Playwright William Gibson, whose “The Miracle Worker” has thrilled audiences for nearly a half-century with the true story of the deaf-blind Helen Keller's rescue from a world of ignorance, has died. He was 94.
Gibson died Tuesday in Stockbridge, Mass., according to the Finnerty & Stevens Funeral Home in Great Barrington.
Gibson wrote a dozen plays, including the Tony-winning “Two for the Seesaw,” but would be forever known for “The Miracle Worker.” First written for television, the story of a young Keller forging a relationship with her teacher, Annie Sullivan, made its Broadway debut in 1959.
"Nothing in the theatre this season is so overwhelming as the last inarticulate but eloquent scene in which a frantic little girl for the first time understands the meaning of a word and realizes that the teacher is not a fiend but a friend," New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson wrote. "One small but blinding ray of light has penetrated the frightening darkness."
The production, directed by Arthur Penn and starring Anne Bancroft and 12-year-old Patty Duke, earned Tonys in 1960 for best play, best actress (Bancroft) and best director. It was made into a movie in 1962, bringing Academy Awards for Bancroft, as best actress, and Duke, best supporting actress, and Oscar nominations for Penn and Gibson.
"The Miracle Worker" came a year after Gibson's first professionally produced play, "Two for the Seesaw," also a major success.
The 1958 romantic drama about a straight-laced lawyer who falls in love with a dancer brought Bancroft her first Tony and also nominations for best play and best director (Penn.) The 1962 film version starred Robert Mitchum and Shirley MacLaine.
Gibson garnered another Tony nomination in 1965 as co-author of “Golden Boy,” a musical version of the play by Clifford Odets. It starred Sammy Davis Jr.
“The act of writing makes everything possible to me,” Gibson said in a 2003 interview with The Associated Press at his home in Stockbridge, Mass. “I've always found the business of writing has helped me to live.”
Gibson's last Broadway play was “Golda's Balcony,” a one-woman show starring Tovah Feldshuh as Israeli prime minister Golda Meir during one of her most difficult times — the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
It was a heavily revised version of “Golda,” Gibson's 1977 Broadway flop that featured a large cast and Bancroft in the title role.
Although the 2003 play marked the last time Gibson wrote for Broadway, he continued to write novels, short stories and poetry.
Gibson was born in the Bronx, New York City, in 1914. A skittish teenager who found comfort in Broadway shows and the written word, Gibson studied creative writing at City College.
His first moneymaking piece was a short story published in Esquire for $150 during the 1930s. At the suggestion of his agent, Gibson began writing for the stage. He wrote five plays while honing his skills at the Topeka Civic Theatre in Kansas, then returned to New York and started work on “Two for the Seesaw,” which ran for more than 700 performances in New York.
After selling “Two for the Seesaw” to Hollywood for $600,000, Gibson moved to the Berkshires with his wife, Margaret, and began writing “The Miracle Worker.”
The story was first done for television's “Playhouse 90.” It took three weeks to write. When he decided to rewrite the teleplay for the stage, Gibson spent six months on the project.
Keller was born in Alabama in 1880 and stricken deaf and blind at the age of 19 months. The events described in the play occurred in 1887, when Sullivan came to teach the 6-year-old, spelling into her hand until the mute, near-wild girl realized what language was. With Sullivan at her side for nearly a half-century, Keller grew into a world-famous author and humanitarian.
Nearing 80 when Gibson's television play was written, Keller was initially dubious about the idea but later had a positive opinion about it, according to the book “Helen Keller: A Life” by Dorothy Herrmann.
Coming full circle, “The Miracle Worker” was remade as a television film in 1979, with Duke in Bancroft's old role as Sullivan and Melissa Gilbert of "Little House on the Prairie" as Helen. Another TV version, in 2000, broke with its predecessors by using 8-year-old Hallie Kate Eisenberg, rather than a teenager, to play little Helen.
The play also is an annual event at Ivy Green, Keller's birthplace in Tuscumbia, Ala., where it is staged on the grounds where Sullivan actually taught the girl more than a century ago.
Gibson's wife, Margaret Brenman-Gibson, psychologist and author of a study on playwright Clifford Odets, died in 2004.