Larry Kramer, Tony- winning Playwright, Oscar-nominee, and Outspoken AIDS Activist, Dies at 84
By: Ellis Nassour
April 28, 2020 — The death of Tony-winning playwright, Oscar-nominee, Pulitzer Prize finalist, author, and outspoken AIDS activist Larry Kramer brought to an end a tumultuous life. He was more often than not outraged, and outrageous. In his case, however, his yelling, screaming, protesting saved no telling how many lives. As the scourge of HIV AIDS swept the world, he brought attention to the lack of government commitment to finding a cure. Kramer also co-founded two quite historic organizations: Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), which operated clinics for discrete testing, counseling, and medical advice; and his controversial protest group ACT-UP [AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power].
The latter part of his life had to be his best, because Kramer found respect for his tenaciousness. People realized how right he was. He certainly never minded reminding them of that fact. It’s anybody’s guess if he mellowed.
To make people in high places listen, he had no problem embarrassing them. He shamed presidents and cardinals and did things many found disputable. Even members of GMHC, which he co-founded in 1981, ousted him from the board within a year for fear his rhetoric was doing more harm than good. In revenge, he founded the much more militant ACT-UP which staged aggressive protests and occasioned some to be arrested.
Much biographical information has appeared in the last few days, giving the opportunity to research Kramer’s fascinating beginnings. On the short, this Connecticut native received his B.A. at Yale in 1957, joined the William Morris Agency with the prospect of becoming an agent. Then, he hit the road to create a glorious career in Hollywood – not as a screenwriter or star but executive. He plied his trade in London for nine years beginning in 1961 as co-producer/co-writer of Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush and adapted D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love for the screen – receiving an Oscar nomination. Then, in 1973, came Off Broadway.
His play about the early years of what became the AIDS epidemic impressed Joe Papp, who in 2004 co-produced with the Worth Street Theater Company Kramer’s autobiographical work The Normal Heart, at the Public theatre, directed by David Esbjornson. Co-stars included Richard Bekins, Raúl Esparza, and Joanna Gleason. The play was a game changer – politically and theatrically. Critics raved that no playwright had dared to speak with Kramer’s brand of outrage. It broke records at London’s Royal Court – and has gone on to be produced worldwide. There were other plays; a best-selling controversial novel, Faggots; which didn’t exactly endear him to the homosexual community; and, in 1992, The Destiny of Me, a sequel to The Normal Heart, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer.
Kramer made his Broadway debut at Circle in the Square in September 2010 with the play Lombardi, about legendary Green Bay Packers coach whom many consider one of the greatest in football history. Dan Lauria starred opposite Judith Light, portraying his wife.
In April 2011, Daryl Roth, Paul Boskind, and Martian Entertinment delivered a revival of The Normal Heart – on Broadway. Co-directed by Joel Gray and George C. Wolfe, the cast included Ellen Barkin, Luke MacFarlane, John Benjamin Hickey, Joe Mantello, Jim Parsons, Lee Pace, and Ben Weeks — with Barkin and Parsons making their Broadway debuts.
In addition to winning the Tony for Best Revival, Barkin and Hickey won in the Featured Role category; with Mantello nominated as Leading Actor, and nominations for co-directors Joel Gray and George C. Wolfe. It moved audiences to tears and received great critical acclaim. Those who met with Kramer after performances to say how moved they were often got this reply: “I’m very moved that it moved you. But please know that AIDS is a worldwide plague. Please know there is no cure.”
In 2015, he told the Associated Press, “The one nice thing that I seem to have acquired, accidentally, is this reputation of everyone being afraid of my voice, So I get heard, whether it changes anything or not.”He campaigned vigorously for “action now.”
In spite of past successes and the fact that he was considered one of America’s most gifted playwrights, Kramer didn’t/couldn’t relent his righteous indignation – even after being diagnosed with HIV. He was driven by unexplainable forces to never give up. He also contracted Hepatitis B and received a liver transplant in 2001due to the AIDS virus causing liver failure. In 1984, Kramer lost his partner to AIDS. For a time, Kramer was affected with so many maladies that in 1991 the Associated Press reported he had died. The story was quickly retracted.
