manner of a play that’s been filmed.”

Carlos Bee Masterson Jr. was born on June 1, 1934, in Houston and raised in Angleton, Texas, about 40 miles south. His father — who wanted his son to be known as Pete — was a lawyer and a mayor of Angleton, and his mother, Josephine (Smith) Masterson, was a homemaker.

Mr. Masterson graduated from Rice University with a bachelor’s degree in history but left for Manhattan soon after graduation to study with Stella Adler, a leading exponent of method acting. He had been drawn to acting by childhood trips to Broadway shows with his grandmother and by his father’s love of Shakespeare.

His early work was largely in small and supporting roles on television and film. But he did play one lead role on Broadway, in “The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald,” by Amram Ducovny and Leon Friedman, which closed after nine performances in 1967. In the Times, Clive Barnes wrote that Mr. Masterson, playing President John F. Kennedy’s assassin, looked “appropriately bewildered and mixed-up.”

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He also appeared on Broadway in “The Great White Hope” (1968) and “That Championship Season” (1972).

On film, Mr. Masterson played his daughter Mary’s father in “The Stepford Wives” (1975) and in “Gardens of Stone” (1987), a military drama, for which the director, Francis Ford Coppola, also cast Glynn as her mother.

Mr. Masterson then directed his daughter in “Lily Dale” (1996), a TV movie based on a play and screenplay by Foote, and “Whiskey School” (2005), which also featured Olympia Dukakis and Glynn.

“He was a hands-off director,” Mary Masterson said. “I started worrying that he’d given up on me and said to him, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘I’m treating you like a movie star.’ He stopped that.”

But, she said, he gave actors feedback only when they needed it. “When an actor ran out of his own impulse,” she said, “he’d give you that one word or idea that helped you define it.”

In addition to his wife and his daughter Mary, Mr. Masterson leaves another daughter, Alexandra Masterson; a son, Peter; and six grandchildren.

The year after “The Best Little Whorehouse” opened, Mr. Masterson wrote an article for Playbill in 1979 that described interactions with theatergoers about the musical.

“Excuse me,” he recalled saying to a man after the first act of the show ended. “I wrote and directed this play. Would you like to ask me anything?”

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“Yeah,” the man said. “Where’s the men’s room?”