Irish playwright and commentator Hugh Leonard won acclaim in London and Broadway for his plays Da and A Life.
Admired for his technical virtuosity, his first play The Big Birthday (1956) attracted attention when it was staged at the Abbey Theatre and was followed by a string of successes including Stephen D, The Poker Session, The Patrick Pearse Motel and The Au Pair Man.
In 1961 Leonard became a script editor for Granada Television and worked there until 1963. He supported himself and his family as a freelance writer in London from 1963-1970 writing television serials, film scripts and television adaptations such as Great Expectations and a Tale of Two Cities. He also wrote the script for the film of Bernard Shaw’s Great Catherine (1968), which starred Peter O’Toole, and the comedy Our Miss Fred (1972) which featured Danny La Rue.
Leonard was born John Keyes Byrne on November 9, 1926 in Dublin but took on his pen name in the 1950s to hide from his civil service employers his double life as an aspiring, outspoken writer.
The author had never seen a play until during his first year in the civil service. A colleague derided his ignorance of the theatre and goaded him into attending an Abbey Theatre performance of O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars. Inspired by the experience, Leonard began to write plays and took up amateur theatricals.
After the success of The Big Birthday and his television scriptwriting, Leonard became one of Ireland’s wealthiest writers. He bought a large house in Killiney and drove a Rolls-Royce.
His weekly column in The Independent on Sunday was noted for its vitriol and he enjoyed debunking famous names. On hearing his long time sparring partner the writer Ulick O’Connor was in hospital, he remarked, “It must have been something he wrote.”
Commenting on Ireland, he said that it was “a country full of genius, but with absolutely no talent”.
His later plays included Moving Days (1981), Chamber Music (1994) and Magic (1997). The 1988 film of Da featured Martin Sheen and the late American actor Barnard Hughes, who first starred in the Broadway production.
As well as two volumes of autobiography, he wrote a memoir, Rover and other Cats (1990), and a novel, The Offshore Island (1993).
He died on February 12, 2009. Paying tribute, the Irish President Mary McAleese said, “Hugh will be greatly missed by all who had the pleasure of his company and counsel throughout the years. He infused his work with a unique wit, all the while demonstrating a great intuition, perceptiveness and forgiveness of human nature.”
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