Kramer is survived by his on-and-off partner, architectural designer David Webster. Following a bitter split in the 70s, they had been together since 1991. When questioned about his return, Webster stated, “Larry’s grown up. I’ve grown up.” In July 2013, they officially tied the knot in NYU Langone hospital’s IC unit, where Kramer had surgery.
Reaction to Kramer’s death was met swiftly with numerous remembrances and tributes from every corner of the spectrum.
“I am deeply saddened by the passing of Larry Kramer, a great New Yorker who helped galvanize the nation’s response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic,” stated Governor Andrew Cuomo. “At a time when the federal government sat paralyzed in denial of a disease that was ravaging an entire generation of LGBTQ people, Larry Kramer was fearless, uncompromising, relentless and loud — characteristics that ruffled feathers but that forced a response to a public health crisis. He was one of the men who fought the war — the epitome, in the midst of a different plague, of New York Tough. He demanded action, and countless people are alive today because of his work, and the work of so many others who refused to accept indifference.”
“If you remember the early days of the AIDS crisis then you remember Larry Kramer,” pointed out Mayor de Blasio. “He was fearless. He stirred the pot, called out the powerful and, much to the chagrin of some people he was almost always right. We’re mourning a great New Yorker.”
Former First Lady and New York senator Hillary Rodham Clinton posted: “Both vulnerable communities and those in positions of power are indebted to the activists who push for progress. Larry Kramer saved lives by never giving up and never backing down. May his courage continue to inspire.”
Kramer’s friend, Daryl Roth, the lead producer of The Normal Heart revival, remembers Kramer vividly. “Larry was passionate about what he knew was right, fair, and necessary. He was for sure confrontational, and full of righteous rage. His voice was loud and proud, and by speaking out he changed the world and he saved lives. That was his gift to all of us.”
“This is a very, very sad day,” stated Dr. Anthony Fauci, longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, to the Associated Press. “It’s the passing of a true icon. I had a very long and complicated and ultimately wonderful relationship with Larry over more than three decades. We went from adversaries to acquaintances to friends to really, really dear friends. He would not hesitate a second to blast me publicly even though the night before we were having dinner and having fun together. He was an amazing guy … Once you got past the rhetoric, I found Larry made a lot of sense, and that he had a heart of gold.”
Kramer and Dr. Fauci even teamed to campaign for speedier research on the Federal level for affordable meds and effective treatments. Dr. Fauci lauded Kramer for his role in promoting drug regimes that prolonged life for those infected.
Dr. Fauci’s tribute is especially poignant since he was among those Kramer slammed with committing acts of murder and genocide for not rising fast enough to treat AIDS as a national public health emergency. He was called out in a 1998 blistering “open letter” in The San Francisco Examiner hugely headlined I CALL YOU MURDERERS, Kramer came down hard on the doctor, calling him “an incompetent idiot.” His venom was also directed against Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush for their lack of leadership at the height of the AIDS crisis.
Tom Viola, longtime executive director of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, worked closely with Kramer over the years. He said, “Our hearts broke today with news of Larry Kramer’s death … I knew never to get between Larry and his fury for it was surely something to behold, challenging so many into action. But I will always also think of Larry as vulnerable and gentle. Encouraging us with his writing, words and, yes, shouting that we deserve to be loved, that we are a community to be cherished.”
Tony-winning actor/playwright Harvey Fierstein stated: “We’ve lost Larry Kramer, Mart Crowley, Terrence McNally, and Jerry Herman. The loss to our culture, community, and consciousness is almost unimaginable. I mourn, but look to the future. Come forward, children. You’ve got some big heels to fill. Step on up and claim today!”
Writer, author, filmmaker, philosopher, teacher, and political activist Susan Sontag called Kramer “One of America’s most valuable troublemakers.”
Emmy and Grammy-winning producer/director/writer Ryan Murphy, who brought The Normal Heart to the masses in 2014 on HBO, said, “Larry’s life, all gay people’s lives — and his fundamental stubborn belief in equality for all made him perhaps the single greatest and most important gay activist of all time. His fight against government, discrimination, prejudice and big Pharma helped save millions of lives. His fight changed the health care system as we know it. I admired him above all others. He deserved the Medal of Freedom.”
