What did your parents have lying around the house?
The only thing my father read was the Daily News. But he was very explosively witty and just had a beautiful gift with language. And when I returned to the farm in Ireland he was born on, I noted that my uncle and aunt spoke, basically, in poetry, all the time. But my mother read things like Keys to the Kingdom, by A. J. Cronin, and Dear and Glorious Physician, a sort of pulpy, but not bottom-rung, kind of book. And she had a Magic Marker and would black out curse words as she went through.
Were you a reader?
A voracious one. My brother Tom and I shared a passion for science fiction. I had hundreds of comic books—the whole “Superman” series—and I remember buying the first “Green Lantern” that was ever issued, around 1959. And recently I met with the president of DC Comics, and he said, “Well, you know, for not that much money, the guy will draw you one.” I was like, “Really?! The guy’s still alive?!” He says, “Yeah, he’s in pretty good shape.”
Did he draw you one?
No, I didn’t pursue it. I’m not that much of a “go back and purchase your childhood home” kind of person. It doesn’t really work. I remember Bob Dylan did, and you know, eventually he sold it again.
And you probably wouldn’t go back to the Bronx.
A couple of times, I had a very strong impulse to return. One, I guess, was in the mid-eighties. I got fed up with Manhattan, went to Washington Heights—177th Street. And I had to stop myself from crossing over into the Bronx and never coming back.
And what did you learn from science fiction?
When I was at sleepaway camp, I was reading Arthur C. Clarke’s The Deep Range, which is pretty sophisticated. There’s a certain kind of faith that you get from reading science fiction. It often starts with something like, “Botar hit the Ella button, and Gima appeared at sunset.” And you’re like, I have no idea what they’re talking about. But I know that I will. And that serves you very well when you go on to read French philosophy.
How about music?
My father played the accordion and Irish music—reels and so forth, stuff like “The Wild Colonial Boy” and “Galway Bay” and Irish-American music—“The Irish Washerwoman,” which is probably the most famous jig. And my relatives would come over often on Saturday nights and he would play and we would get up and dance in the living room while they smoked and drank and talked, and even though it was just women visiting their sisters and such, they were wearing high heels and sundresses and had their hair done and would dance to this live music in our living room.
Did you decorate your room as a teenager?
No. For the last two years of high school, I went to a prep school in New Hampshire and everybody had posters and I had a painting of a regatta. I wrote poetry, and I read a lot: seventeenth-, eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and twentieth-century poetry. Anybody from Robert Frost to—I enjoyed the big sloppy impulses of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and I loved Lord Byron’s “So we’ll go no more a-roving” and Dylan Thomas, Gerard Manley Hopkins; I admired Wallace Stevens, but at the same time, I didn’t want to have dinner with him.
Did your poetry help you fit into prep school?
I was so widely read, but I had never talked to anybody about it. It just never came up. And when I went to this school, they started to engage me in discussions about Evelyn Waugh— they were surprised by what I knew. And also what they could understand, because I had a very heavy Bronx accent and I mispronounced words that I had only read—the one that always comes to mind is Guy-duh-moss-pot instead of Guy de Maupassant.
So did you want to be a poet?
I was a poet exclusively for many years and while I was in the Marine Corps. Then when I went back to college, I took basically any courses that they had of that nature, and the only one left was playwriting. As soon as I finished the play, the student organization offered to give it a full production in a 300-seat house, going into rehearsal like three weeks later. And that excited me.
You’ve written movies ranging from Moonstruck to Congo. Did you watch a lot growing up?
I was not a movie guy. Then, when I got out of the Marines, I married a film critic. And I saw all these movies, most of them really bad. But we were poor and had nothing to do, so it was fine. We went to Jonathan Livingston Seagull—have you ever seen that? I still to this day have not gotten over it. They’re real seagulls, just flying around—nothing, right? And then one of them starts talking. I almost fell out of my chair. And then I was like, I’m not sure but that seagull may be Jesus. So it’s almost worth seeing.
Is there anything that you like that people would be surprised about? Gangster rap, say?
No, I don’t like gangster rap. I do love songs where the person sings something like “I really like you” and then twenty white people sing “I really like you” after them. I love those people that used to sing on commercials in tandem, getting a uniform, very white sound.
Like “I’d like to buy the world a Coke”?
Exactly. Pat Boone’s backup. It’s not him—it’s the people behind him that I love.
At the Walter Kerr Theatre