William Luce, Playwright, Dies at 88; Wrote ‘Belle of Amherst’

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While performing with the Charles singers on “The Hollywood Palace,” a variety show on ABC, Mr. Luce met a crew member whose friend, the comic actor and director Charles Nelson Reilly, had discussed collaborating with Ms. Harris on a television production about Dickinson.

In Mr. Luce, Mr. Reilly found a fellow Dickinson devotee, and asked him to write a script. That first attempt, a play with 14 characters, proved unsuccessful.

But the idea gained new life when Mr. Reilly was at Sardi’s, the theater district restaurant and hangout in Manhattan, where he overheard the producers of “Clarence Darrow” (1974), a one-man Broadway show with Henry Fonda as the renowned lawyer, talk about needing a new project.

Mr. Reilly suggested Dickinson — and Mr. Luce resumed writing, this time for a stage production. The producers, Mike Merrick and Don Gregory, thought the first draft was too lyrical and literary. Mr. Luce was discouraged. But then, he said, he had a dream about the opening scene.

As he told an interviewer, he envisioned Ms. Harris walking onstage, holding flowers in her arms, and saying, in words that he would write: “Forgive me if I’m frightened. I never see strangers and hardly know what I say. My sister Lavinia — she’s younger than I — says I tend to wander back and forth in time. So you must bear with me.”

Mr. Luce revised the play, and when it opened in Boston, directed by Mr. Reilly, the critic Kevin Kelly of The Boston Globe described it as “singularly beautiful.” He added that Mr. Luce had “made an Emily so warm, human, loving and lovable that her ultimate vulnerability will break your heart.”

Mr. Luce left no immediate survivors.

Of all the subjects of his one-person productions, he met only Ms. Hellman, who wrote the plays “The Little Foxes” and “Watch on the Rhine.” He asked her to lunch in Los Angeles in 1981 to get her blessing to write “Lillian.” She told him that she had seen “Belle” and had called Ms. Harris to be assured that Mr. Luce was not a disagreeable man.


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