After many attempts to bring The Normal Heart to the screen over 30 years, from its 1985 debut at the Public Theatret, Ryan Murphy finally accomplished the seemingly impossible with his 2014 award-winning HBO film. “The rights had become available,” recalls Murphy, “and I wanted them. We had a wonderful meeting. He was kind and excited about my casting ideas. We got into negotiations, and he wanted one million dollars. ‘Larry!’ I said, ‘that’s a lot of money for a low budget film!’ He paused and said ‘It’s what I’m worth.’ I paid it. And I’m so glad I did. I loved working with him. I admired his passion. I eventually even came to love our fights. “
The film won an Emmy for Outstanding Television Movie. Kramer was nominated for his teleplay; Murphy for directing. Mark Ruffalo was nominated for Outstanding Actor, with Supporting nominations also going to Matt Bomer, Joe Mantello, Alfred Molina, Jim Parsons, and Julia Roberts.
Bomer, who co-starred in the revival on Broadway in Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band – and who, with the play’s original cast, is in Ryan Murphy’s upcoming TV movie of the play, won a Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Series, Miniseries or Motion Picture Made for Television. He told Variety Kramer was one of his heroes since his teens: “I, and countless others, owe our lives to Larry. Without his tireless advocacy and his outspokenness and opposition to everything that was going on and encouraging people to educate themselves and be responsible for themselves, I, growing up in a semi-rural environment, wouldn’t have had any clue about the epidemic if it weren’t for him … He was a trailblazer and one of the most courageous people I’ve ever known.”
Roberts told Variety, “Larry was ferocious and tireless in his beliefs. A true hero that so many people owe their lives to today. I was honored to spend time in his orbit.”
Ruffalo posted: “Dear Larry Kramer, It was the greatest honor getting to work with you and spend time learning about organizing and activism,” he posted. “We lost a wonderful man and artist today. I will miss you. The world will miss you … Rest in Power, King!”
Murphy reports he and Kramer were planning to bring The Normal Heart and its 1992 sequel The Destiny of Me to Broadway to run in repertory.
“At a time when the federal government sat paralyzed in denial of a disease that was ravaging an entire generation of LGBTQ people, Larry Kramer was fearless, uncompromising, relentless and loud — characteristics that ruffled feathers but that forced a response to a public health crisis. He was `one of the men who fought the war’ — the epitome, in the midst of a different plague, of New York Tough. He demanded action, and countless people are alive today because of his work, and the work of so many others who refused to accept indifference.”
Governor Andrew Cuomo
“If you remember the early days of the AIDS crisis you remember Larry Kramer. He was FEARLESS. He stirred the pot, called out the powerful and, much to the chagrin of some people, he was almost always right. We’re mourning a great New Yorker today.”
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio
“Our hearts broke today with news of Larry Kramer’s death. Larry’s name is synonymous with activism and LGBTQ rights. He was a friend of and advocate for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS since our earliest days. Sadly, that bright, trailblazing light has dimmed. For those of us living in NYC and working in the theater community at the beginning of the HIV/AIDS crisis, it was a heartbreaking reality that touched every part of our lives. Larry used his writing to bring our stories to the world. The fear, the devastation, the raucous and brazen politics and actions, as well as the smaller, poignant moments: they all came to life through Larry’s words, whether spoken in activism, heard in a play or read on the page.
The urgency of the AIDS epidemic became a national conversation because Larry insisted to friends and foes alike that it had to be. From the beginning, Larry personally supported Broadway Cares with encouragement, a kind word and the occasional ass-whopping that would end with the phone being slammed down in my ear. Nothing has made me more proud of Broadway Cares than Larry’s involvement, support and approval. Coming from Hollywood and Broadway, he understood what it took for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS to raise hundreds of millions within that world. He also understood how it could be put to work in the ways that profoundly, quietly and even sometimes subversively made a difference for those he most loved.
In 2011, we took 250 members of the of Broadway Bares company to see his Tony-winning revival of The Normal Heart. The evening concluded with a panel discussion with Larry and the cast. He reminded us all – but particularly a younger generation who were kids when calamity struck – why we fight. Many wept openly.
