Dale Wasserman, author of the book for the Tony-winning musical “Man of La Mancha,” as well as the stage adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” died Dec. 21 of congestive heart failure at his home in the Phoenix suburb of Paradise Valley. He was 94.
“Man of La Mancha,” the tale of the intrepid, ever idealistic Don Quixote, was one of Broadway’s biggest hits in the 1960s. The show, which starred Richard Kiley and Joan Diener, opened in 1965 and won the Tony for musical. It ran for more than 2,300 performances.
Its best-known song, “The Impossible Dream,” written by composer Mitch Leigh and lyricist Joe Darion, became a popular hit, particularly in a version by Jack Jones. The show has had several Broadway revivals since the ‘60s, with the latest in 2002 starring Brian Stokes Mitchell and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.
Wasserman’s adaptation of “Cuckoo’s Nest,” Kesey’s novel about a renegade patient at a mental hospital, opened on Broadway in 1963. The production, which starred Kirk Douglas and Joan Tetzel, ran for just a little over two months but later became a fixture in community theaters. It was revived on Broadway in 2001 with Gary Sinise and Amy Morton in the lead roles.
Although most people are familiar with the 1975 Oscar-winning film adaptation of “Cuckoo’s Nest,” which starred Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher, Kesey told the Associated Press shortly before his death in 2001 that he was more grateful for Wasserman’s work on the play version, which has been published in 27 languages.
Wasserman began writing television dramas in the 1950s, then went on to pen screenplays, including 1958’s “The Vikings,” starring Douglas and Tony Curtis, and 1966’s “Mister Buddwing,” starring James Garner.
Born in Rhinelander, Wis., as one of 14 children of Russian immigrants, he was orphaned at age 10 and sent to live with uncles and aunts. Wasserman wrote on his website that he left home and spent years “jumping freight trains, graduating as a hobo cum laude,” eventually ending up with a career in theater.
Author of more than 75 scripts, Wasserman continued to work until his death, making revisions to a play based on his early hobo life called “Burning in the Night.” His latest finished play, “Premiere!” is set to open in a suburban Phoenix theater next month.
Survivors include his wife, Martha.