Playwright, copywriter, and screenwriter Robert E. Somerfeld died last week. He was 90.
Born in Chicago to Mary Somerfeld (née Rose) and Moses Somerfeld, Robert had his first
production as a professional writer at age 13 with Junior Junction at ABC Radio Network. He authored prize-winning books on mental magic in 1951 and 1952 and graduated from the University of Illinois in 1953, where he edited a college humor magazine and played college basketball.
After attending graduate school at UCLA, Robert went on to become a Clio award-winning ad agency copywriter in New York and Los Angeles. He had a robust freelance career writing for major corporations such as IBM, Mobil, and Pfizer. In 1963, he wrote the acclaimed short film Weekend Pass, which launched his screenwriting career. Throughout the 1960s, he pitched, developed, and completed numerous TV movies (including Love Hate Love with Ryan O’Neal and Lesley Ann Warren), feature films, and TV shows. Rod Serling, a friend and mentor, recalled Robert as “an enormous talent with an unerring sense of humor.”
But he may have been best known as an absurdist playwright of such one-act plays such as The Silent Men (La MaMa), The Projection Room (Lucille Lortel Theatre), and Yo Yo (Ensemble Studio Theatre), all produced in New York’s Off- and Off-Off-Broadway circle in the late 1960s and ’70s. Other theatre credits include Richie (Orpheum Theatre, 1980) and Whistler’s Mummy (a staged reading with Kathleen Chalfant, directed by David Schweitzer, at Playwrights Horizons in 2007).
Honors and awards include the prestigious Audrey Wood National Playwriting Award for his first full-length play, Hugger, Mugger (1976), and the Dramatists Guild Playwriting Award for Revelation Pie (1990). His 40+ plays were performed internationally, with favorable reviews in The New York Times, the L.A. Times and the Village Voice. He was a member of the Dramatists Guild of America, the Writers Guild of America, the Westport Theatre Group, and the Circle Rep Playwright Project, and was a devoted mentor to many young playwrights and screenwriters. He also taught writing to blind and low-vision students at NYC’s Lighthouse Guild. Richard Kostelanetz, author of the book, The End of Intelligent Writing, called Somerfeld “one of the most interesting recent playwrights.”
He is survived by his wife of 53 years, writer Nancy Swallow Somerfeld, his two daughters (also writers), Gretchen Somerfeld and Erika Somerfeld, and his stepson, Jesse Daughtrey.
Gretchen Somerfeld is an NYU Tisch graduate and screenwriter whose work focuses on historical drama, as well as adaptation. Secret Weapon, her screenplay on actress/inventor Hedy Lamarr, has received the Alfred P. Sloan award, the Writers Lab/Meryl Streep honor, inclusion in the Film Independent Writers Lab, and received a staged reading at the Hamptons International Film Festival.
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