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J.L. Herlihy; 'Midnight Cowboy' Author

October 23, 1993|BURT A. FOLKART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

James Leo Herlihy, the actor-playwright whose gritty description of grotesque, vanquished characters placed in the disquieting center of such novels as "Midnight Cowboy," is dead.

Los Angeles coroner's office spokesman Scott Carrier said Herlihy was found Wednesday morning in his Los Angeles apartment. Herlihy, 66, had taken drugs and there was a plastic bag over his head, said Carrier, who added that the coroner considered it a suicide.

The anthology "Contemporary Authors" credited Herlihy with a unique ability for "drawing human grotesques--that literary plague loosed upon us by Sherwood Anderson, confirmed by the Nathaniel West of 'Miss Lonelyhearts' and propagated still, in a somewhat etiolated form by J.D. Salinger."

And like Salinger, he became a guru for the young during the 1950s and '60s, once estimating that he had traveled 35,000 miles in a six-month period, visiting communes coast to coast.

The communal experience, said the author of "All Fall Down," "Season of the Witch" and several short plays, convinced him that those "holes of cultural experimentation" would someday "bring forth new cities and the state will become servant to the communal structure."

Those comments to The Los Angeles Times in 1971 were lofty light-years from the stark, depressing dialogue of his characters.

Typical was the young girl protagonist of "Season of the Witch," a 1960s flower child who heads for the big city with her homosexual draft-resisting next-door neighbor.

Herlihy said she emerged from his years in the commune. She calls herself "Witch Gliz" and as with "Midnight Cowboy," Herlihy places an innocent (the girl) aboard a Greyhound bus and watches her virtue disintegrate as it is juxtaposed with the guile of her neighbor.

Born in Detroit, Herlihy wrote novels and short stories, some as early as high school, and acted in movies and plays. His focus on downtrodden, marginal characters was evidenced in the first of his plays, the 1950 "Streetlight Sonata" produced at the Pasadena Playhouse, where he studied for three years.

He acted in small theaters up and down the West Coast and followed "Streetlight Sonata" with the 1963 "Moon in Capricorn." Between those stage dramas he wrote TV scripts.

He also appeared in Edward Albee's "Zoo Story" in Boston and Paris in 1963, and in the movie "Four Friends" in 1981.

In 1958 his "Blue Denim," a play about troubled teen-agers, ran off-Broadway and was made into a movie the next year starring Carol Lynley and Brandon de Wilde.

He won widespread critical acclaim for "All Fall Down" in 1960, about a boy's reverence for a ne'er-do-well elder brother and the resultant family conflicts. That novel became a 1962 film with de Wilde, Warren Beatty and Eva Marie Saint.

Although "Midnight Cowboy," which he wrote in 1965, may be his best-known work, it didn't attract the critical acclaim of "All Fall Down."

The movie probably did more to popularize Herlihy than the book did.

Starring Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman as Herlihy's perennial subterranean people, "Midnight Cowboy" was a jarring display of gutter life that won Academy Awards as best picture and for screenwriter Waldo Salt and director John Schlesinger, and nominations for Hoffman, Voight and actress Sylvia Miles.

Herlihy is survived by his brother.

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