Larry Kramer, 'Normal Heart' Playwright and AIDS Activist, Dies at 84

Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
Larry Kramer

Best known for his devastating chronicle of the early days of the AIDS crisis, he also wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for 'Women in Love.'

Larry Kramer, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter, playwright, author and trailblazing gay rights and AIDS activist best known for the Tony Award-winning The Normal Heart, has died. He was 84.

Kramer died Wednesday morning in Manhattan of pneumonia, his husband, architect David Webster, told The New York Times.

Born on June 25, 1935, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Kramer got his start in Hollywood, taking a job at age 23 as a Teletype operator at Columbia Pictures — a position he only took because of its proximity to the president's office. That led to a gig doing rewrites and polishes on scripts in the studio's story department.

He earned his first credit as a dialogue writer for Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, a long-forgotten teen sex comedy from 1968. The following year, Kramer received an Academy Award nomination for Women in Love, his adaptation of the novel by D.H. Lawrence directed by Ken Russell that starred Alan Bates, Oliver Reed and Glenda Jackson in an Oscar-winning turn.

He next wrote the screenplay for a 1973 version of Lost Horizon, starring Peter Finch and Liv Ullmann.

From early on in his career, Kramer wanted to explore themes of what it meant to be gay in America. That led him away from Hollywood and toward the New York stage, beginning with his 1973 play Sissies' Scrapbook, about a quartet of friends, one of whom was openly gay. He delved further into the topic with his first novel, 1978's Faggots.

The protagonist, based on Kramer, couldn't identify with the sex, drugs and disco-fueled lifestyle that dominated the New York gay scene in the late '70s. The book's honest but unflattering portrayal got Kramer branded a traitor to the gay community. Gay bookstores refused to carry it.

"People would literally turn their back when I walked by," Kramer told The New Yorker in 2002. "You know what my real crime was? I put the truth in writing. That's what I do: I have told the fucking truth to everyone I have ever met."

Kramer's critical, confrontational voice found a conduit, however, when a mysterious "gay cancer" started appearing in 1980. Suddenly, his angry truth-telling became a beacon to a terrified community on the verge of extinction. In his apartment, Kramer hosted the first meetings to address the deadly, nameless epidemic striking America's gay communities. Those meetings evolved into the Gay Men's Health Crisis, the world's first organization dedicated to fighting AIDS and helping those dying from the human immunodeficiency virus to cope.

Kramer wrote The Normal Heart in the period following his expulsion in 1983 from GMHC, which objected to his extreme tactics. Inspired by a tour of the Dachau concentration camp on a trip to Europe, he set to chronicling the onset of the AIDS crisis. The landmark play is set from 1981-84 and follows a writer named Ned Weeks who nurses his closeted lover, Felix Turner, as he wastes away from the still-nameless disease. The initial production starred Brad Davis (who in 1991 took his life after his own AIDS symptoms became too painful to bear) as Ned and Friday Night Lights star D.W. Moffett as Felix and ran for a record 294 off-Broadway performances at the Public Theater.

A Broadway revival of Normal Heart in 2011 starred Joe Mantello and John Benjamin Hickey and won three Tonys, including one for Ellen Barkin's interpretation of Dr. Brookner — the wheelchair-using infectious disease specialist who delivers a show-stopping blast of righteous fury in the play's second act. An HBO version, directed by Ryan Murphy, starred Mark Ruffalo, Matthew Bomer and Julia Roberts and bowed in 2014.

The long and painful road to that screen adaptation served as the basis for a THR cover story, which traced the at-times contentious relationship between Kramer and Barbra Streisand, who optioned the rights in 1986. The two quickly fell into arguments over the direction of the script. She insisted it needed to be opened up to make it more cinematic. Development dragged on until the mid-'90s, when Streisand, who had a deal at Columbia, felt the script almost was ready. While she originally had thought Dustin Hoffman should play Ned, she talked to Kenneth Branagh about the role, with Ralph Fiennes playing Felix. But a green light proved elusive, and Streisand went on to direct and star in The Mirror Has Two Faces. The project sat idle for 15 years, until Murphy entered the picture.

Envisioning Normal Heart as a theatrical release, Murphy also was working to find financing, eventually lining up support from Brad Pitt's Plan B Entertainment and Jason Blum's Blumhouse Productions. He hadn't planned to pitch it to HBO when he found himself in a meeting with HBO programming president Michael Lombardo about another project. When he heard about Normal Heart, Lombardo immediately said, "Ryan, that's what I want to do with you." Says the exec, "I used all my powers of persuasion to convince him more people would see it on HBO and we would treat it more respectfully in the way we marketed it. Thank goodness it didn't take much convincing."

"HBO is filming Normal Heart beautifully," Kramer told a crowd at an event moderated by Tony Kushner, writer of Angels in America and Lincoln. "This director is the greatest I've ever worked with, and I've worked with many. He wants people to really see how awful those years were — how awful the disease was."

A frail Kramer, his own health in question, had recently visited the shoot. Before Murphy called action on the first shot, an electric jolt ran through the set: The Supreme Court had just issued its landmark ruling in the case of United States v. Windsor, declaring that the Defense of Marriage Act, which barred the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage, was unconstitutional.

Suddenly, the crowd erupted in celebration. Like a soldier who couldn't quite believe the battle was over, Kramer was trying to process the fact that history — and Hollywood — had finally caught up with him. For three decades, he had been at the forefront of the gay rights movement, and just as often, he had been at odds with it, often accusing his fellow activists of not fighting hard enough, hectoring other gays for not fighting at all.

But his was a hard act to follow. In 1987, Kramer founded the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), the civil disobedience-friendly activist group fashioned in his militant image, whose story is told in the Oscar-nominated 2012 documentary How to Survive a Plague. Kramer learned he himself had contracted HIV in 1988, while in a hospital for an aggravated hernia, but the virus never progressed to AIDS. He wrote several more plays in the years that followed, including The Destiny of Me, the 1992 sequel to Normal Heart.

In 2001, Kramer was near death, but the cause was not AIDS, but liver disease. Rejected for a transplant because of his HIV status, Kramer began making final plans as Webster attended to him in their Greenwich Village apartment. The Associated Press mistakenly ran a headline that year that Kramer had died. Kramer campaigned for the rights of HIV patients and received a new liver that year. He married Webster from his hospital bed at NYU Langone Medical Center on July 24, 2013, where he was recovering from surgery. "'You're really getting everything good to happen to you before you die,'" Webster told him, according to Kramer.

In January 2014, as Murphy was still editing the movie, Kramer's health took a precarious turn. Murphy rushed a print to New York, showing the nearly completed film to Kramer and Webster. Kramer was overcome with the emotion of finally seeing the play committed to film, at least this one long battle finally behind him.