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Pioneering Gay Playwright Robert Patrick Dies at 85

Pioneering Gay Playwright Robert Patrick Dies at 85

Harvey Fierstein, Robert Patrick, and Doric Wilson in 1981

Patrick's The Haunted Host was one of the first plays with an admirable gay protagonist.

Much-produced gay playwright Robert Patrick, known for the groundbreaking 1964 play The Haunted Host and many others, has died at age 85.

Patrick died of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease April 23 at his home in Los Angeles, The New York Times reports.

He was born in Texas, the son of itinerant workers, and as a young man he joined the U.S. Air Force, which discharged him for being gay before he’d completed basic training. In 1961 in New York City, one day he walked into Caffe Cino, a Greenwich Village coffee shop and performance space popular with the gay community. The Times describes it as “the accidental birthplace of Off Off Broadway theater,” launching the careers of Lanford Wilson, John Guare, Sam Shepard, and more, including Patrick.

He waited tables, washed dishes, and worked as a doorman at Caffe Cino before writing The Haunted Host, his first play. The main character, gay playwright Jay, had a lover who died by suicide, and the lover’s ghost haunts him. A hustler named Frank, who is straight, has theatrical ambitions and comes to Jay’s home seeking help with a play he’s writing.

“The dialogue is tart and snappy, as Jay rebuffs the young man and his work, razzes him about his sexuality — ‘Tell me, Frank, how long have you been heterosexual? Started as a kid, huh? Tsk-tsk’ — and finally throws him out in the morning and in so doing exorcises the ghost,” the Times reports.

The Haunted Host didn’t get much attention in its original production, but it became better known thanks to revivals starring Harvey Fierstein in Boston in 1976 and at La MaMa in the Village in 1981.

“It was so much before its time,” Fierstein told the Times. “Here you have a play where the strange person, the bizarre person, the person who was the antagonist, was the heterosexual. The normal person, the one with real emotion and real love, was the gay character. We forget our history, and now we have people who want to erase our history. This is why Robert’s work is so important.”

Patrick eventually wrote hundreds of plays, and he “rendered gay (and straight) life with caustic wit, an open heart and fizzy camp,” the Times reports. Among the more notable ones were Kennedy’s Children, about post-1960s disillusionment, which ended up on Broadway in 1975 after productions off-Broadway and in London; T-Shirts, an exploration of gay male culture; and Blue Is for Boys, set in a college dorm reserved for gay students. His works were produced in small theaters around the world. He also wrote “countless songs, poems and short stories, a memoir and at least one novel,” the Times notes.

In the 1990s, he moved to Los Angeles, where he worked as a ghostwriter, a reviewer of adult films, and a cabaret performer. He once said he wanted to open a theater in L.A. called Robert Patrick’s Free Parking Theater, as free parking would attract capacity crowds no matter what play was being staged — and he could produce whatever he wanted.

Survivors include a sister, Angela Patrice Musick.

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