By Valerie Milano
Pasadena, CA ( The Hollywood Times) 6-12-2019- ‘When people say: ‘When are you gonna retire- I wanna hit them’, jokingly says one of the greatest American playwrights and LGBTQ activist Terrence McNally in the new documentary Terrence McNally: Every Act of Life, premiering nationwide Friday, June 14 at 9 p.m. on PBS.
McNally was born in St. Petersburg, Florida, to Hubert and Dorothy (Rapp) McNally, two transplanted New Yorkers who ran a seaside bar and grill called The Pelican Club, but after a hurricane destroyed the establishment, the family briefly relocated to Port Chester, NY, then to Dallas, TX and finally to Corpus Christi, TX where he remained until McNally moved to New York City in 1956 to attend Columbia University.
Once in Corpus Christi, Hubert McNally purchased and managed a Schlitz beer distributorship, and McNally attended W.B. Ray High School. Despite his distance from New York City, McNally’s parents enjoyed Broadway musicals, and some of his first memories of the theater come from their occasional trips to New York. When McNally was eight years old, his parents took him to see Annie Get Your Gun, starring Ethel Merman, and on a subsequent outing, McNally saw Gertrude Lawrence in The King and I. Both productions had a lasting impression on the young McNally. 
It was in high school where McNally was first encouraged to write, having become a dedicated protege to a gifted English teacher named Maurine McElroy. He would subsequently dedicate several of his plays to her, and when she died in 2005, he supplied the inscription to her tombstone: “Not just an English teacher, but a life teacher.” McElroy encouraged McNally to concentrate in schools outside Texas, which led him to matriculate at Columbia University as a journalism major.
‘Keep always the freshness of your work and honesty of your convictions,’ encouraged Maurine McElroy.
In 1961, only one year out of Columbia University, McNally was hired by novelist John Steinbeck to accompany him and his family on a cruise around the world. McNally had been recommended by Molly Kazan, the Steinbecks’ neighbor and McNally’s mentor at the Playwrights Unit of the Actors Studio, as a tutor for his two teenage boys.
Playwright, librettist, scriptwriter and outspoken LGBTQ activist Terrence McNally has long believed in the power of the arts to transform society and make a difference. The new documentary American Masters – Terrence McNally: Every Act of Life, premiering nationwide Friday, June 14 at 9 p.m. on PBS in honor of LGBT Pride Month, lifts the curtain on the life, career and inspirations of the complicated and brilliant Emmy- and four-time Tony Award-winning writer.
In addition to new interviews with McNally, the film features insights from his friends, his family and some of the most notable stars of stage and screen who he has worked with and mentored, among them F. Murray Abraham, Christine Baranski, Tyne Daly, Edie Falco, John Kander, Nathan Lane, Angela Lansbury, Marin Mazzie, Audra McDonald, Rita Moreno, Billy Porter, Chita Rivera, Doris Roberts, John Slattery and Patrick Wilson, plus the voices of Dan Bucatinsky, Bryan Cranston and Meryl Streep.
From his troubled beginnings in Corpus Christi, Texas to his college years in New York City, from dating legendary playwright Edward Albee to traveling the world as the tutor to John Steinbeck’s children and having his first Broadway play, And Things That Go Bump in the Night, flop at age 24, American Masters – Terrence McNally: Every Act of Life traces McNally’s personal and professional successes, struggles and failures. Over the course of his six-decade career, he has written trailblazing plays, musicals, operas and screenplays about sexuality, homophobia, faith, the power of art, the need to connect and finding meaning in every moment of life, including Next (1969), The Ritz (1975), Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune (1982), Kiss of the Spider Woman (1992), Love! Valour! Compassion! (1994), Master Class (1995), Ragtime (1996), Dead Man Walking (2000), The Full Monty (2000) and Mothers and Sons (2014).
Rising above challenges, including his abusive alcoholic parents and growing up as a gay teen in a conservative Christian town, McNally overcame his own alcoholism (sparked by Angela Lansbury’s intervention), the deaths of friends and lovers to AIDS and cancer, including fellow playwright Wendy Wasserstein, and his own brutal fight with lung cancer.
‘I’m always startled when I’m asked why I chose to write about AIDS. There was no choice. An artist responds to the world and tries to make sense of it,’ he says in the documentary.
An outspoken champion of marriage equality and LGBTQ rights, he faced violent protests over his controversial play Corpus Christi (1998) – a gay, modern-day retelling of the story of Jesus – and found lasting love with his now-husband, producer-lawyer Tom Kirdahy.
Documentary opens with McNally introducing the big theme in his life: ‘Do I matter?’ and throughout the film we are able to see the huge influence he had on people in his life and several actors and directors that are interviewed confirm that McNally played a crucial role in their careers and lives in general.
“The stakes are really high now, higher than ever. We need to bring barriers down, not build walls. We need to love one another more and see how connected we really are. I think that’s the message of art,” says McNally.