Updated October 14, 1991 12:00 PM

TERRENCE MCNALLY WILL NEVER FORGET the fan who knew him by his voice. The year was 1981, and McNally, whose ninth play, Broadway, Broadway, had failed miserably three years earlier, was wallowing in a midcareer slump.

“I wasn’t writing, and I think I was worried about how much I was drinking,” he says. “Then one day, someone came up to me and said, ‘Aren’t you Terrence McNally? I recognize your voice from Texaco Opera Quiz’—a radio show I sometimes did. Suddenly I thought, ‘That’s how I’ll be known, as someone on a radio quiz show.’ I guess it hadn’t occurred to me that to be a playwright you had to write plays—I thought you could be a playwright and sulk.”

The shock sent him back to the typewriter—and launched him on the road to mainstream success. In the past four years McNally, 51, has written three off-Broadway hits: Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, about a waitress and a short-order cook who find love; The Lisbon Traviata, about two gay men obsessed with opera; and this year’s Lips Together, Teeth Apart, about two married couples reassessing their lives during a weekend at a Fire Island beach house. He has won an Emmy for the 1990 American Playhouse production of Andre’s Mother, the story of a woman who loses her son to AIDS. And this week the film version of Frankie and Johnny opens, starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Pacino. Says McNally: “I feel like a big boy now.”

The critics would seem to agree. Frank Rich of the New York Times declared Lips Together “the one new American play that must be seen” and wrote, “Most of [McNally’s] recent works…offer unsentimental hope about the possibilities for intimacy at a time when fear and death rule even beachfront land.”

McNally acknowledges that his work, which was initially known for its satiric humor, is still funny but has grown more serious with the years. “As a character in Lips Together says, ‘These are hard times to be anything in,’ ” McNally says. “I can’t imagine writing about America now, for instance, and not dealing with AIDS. The world has changed drastically since I started writing plays.”

The son of a beverage distributor and a housewife from Corpus Christi, Texas, McNally was galvanized by seeing Annie Get Your Gun and The King and I on family trips to Manhattan. “To this day, I can still see the two wonderful women in those shows—Ethel Merman and Gertrude Lawrence,” he says. “I knew theater was something special.”

He wrote his first play—about George Gershwin—in high school, but he thought then he would be a journalist. An interview he did for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, where he interned between semesters at Columbia University, helped change his mind. “Lyndon Johnson was running for reelection to the Senate,” McNally remembers. “During our interview, he got a call from Lady Bird, and as he talked he was riffling through Playboy. So I put that in the article. His press people got very angry, but to me that moment was theater—much more interesting than what he had to say about oil depletion taxes.”

After college McNally worked as a stage manager at the Actors Studio in New York City and began writing a political satire that would become And Things That Go Bump in the Night. When a friend told him about a family whose sons needed a tutor for their yearlong European tour, however, he put the play aside—even before discovering that the family was named Steinbeck. “The trip worked out great,” McNally says—though John Steinbeck offered little career encouragement. “He kept saying, ‘Playwriting is the worst existence in the world.’ ”

Back in Manhattan, McNally soon saw Steinbeck’s point. Bump made it to Broadway in 1965 but survived a mere two weeks. Several odd-job—filled years passed before his first success.

Next, the story of a man mistakenly inducted into the Army, had a healthy off-Broadway run and led to mordant hits like Bad Habits (1974) and The Ritz (1975). “I’ve earned my living as a writer since 1967, though sometimes barely,” McNally says. “When you’re a grown-up, you’re not supposed to have $7.50 in your bank account.”

His balance is more respectable now. Three years ago he was able to buy a house in the Long Island countryside, the perfect complement to his one-bedroom flat in Greenwich Village. He lives alone but socializes often, with a circle of theater-world intimates that is smaller than it once was. McNally’s two best friends died—James Coco of a heart attack in 1987, actor Robert Drivas from AIDS in 1986—and he misses them still. “I think their deaths were part of my second wind,” McNally says. “I sort of felt I owed it to them to go on and contribute something to society. And I really believe they’re aware of my success.”