Larry Kramer taught us so many things. But it is this that perhaps will be his longest lasting legacy: we are a community to be cherished. And Larry loved us most.”
Tom Viola, executive director, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS
“Larry Kramer was an advocate for gay rights, and for human rights. He was passionate about what he knew was right, fair, and necessary. He was for sure confrontational, and full of righteous rage. His voice was loud and proud, and by speaking out ` he changed the world and he saved lives. That was his gift to all of us. In conversation, he could be quite engaging, speaking on any subject – politics, theater, film.
It was my honor to co-produce the 2011 revival of The Normal Heart. I wanted a younger generation to know the history of that era. The play was so emotional, not only for those who remembered the AIDS epidemic and those just learning about it. It was amazing to watch the audiences’ reaction and their understanding of what happened. There was always such emotion and tears.
After performances, Larry stood outside the theatre in his overalls and orange jacket handing out pamphlets. He wanted to engage people and urge them to become activists. And he did it with such fervor and yet such joy. He was always outraged, and he was always furious — about everything. Yet, I saw he was also very kind, very caring, and very empathetic.
People, especially young men, would come up to him and find this moment of connection, one they could take with them forever.
He loved the recognition of having the play on Broadway, and winning the Tony for Best Revival of a Play. He was so happy, very childlike. His gift was so amazing, but this was our gift to him.
Through his writing and action, he inspired all of us to be our best selves. That’s what he showed us. That’s how people will remember him. That’s what I’ll remember most.”
Producer Daryl Roth
“Larry Kramer’s passing is the saddest news. We have lost a giant of a man who stood up for gay rights like a warrior. His anger was needed at a time when gay men’s deaths to AIDS were being ignored by the American government, a tragedy that made the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP movements so vital. He never stopped shouting about the injustices against us. His voice was the loudest and the most effective. Larry Kramer captured the outrage and spirit of these turbulent times in his brilliant play The Normal Heart along with his many other writings. I was proud to know him and his legacy must be maintained. My heart goes out to his beloved husband David Webster. Love, Elton”.
“Larry’s death was heavy because the facts of his life, of his bio, of his childhood and his whole sense of not being enough. People came to the play and wept… and all over the theater were the [projected] names of people who have died.”
Tony winner Joel Grey, Broadway co-director, The Normal Heart
“I don’t know a soul who saw or read The Normal Heart and came away unmoved, unchanged. What an extraordinary writer, what a life.”
Tony winner Lin-Manuel Miranda
“It is a sad, sad day. At every turn, Larry Kramer had the largest expectations for our community to be accepted, to be treated with respect, and humanity.”
GLAAD president/CEO Sarah Kate Ellis
“Larry Kramer is gone today. There are no words. Larry was a giant among men. Larry changed the world. We live in a world that had to make room for his fury and his bravery and his glorious urge to keep us alive in the face of ignorance and bigotry. We owe him our lives. Period.”
Four-time Tony nominee Raúl Esparza
“I first met Larry Kramer in the 1980s when I was managing public education and corporate relations at the New York Blood Center, where our priority was to end Greater New York’s reliance on blood from Europe. It comprised half of the blood distributed to 260 hospitals. Our research arm was testing the Hepatitis B vaccine with Merck. Larry helped us. The markers for Hepatitis B were similar to a new disease we later identified as HIV/AIDS and Larry helped us move to the forefront in HIV screening.
When I came to The Actors Fund in 1988, Larry’s advocacy was ever present and was channeled into The Actors Fund. AIDS hit our community hard, very hard. When, with Daryl Roth’s leadership and Joel Grey’s direction, The Actors Fund staged a benefit of The Normal Heart prior to its award-winning Broadway run, Larry and I caught-up over lunch. We talked about how the Ryan White AIDS Resources Emergency Act helped us build affordable housing for people living with HIV/AIDS in New York City and West Hollywood. He said our good work was inspired. I remember saying that it was his advocacy for justice in the fight against a deadly disease that inspired us.
RIP, Larry, your courageous life will always inspire me.”
Joe Benincasa, CEO, The Actors Fund