For most of his 58 years, John Patrick Shanley has had a love affair with reading and writing words, and he's seen the heights and depths of his profession. Now John Patrick Shanley goes One on One with Budd Mishkin.
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Sure, winning an Oscar, a Tony and a Pulitzer is nice. But cleaning your fish tank with a floating magnet? Now that's impressive.
“You drop the one half of the magnet in here, and it has got sandpaper on that side, and you take the other half of the magnet, and you go. And then you can clean the inside of the tank,” said Shanley.
For most of his 58 years, John Patrick Shanley has had a love affair with words, reading them and writing them. A love affair not always appreciated in his old neighborhood, East Tremont in the Bronx.
"I was very often physically attacked,” said Shanley. “And one of my trademark moves was to continue to deride the person as they were hitting me, to just continue, no matter how they were strangling me, or what they were hitting me with, to say, Îyou know, this doesn't make you an interesting person.’"
Some of Shanley’s words, like “snap out of it,” have become part of our pop culture.
“It's fun [when people use the phrase],” he said. “It's fun. And, let's face it; I didn't invent 'snap out of it.' I just made people re-appreciate it."
Some of his words are repeated on stages all over the world.
"I think that the Catholic Church was my advance man. Any place the Catholic Church went years ago, now my play goes, and the Catholic Church went almost everywhere,” said Shanley.
Broadway and Hollywood may be worlds away from East Tremont, but the old neighborhood is always there in Shanley's best known works.
The Italian-American families he knew in the Bronx appeared in his first acclaimed film "Moonstruck." In 1988, Shanley won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for the script and suddenly he was very popular.
"People did act strange towards me and people even in my own family were unnaturally excited to see me,” he said. “But that stuff wears off.”
That response was measured in comparison with the excitement created by Shanley's first Broadway play in 2005.
“Doubt” was written in a setting close to Shanley's heart -- a Catholic school in the Bronx in 1964. It is the story of the school principal's concerns about suspected sexual misconduct by a local priest.
After writing 23 plays in 20 years, Shanley was being considered for a Pulitzer.
"The publicist said, 'I think you should come to my office, and we'll know at a certain time of day, something like 2 o'clock, whether or not you've won,'” recalled Shanley. “And I said, 'Well, if I didn't win, it's going to be kind of a drag sitting there, watching people watch me not win.'”
Not to worry though, as Shanley was rewarded the prize.
But for many years, Shanley struggled as a writer, working as a moving man, handyman, locksmith, elevator operator and paint contractor.
"I've always written exactly, what the heck, I've wanted to. And during some periods when I was extremely poor, lived below the poverty line, I've been approached to, to write soap operas, to write television movies. And I wanted to, but I couldn't, my nature prevented me," he said.
Shanley has lived all over Manhattan, from Gramercy Park to 177th Street, which was the closest he came to moving back to the Bronx.
The borough is often right there in his writing, his stories, and his life.
"They might say, 'How long did it take you to write "Doubt?"’” said Shanley. “And the answer is, you could answer the question two ways. The first way would be, four or five weeks. The second is, my whole life."
In most playbill bios, theater people recite a litany of their credits, a tradition John Patrick Shanley calls a bore.
So for his play “Doubt,” Shanley listed some of the highlights of his youth, which included getting thrown out of kindergarten, getting tossed out of Cardinal Spellman High School, and getting banned from the St. Anthony's Hot Lunch Program for life.
"If you took a tray up, and it still had food on it, they made you go back and eat it,” explained Shanley. “So I would just put my fork under any item on my tray, let's say, the pre-mixed mashed potatoes, and throw it as hard as I could over my shoulder."
"I honestly didn't know why all of these adults kept getting so upset with me and why they kept banning me from things and throwing me out of things,” he continued. “And I would cry and say, ÎI don't know what is the matter.’"
Despite failing grades, he landed a scholarship to the Thomas Moore Prep School in New Hampshire, where his fellow students somehow failed to see the charm in his Bronx accent.
"People make fun of you, and they also think you're stupid, and then I would take them apart, and then they wouldn't think I was stupid anymore, and then they would start to have the same accent that I did,” said Shanley.
Shanley eventually connected with one teacher whom he says recognized his creative talent. Years later, the teacher was accused of abusing other boys. Shanley says nothing happened between the two of them, though he did have suspicions about the teacher's interest in him.
“Did I intentionally blind myself to that in order to get what I need and get through? Absolutely! Did I know that he was abusing other boys, literally? No. Does it surprise me? No,” he said. “Was he a force for good in my life? Yes and no.”
After prep school, the poet became a Marine. He joined the Marines because they were leaving Vietnam at a time when the war was ostensibly winding down. But he could not help but display his non-conformity, announcing he was a rare type of conscientious objector.
"Right about that time they ordered me to go to driving school, and I went up to headquarters, battalion headquarters, and went up into a colonel and said, 'They're killers, they're polluters, they've killed my friends and I won't drive one of them,’” recalled Shanley. “The guy looked at me like I was from outer space."
Almost 40 years later, Shanley's "nature," as he puts it, to not be like the others, has forged a successful career. But the memories of the years without success, before the Oscar and Tony and Pulitzer, are still vivid and powerful.
"I've never given up the idea that I might have to go back and make sandwiches for a living,” said Shanley. “And I would, I would."
And wherever he goes, Shanley takes the Bronx with him.
"By nature, I'm the kind of person who could have been a completely removed-from-this-planet dreamer. And because I was raised in the Bronx, it gave me a kind of ballast, a kind of place to check in," he said. "There's always a jury of guys from the Bronx in my head when I'm writing, and actually when I'm living, that I have to go by their ruling."