|Born||Feb. 21, 1932 - Oct. 28, 2001
Binghamton, NY, US
During the 1960s, when experimental theatre was generating enormous interest, Leonard Melfi was considered one of the most important artists working in the American theatre. Melfi's best-known work for the stage, Birdbath, was first produced in 1965 at La MaMa ETC in New York City, under the direction of Tom O'Horgan. When La MaMa's Ellen Stewart first collaborated with actor/producer Leslie Irons to found Corner Theatre ETC in Baltimore, that theatre's inaugural production was Melfi's Birdbath. Melfi's first produced play, Lazy Baby Susan, was likewise staged at La MaMa during its inaugural season, in 1962. Melfi was also a contributor, along with John Lennon and playwright Sam Shepard, to the notorious 1969 Broadway musical Oh, Calcutta! In all, Leonard Melfi wrote over 70 plays of various length during the course of his lifetime.
Life and Death
The eldest child of Leonard and Louise Melfi, owner-operators of the Circle Tavern in Binghamton, New York, Melfi once quipped that he had developed his prodigious appetite for alcohol by "working in the family business." In a 1966 radio interview with WBAI's Janet Coleman he confessed "We always talked, and we always cooked together, and while cooking we drank. My father's father was a bootlegger and my mother's father made wine in the cellar...I was sort of doomed."
Melfi briefly attended the St. Bonaventure University, followed by a tour of duty in Germany. Upon his discharge from the U.S. Army, he moved to New York City to pursue a writing career. His plays tended to portray social outcasts with dark secrets, spontaneously revealed in moments of great anxiety. Although Melfi never achieved the sustained success of many of his mid-60's peers, he co-wrote the screenplay for Lady Liberty, a 1972 film starring William Devane and Sophia Loren. He also appeared in the film Rent Control, in the role of Milton Goeller. A number of Melfi's later works were performed at the Theater for the New City. After years of struggling with alcohol, Melfi moved into the single-room occupancy Narragansett Hotel at Broadway and 93rd Street.
On October 24, 2001, Melfi's niece tried visiting her uncle, only to be rebuked through a locked door. She tried again two days later, and grew very worried. The following day, paramedics arrived at the hotel and transported Melfi to New York's Mount Sinai Hospital, where he died four hours later, of congestive heart failure. Oddly, Melfi's body was somehow misplaced by hospital staff, only to be found four months later in a potter's grave. After weeks of red tape his brother John Melfi had Leonard's body exhumed and brought to Campbell Funeral Home in NYC. It was there the pine box was opened and John was able to verify that it was his brother Leonard. He then had Leonard transferred to DeMarco Funeral Home in Binghamton, N.Y. and after a complete funeral service including a mass he was buried in a family plot next to his sister In April, 2002. Memorial services were also held for the playwright on Sunday, May 5, 2002 at La Mama, following an April 17, article, published by the New York Times, describing the playwright's desperate and lonely final days. Although he was unable to attend personally, playwright Edward Albee sent the following note which was read to the many who were present:
"Years ago, there were many serious and daring individuals in Greenwich Village under 30 as well as young playwrights, myself included. It was a wild and vital time, and no one was more vital than Leonard."
Notes and references
- Guernsey, Otis L. (1974). "Playwrights, Lyricists & Composers On Theatre". Mead, Dodd.
- Barry, Dan; Gussow, Mel (April 17, 2002). "For Once, Death Imitates Art; A Talented Playwright's Journey to a Pauper's Grave". The New York Times.
- Leonard Melfi IMDB page
- Leonard Melfi IBDB page
- Ellen Stewart at the Internet Broadway Database
- La MaMa Official Website
- Online Reproduction of Steve Yeager's article (w/ links to photographs) about Corner Theatre "The Corner Theatre as a Cultural Oasis: Or will Yosemite Sam Find Happiness In The Vast Sahara Desert?"
- Leonard Melfi's tombstone image 
- Birdbath (2013) Film Web Site
- Birdbath (2013) IMDB page
- Birdbath (TV Short 1971) IMDB page