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Obituaries / Tom Cole, 1933 - 2009

Award-winning playwright and screenwriter

March 03, 2009|Valerie J. Nelson

Tom Cole, a playwright and screenwriter whose 1985 film "Smooth Talk" won the grand jury prize at what is now the Sundance Film Festival and helped launch a teenage Laura Dern's career, has died. He was 75.

Cole died Feb. 23 of multiple myeloma at his home in Roxbury, Conn., said his wife, Joyce Chopra, who directed "Smooth Talk."

He could write any character with great empathy, said Dern, who played the 15-year-old at the center of the film, and he brought "his characters to an urgently vivid reality . . . as if he had lived their lifetime."

Film critic Sheila Benson opened her 1985 review in The Times by writing: "The shiveringly memorable 'Smooth Talk' may be the first film to get adolescence in America right, down to the last, delicate seismographic terror."

The film -- based on the Joyce Carol Oates story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" -- was about the sexual awakening of Dern's conflicted teen, who is seduced by a foreboding stranger, played by Treat Williams.

Writing in the New York Times in 1986, Vincent Canby said Cole's adaptation created "a sharp, devastating picture" of modern America.

"Things don't explode; there are no car chases," Cole said of the independent film in 1986 in the Chicago Tribune. "We couldn't have gotten money in Hollywood for it."

While making the movie, Dern said, she could often be found "talking to Tom, this 50-year-old male, Boston MIT professor who could give me the insight as to what this teen girl was going through."

One of his plays, "Medal of Honor Rag," was based on the true story of a Vietnam War veteran who returned home a troubled hero. First staged in 1975, it has been performed around the country often; a 2005 Los Angeles production starred the rapper Heavy D.

When the drama was presented off-Broadway in 2001, the New York Times noted that the play, set in 1971, retained "its relevance, its power, its tortured compassion."

Among Cole's other plays was the two-character drama "About Time," in which James Whitmore regularly performed. Whitmore died Feb. 6.

Charles Thomas Cole was born in 1933 in Paterson, N.J., the youngest of three children of Helen and David L. Cole. His lawyer father was a noted labor arbitrator and presidential advisor.

At Harvard University, Cole earned a bachelor's degree in history and literature in 1954 and joined the Army, where he learned to speak Russian. In 1959, he served as an interpreter at the American National Exhibition in Moscow.

After earning a master's in Russian language and literature from Harvard, Cole mainly taught English literature at MIT.

He won three O. Henry Awards for short stories. In 1966 his novella, "An End to Chivalry," won the Rosenthal Foundation Award for literary accomplishment, given by the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

His first marriage ended in divorce.

When Chopra was looking for someone to collaborate with on a script, a friend suggested she meet Cole. They married in 1969.

Their daughter, Sarah Rose Cole, who teaches history and literature at Harvard, said her father turned from writing fiction to dramas because he felt more comfortable "finding the voices of other people, often very different from himself."

In addition to his wife and daughter, Cole is survived by a sister, Elizabeth, and a brother, Morrill.


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