Mark O’Donnell, the Tony winning writer behind “Hairspray” and “Cry-Baby,” was found dead Monday morning in New York City. O’Donnell, 58, reportedly succumbed to cardiac arrest in the lobby of his Upper West Side apartment building. The AP reports an autopsy is scheduled for Tuesday.
According to Jonathan Brown, a neighbor who says he bantered with O’Donnell less than a half hour before he collapsed, the writer was “a fixture” of the neighborhood for more than 20 years.
“He was a good guy,” Brown told DNAInfo, the publication that broke the news of O’Donnell’s death. “Never an unkind word — at least one that wasn’t in jest.”
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, the youngest in a family of ten children, O’Donnell left home to attend Harvard University on scholarship. As an undergraduate, he became a member of the university’s satirical paper, The Harvard Lampoon, and wrote and composed musicals for the Hasty Puddings Theatrical group.
O’Donnell is survived by his identical twin brother Steve. Both brothers attended Harvard and matched each other’s professional achievements: Steve wrote for The Simpsons, Late Night With David Letterman (as head writer, he invented the show’snow classic “Top Ten Lists” feature), and has held the position of head writer for The Jimmy Kimmel Show since its debut.
In a joint interview between the brothers on the Believer website, Mark compared their aligned talents to those of “the drab pair of twins” in the 1927 W.C. Fields film “Two Flaming Youths,” in which Fields plays a circus sideshow barker. “One’s the World’s Smallest Giant, and the other’s the World’s Tallest Midget. I’d like to think I’m an artsy writer who’s comic and you’re a comedy writer who’s artistic.”
Steve later drew a distinction by way of their sexuality, calling it “the more sensational aspect of our relationship.” Mark was gay, and Steve is straight:
We’re twin brothers from a large family of ten brothers and sisters, working-class Cleveland, offspring of a welder and a… homemaker, who were themselves the offspring of immigrants. And, that most profound as well as lurid portion of the equation, that you’re gay and I’m straight. There’s a carnival-act aspect to that, but it opens the doors to more profound questions. Nature versus nurture, environment versus heredity… all that stuff.
In 2003, O’Donnell and co-writer Thomas Meehan shared a Tony and a Drama Desk award for their musical adaptation of the 1988 John Waters film “Hairspray.” Both went on to work on the 2007 film version, as well as the 2008 Tony-nominated ‘Cry-Baby,’ another Waters’ adaptation. Though they weren’t credited as writers on the John Travolta-starring “Hairspray” movie, O’Donnell said many of the film’s lines were lifted straight from the Broadway book. The phrase “plastic little spastic,” is one he claimed as his own invention “with evident pride,” according to a Cleveland publication. The insult is turned on the musical’s queen bee Amber Von Tussle. It lives on in the internet’s densest social networks: MySpace members and Tumblr accounts go by the name “Plastic Little Spastic,” and it’s a go-to line for writers of “Hairspray” fan fiction.
Nearly a decade before his “Hairspray” fame, in 1996, O’Donnell began his career as a novelist with “Getting Over Homer,” a “pun-laden” love story set in the early years of the AIDS epidemic. O’Donnell’s later stories and poems made the pages of The New Yorker and The Atlantic. Scaling those literary peaks satisfied a favorite directive of his and his brother’s: E.B. White invitation to “come to New York only if you’re willing to be lucky.”
“I aspired from early on to write a novel, to be in the New Yorker, to be on Broadway, and at least in a fleeting way, I got all those things,” O’Donnell told his brother in The Believer. “I love writing novels, even if only a few thousand people read them. Here’s my soul, I hope it appeals to your soul.”
By Mallika Rao