Hollywood claimed him as its own, but Gore Vidal, who died Tuesday, was a lot of things to a lot of people. He was a political gadfly and insider, essayist and commentor on the social and political scene as well as outrageous talkshow guest. As a scribe he contributed to the theater, TV and film with such notable Broadway dramas as “The Best Man” and “Visit to a Small Planet” and screen adaptations of Tennessee Williams’ “Suddenly Last Summer” and “The Last of the Mobile Hot Shots.”
Vidal, 86, died Tuesday at his home in the Hollywood Hills of complications from pneumonia.
The privileged grandson of Oklahoma Sen. Thomas Pryor Gore, Vidal penned historical novels like “Burr” and “Lincoln” as well as highly opinionated essays on American social and political life.
Never one to shy away from controversy, the politically unpredictable Vidal was both an elitist and a liberal. He could pick fights with the best of them, most notably with writer Norman Mailer and William F. Buckley, who sued him for libel after Vidal referred to him as a crypto-Nazi while the two were commentators for ABC during the strife-ridden 1968 Democratic Convention. Vidal also freely criticized the American political system, often from more than arm’s length in Italy, where he lived (and wrote) on and off for the second half of his life. His autobiography “Palimpsest” was a no-holds barred telling of his social, professional and private life and an acute observation of the political and entertainment nabobs he encountered over the years.
Vidal also enjoyed the company of presidents, most notably John Kennedy, and celebrities and was usually at home on television talkshows speaking about American politics and social mores.
His interest in American history, both past and present, resulted in numerous well-received novels on everyone from Aaron Burr to Abraham Lincoln.
A brilliant essayist, he dissected the corruption of the political process and examining contempo American life, including the country’s obsession with Hollywood and, in particular, movies. His more playful fiction like “Myra Breckenridge” and “Kalki” lampooned sexual and spiritual identity.
Born in West Point, N.Y., he attended the exclusive Phillips Exeter Academy.
Deciding not to continue his education, he joined the Army Reserve at age 18 and completed the novel “Williwaw,” published in 1946 to mixed reviews. After the war he worked briefly for E.F. Dutton and then began his writing career in earnest with “In a Yellow Wood” and “The Season of Comfort.”
But it was his controversial novel about a homosexual obsession, “The City and Pillar,” published in 1948, that brought him his first full flush of attention, much of it scathing.
For the next few years he continued to turn out fiction, but unable to support himself, he turned to writing for television. Vidal wrote for such drama series as “Studio One” and “Omnibus,” adapting works by Faulkner and Hemingway as well as producing original works like “The Best Man,” a coolly cynical exploration of the political process, and “The Last of Billy the Kid,” which would later become a film, “The Left Handed Gun.” He then turned to screenplays, and under contract at MGM, wrote “The Catered Affair,” adapted from a Paddy Chayevsky play; “The Scapegoat”; “I Accuse”; and “Suddenly Last Summer,” from a Tennessee Williams tale. He also contributed (uncredited) to the screenplay for 1959’s Oscar winning “Ben-Hur,” though his later claims that he introduced sexual tension between Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd were rebuffed by Heston.
In 1957 he revamped his “Goodyear Playhouse” teleplay about an alien visiting Earth, “Visit to a Small Planet,” for Broadway. In 1960 he brought “The Best Man” to the stage. Both were successful in their runs and both would later be movies, the former as a lame Jerry Lewis vehicle, the latter more fully realized in Vidal’s own adaptation. “The Best Man” was also revived on Broadway in 2000 (winning a Tony for revival) and then again last spring in a Tony-nominated production that initially starred James Earl Jones, Angela Lansbury, Eric McCormack, Candace Bergen and John Larroquette. Show, which opened April 1, is still running.
By the mid-’60s he had turned to historical fiction starting with “Julian,” a biography of the fourth century Roman emperor that was largely well received. He then embarked on an ambitious “American trilogy”: “Washington D.C.,” “Burr” and “1876.”
Vidal’s 1968 spoof on sexuality and Hollywood “Myra Breckenridge” was a sensation. It was later adapted into a rather strange and poorly received film starring Raquel Welch.
He also kept his hand in at screenwriting with 1977’s outrageous “Caligula,” from which he tried to disassociate himself, and a miniseries adaptation of the military thriller “Dress Gray.” Other screen work included “The Palermo Connection,” “The Sicilian,” “The Last of the Mobile Hot Shots,” “Is Paris Burning?” and “Sweet Liberty.” He also reworked “Billy the Kid” for television again in 1989 and appeared in it as well.
Vidal’s essays on movies included “Screening History” and “Past Imperfect.”
After swearing off novels he returned time and again, usually to a mixed reception, with such works as “Duluth,” “Hollywood,” “Empire” and “Lincoln.”
On occasion Vidal also appeared onscreen, usually as himself, in films including “Fellini’s Roma,” “Bob Roberts,” “With Honors,” “Gattaca,” “Igby Goes Down” and, in 2009, “Shrink.” He appeared on an episode of the TV show “Jack and Bobby” in 2005.
Vidal voiced himself on both “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy,” and he also appeared on “Da Ali G Show.”
In fall 2009 he played narrator for the Royal National Theater’s production of Brecht’s “Mother Courage.”
In recent years Vidal was portrayed twice in film: in Amelia Earhart biopic “Amelia” (2009), as a child, by William Cuddy, and in “Infamous” (2006), the story of Truman Capote, as a young adult, by Michael Panes.
Survivors include a half-sister and half-brother Tommy as well as two nephews, Eric Vidal and actor-director Burr Steers.