Playwright Sidney Kingsley, who won a 1934 Pulitzer Prize for his first effort, “Men in White,” and whose later works “Dead End” and “Detective Story” are credited with popularizing gritty, realistic dramas, died of a stroke March 20 at his home in Oakland, N J . He was 88.
Kingsley tackled contemporary, often controversial, subjects and portrayed the central conflicts in people’s lives with an unfailing eye for detail. He created major characters not only of doctors and policemen, but also of thugs, drug addicts, shoplifters – characters who were perfect for the demands of the Method acting style that was taking hold in American performance. His work was pivotal in shaping the modern police and hospital shows beloved on radio and then TV.
Born Sidney Kirshner in 1906, Kingsley won a fellowship to Cornell U., earning a B.A. in 1928 and later trying his hand at acting. For several years afterward, he read scripts for Columbia Pictures in Hollywood and plays for the Brandt brothers in New York.
Kingsley was known as a slow and careful writer. A constant editor of his own work, he labored over “Men in White” for three years. The play explored the dilemma of a hospital intern torn between dedication to medical research and the expectations of his fiancee’s family for him to build a lucrative practice. Produced by the legendary Group Theater and staged by Lee Strasberg, it opened in 1933 at the Broadway Theater and ran for 351 performances.
The Pulitzer win stirred controversy when it was revealed that while the drama jury had unanimously recommended Maxwell Anderson’s “Mary of Scotland,” the ruling Pulitzer board decided in favor of “Men in White.”
It was another two years before his second play, “Dead End,” was staged. Directed by Kingsley, the 1935 play was set in a New York slum – the orchestra pit of the Belasco Theater was the East River – and examined the brutality of city life and youth gangs. The drama made a fervent case for the link between poverty and crime.
In 1937, “Dead End” was adapted for the screen by United Artists. Along with stars Sylvia Sidney, Joel McCrea and Humphrey Bogart, six young members of the Broadway cast appeared in the film, including Billy Halop, Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall and Gabriel Dell, who went on to win fame as the Dead End Kids in a series of movies.
Kingsley’s next two works were box office failures. Kingsley produced both “Ten Million Ghosts” (1939), an anti-war play, and “The World We Make” (1939), based on Millen Brand’s novel “The Outward Room,” and reportedly lost much of his own money. In 1943 came “The Patriots,” a chronicle of the careers and contrasting political ideologies of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. It won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award.
“Of all the established playwrights, ” New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson wrote during the war years, “Sidney Kingsley acquitted himself most honorably. His ‘The Patriots’ was not literature, but a thoughtful inquiry…”
“Detective Story” (1949), a three-act drama that told of the personal agony of a police detective, starred Ralph Bellamy, Maureen Stapleton and Lee Grant and used a huge cast to create the frenzied reality of a Gotham police station. It ran at the Hudson Theater for 581 performances. The 1951 film version was directed by William Wyler and starred Kirk Douglas, Eleanor Parker and Grant, repeating her role as a frightened shoplifter.
Kingsley won a second Drama Critics Circle Award in 1951 for his adaptation of Arthur Koestler’s novel “Darkness at Noon.” Later plays include the farcical “Lunatics and Lovers” (1954) and “Night Life” (1962).
Kingsley was the founding chairman of New Jersey’s Motion Picture & Television Development Commission in 1977. He was a president of the Dramatists Guild and was a longtime supporter of Ellen Stewart’s New York home for experimental and international work, the La Mama Experimental Theater Club. He was also a board member of the Martha Graham Dance Company.
Kingsley was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame in 1983, and in 1988 he received the William Inge Award for lifetime achievement in the American theater.
His wife, actress Madge Evans, died in 1981 of cancer. The couple had no children.