James Kirkwood Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

James Kirkwood, Jr., perhaps best known as librettist for the Tony Award-winning musical A Chorus Line, contributed a variety of groundbreaking works to post-1960’s American literature not only as a dramatist but also as a novelist and nonfiction writer. While many groups align themselves with Kirkwood’s work, he is also known for his pioneering literary forays into changing social mores during the sexual revolution and his concise exploration of human emotion in both fiction and nonfiction.

Kirkwood began his life in 1924 in Hollywood as the child of two silent-era film stars. His father, James Kirkwood, Sr., worked as an actor and director. His mother, Lila Lee, was an ingenue whose career success was diminished by her recurring illnesses. Kirkwood’s parents divorced in his early childhood. Both Kirkwood, Sr., and Lee suffered dwindling success as actors, and Kirkwood was often sent to live with an aunt until the fortunes of his parents improved. By the time Kirkwood graduated from high school, he had attended eighteen different schools.

Kirkwood started in the theater not as a writer but as a child actor, acting on Broadway and in theatrical tours and summer stock. He also appeared on television numerous times and as part of the comedy team Kirkwood and Goodman. Kirkwood often expressed frustration for what he viewed as the negative aspects of acting—the auditioning, the rejection, and the inability to do his job without permission. He dealt with this frustration by beginning to write. He made the transition from actor to author with the publication of his first novel, There Must Be a Pony!, in 1961. Kirkwood admitted that this work, as well as many of his other novels and plays, contained an element of autobiography.

Kirkwood adapted his novel for the theater, but the play never...

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Kaye, Phyllis Johnson. National Playwrights Directory. 2d ed. Waterford, Conn.: O’Neill Theater Center, 1981. Offers a brief biography of Kirkwood, including information on published works, awards, and professional affiliations.

Kirkwood, James. “Good Times Getting Better.” Interview by Don Lee Keith. After Dark Magazine, February, 1972, 18-24. An in-depth and inclusive interview. Contains a variety of pictures spanning the novelist’s early life.

Lee, Baayork, et al. On the Line: The Creation of “A Chorus Line.” New York: William Morrow, 1990. A behind-the-scenes look at the making of the musical A Chorus Line, based on the recollections of a group of the original cast members. Includes brief discussions of Kirkwood’s contribution to the project, as seen through the eyes of others.