John Patrick Shanley was born in New York City on October 13, 1950. The fifth and youngest child of an Irish-born meatpacker and a telephone operator, Shanley grew up on Archer Street in the Bronx, a violent, brutal, racist neighborhood. During his childhood there, he was choked with an iron rod, beaten with a baseball bat, targeted by rock throwers, and at the age of ten, was hung upside down from the roof of a five-story building by two boys seeking vengeance for a snowball fight. Shanley insists that the development of his off-center, eccentric dialogue began during this time period, issuing from a desperate effort to survive. He perfected an elliptical manner of self-expression that would deflect his true intent and would not appear to offend or challenge his tormentors.
Shanley grew up in a household in which college was perceived as a waste of time. He has acknowledged that, as a child, he had no dreams for his future. He had been expelled three times from high schools in the Bronx when, in 1965, a Roman Catholic priest befriended him and helped him enroll in a boarding school in New Hampshire. At the age of nineteen, he dropped out of New York University, spending two years in the Marine Corps and three years at odd jobs. He returned to college and unexpectedly stumbled on playwriting, an occurrence that allowed him a much-needed means of self-expression. Graduating as class valedictorian, he received a B.S. degree from New York University in 1977. While working toward a master’s degree in theater, he was offered two fellowships—one in New York and the other in England. He declined both of them, electing instead to drop out of school and work as a bartender and house painter.
At this time, Shanley found himself in the midst of a prolific imaginative period. In a burst of creativity, he wrote plays and poetry, mainly exploring the memories of his earlier life in the Bronx. Unwilling to continue eking out a living writing plays and perhaps being forced to paint houses again, Shanley turned his out-of-the-ordinary talent toward screenwriting. His success in film granted him the time to continue writing plays.
His marriage of ten years came to an end in 1983, and, in 1988, he married actress Jayne Haynes. They later divorced.