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A Moving Finger Writes

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PAUL RUDNICK HAS NO INTEREST IN OWNING A PERSONAL computer. Proudly and profoundly unmechanical, he taps out everything he writes on a trusty electric typewriter. “I type with one finger, which people find disturbing to watch,” says Rudnick, 35, sitting amid the marble busts, Oriental rugs and dark antique furniture—what he describes as “early Vincent Price” decor—in his Manhattan apartment. “I also hit the machine. I take out all my frustrations on it. After all, it’s the typewriter that’s doing the bad writing.”

Rudnick’s IBM takes its share of hits, but it also dishes them out—the latest being Jeffrey, Rudnick’s new, hugely successful off-Broadway comedy about sex in the age of AIDS, which The New York Times’s Frank Rich hailed as “the funniest play of this season.” Another potential winner is Rudnick’s script for Addams Family Values, the sequel to the 1991 blockbuster movie featuring Anjelica Huston and Raul Julia that is clue out this fall. Values isn’t the first screenplay Rudnick has written—he was hired to breathe life into the original Addams Family script. But it is the first he’s getting billing for.

Rudnick can take full credit for Jeffrey, a screwball comedy about a gay man so terrified of contracting AIDS he swears off sex. Jeffrey has already brought the author rich rewards. Several months before his father died of lung cancer last August, Rudnick gave him an early draft of the play. It was Paul’s way of telling him about—and seeking acceptance of—his homosexuality, a topic they had never discussed. “Paul let us into his life with Jeffrey” says his mother, Selma. “We could see him more clearly.” They also saw how happy he was with his life. “My father loved it,” recalls Rudnick. “In the midst of his horrible illness, it was such a positive thing.”

While he was growing up in Piscataway, N.J., Selma, a publicist for a theatrical production company, and Paul’s father, Norman, a physicist, took him and his older brother, Evan, to see plays as often as possible. “I thought everything was great,” says Rudnick. “I was in that blissful period before you develop taste.” Assigned in fifth grade to write about who he wanted to be when he grew up, Paul chose Broadway producer David Merrick. “But he knew his teacher wouldn’t know who that was,” says Selma, “so he said, ‘Walt Disney.’ ”

In 1975 Rudnick went to Yale, where he studied drama. “People have memories of me in college that I cringe at,” he says. “I had a bear coat that I wore all over campus. It was the most politically incorrect coat of all time. It was from the ’20s and when it rained, oh, my God. You don’t want to smell wet bear.” Recalls playwright Wendy Wasserstein, a fellow Yalie and close friend: “At Yale, what people said was, ‘He’s the funniest person I know.’ So you sort of knew that he’d succeed because the quality of his wit was so high.”

In 1979 Rudnick moved to New York City, where he worked a string of odd jobs—including writing book-jacket copy—to support his playwriting. Poor Little Lambs was produced to mixed reviews in 1982—way off-Broadway. Two comic novels followed—Social Disease, about New York City nightlife, and I’ll Take It. a tale of three Jewish sisters who love to shop. His third book ultimately became a play—I Hate Hamlet, a comedy about John Barrymore’s ghost returning to coach a fledgling actor, which opened on Broadway in 1991. Hamlet got mixed reviews, but thanks to the onstage conniptions of its temperamental star, Nicol Williamson—who once swatted his co-star onstage with a sword—it did put Rudnick on the map.

Hollywood came calling later that year when Disney commissioned Rudnick to write a script for Sister Act, based on an idea he had offered them in 1988. He says he wrote the screenplay with idol Bette Midler in mind as “this glorious star using all these nuns as her back-up singers.” But after Disney execs changed the premise and cast Whoopi Goldberg, Rudnick look his name off the credits. “What was meant to be a satire of The Singing Nun,” he says, “became The Singing Nun.”

The humor in Jeffrey isn’t satirical; it’s Rudnick’s way of dealing with life in the age of AIDS. “Like everyone else, I take safe sex precautions,” says Rudnick, who isn’t seeing anyone in particular these days. “But I never go as far as Jeffrey does.” Though he has lost many friends—but no lovers—to AIDS, Rudnick is coping well. “Making jokes is a celebration of life,” he says. “Comedy always seems to be a form of hope.”