William Luce, 'Belle of Amherst' and 'Barrymore' Playwright, Dies at 88

William Luce - Publicity - H 2019
Marc Raboy/Courtesy of Grant Hayter-Menzies

He wrote several dramas for Broadway legend Julie Harris.

William Luce, who wrote the 1976 Broadway play The Belle of Amherst for Julie Harris and the 1997 drama Barrymore that starred Christopher Plummer, died Monday. He was 88.

Luce died in a senior care facility in Green Valley, Arizona, after a battle with Alzheimer's disease, his godson, Grant Hayter-Menzies, told The Hollywood Reporter.

Over a 40-year career, Luce also worked with the likes of Zoe Caldwell, George C. Scott and Claire Bloom as he wrote about the private lives of Charlotte Brontë, Lillian Hellman, Isak Dinesen, Zelda Fitzgerald and others. 

The Belle of Amherst, his portrait of the reclusive Massachusetts poet Emily Dickinson, won Harris the fifth of her six Tony Awards, and her recording of the one-woman play netted a Grammy in 1978. Barrymore, about the gifted and self-destructive actor John Barrymore, earned Plummer his second Tony and was filmed for television.  

Born on Oct. 16, 1931, in Portland, Oregon, Luce was a published poet and a professional pianist and organist when he was tapped to write his first play, The Belle of Amherst, directed by Charles Nelson Reilly.

Its opening scene, in which Dickinson enters with a tea tray and blurts, "This is my introduction — black cake," came to him, Luce recalled, in a dream during a nap taken after wrestling with the material. The rest of the play, he said, flowed from there. 

Reilly liked to joked that he had "pulled Bill from the chorus," referring to Luce's work in the 1960s as a backup singer for such performers as Julie London. (A baritone, Luce also performed and recorded with the Roger Wagner and Robert Shaw chorales.) 

The humble Luce liked to say, "Charles Nelson Reilly and Julie Harris taught me all I know about the theater."

For Harris, he also wrote 1991's Lucifer's Child, another one-person show, this one about Danish writer Dinesen. Harris received a Tony nomination for her work.

Luce's play about English novelist and poet Brontë starred Harris as well and also was directed by Reilly. It was first staged in Ireland before making its way to public television in 1983. And he wrote Zelda, which starred Piper Laurie; Reilly was in charge of that one as well.

Luce also penned the screenplays for two CBS telefilms: 1986's The Last Days of Patton, starring George C. Scott and Eva Marie Saint, and 1988's The Woman He Loved, starring Harris, Olivia de Havilland and Jane Seymour.

Luce was predeceased by his partner of 50 years, designer Ray Lewis. By request, there will be no service.