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Arguably one of the most prolific and influential playwrights of the latter-20th century, David Mamet amassed a body of work that became famous for his spare, gritty and often profane language which also possessed such a unique cadence that his dialogue was dubbed "Mamet speak." Noted for his strong male characters and their macho posturing, Mamet's knack for creating low-key yet highly charged verbal confrontations in a male-dominated world consistently made his work fodder for discussion and deconstruction. Mamet was also routinely called a misogynist for his inability to create meaningful female characters, though he met such criticism head-on by penning several works centered on strong women. Indelibly tied to the Chicago theater scene, Mamet gained attention with "American Buffalo" (1975) and "A Life in the Theatre" (1977) before making the transition to the big screen with the scripts for "The Postman Always Rings Twice" (1981) and "Verdict" (1982). Following major awards for the stage plays "Edmund" (1982) and "Glengarry Glenn Ross" (1984) - the latter of which was turned into a memorable 1992 film - Mamet made his directorial debut with the lauded thriller "House of Games" (1987). Also that...
Arguably one of the most prolific and influential playwrights of the latter-20th century, David Mamet amassed a body of work that became famous for his spare, gritty and often profane language which also possessed such a unique cadence that his dialogue was dubbed "Mamet speak." Noted for his strong male characters and their macho posturing, Mamet's knack for creating low-key yet highly charged verbal confrontations in a male-dominated world consistently made his work fodder for discussion and deconstruction. Mamet was also routinely called a misogynist for his inability to create meaningful female characters, though he met such criticism head-on by penning several works centered on strong women. Indelibly tied to the Chicago theater scene, Mamet gained attention with "American Buffalo" (1975) and "A Life in the Theatre" (1977) before making the transition to the big screen with the scripts for "The Postman Always Rings Twice" (1981) and "Verdict" (1982). Following major awards for the stage plays "Edmund" (1982) and "Glengarry Glenn Ross" (1984) - the latter of which was turned into a memorable 1992 film - Mamet made his directorial debut with the lauded thriller "House of Games" (1987). Also that year, he wrote one of his better screenplays, "The Untouchables" (1987), for director Brian De Palma, while launching one of his many broadsides against show business with the play "Speed-the-Plow" (1988). Mamet tackled calls of misogyny with "Oleanna" (1992), a theatrical piece that addressed sexual politics between two equally matched characters struggling for psychological domination over the other. Continuing to make his mark on film, he wrote "Wag the Dog" (1998) before directing "The Spanish Prisoner" (1998) and "State and Main" (2000), all three of which earned him considerable critical praise. Though he took a surprising turn into mainstream Hollywood fare by penning the original draft of the thriller "Hannibal" (2001), Mamet found more artistic freedom in small projects like "Spartan" (2004), before again catching critics off-guard by creating his first television show, "The Unit" (CBS, 2006-09). Despite the constant analysis of his life and work, Mamet managed to remain somewhat of an enigma, particularly in Hollywood, where he had considerable influence while maintaining a healthy distance from it.
Born on Nov. 30, 1947 in Chicago, IL, Mamet was raised in a Jewish community on the Southside by his father, Bernard, a labor lawyer, and his mother, Lenore. When he was 11 years old, his parents divorced, leaving him to split time between the two - his mother moved to the more pastoral suburbs, while his father remained in Chicago proper. A particularly rough time for him, Mamet suffered both physical and psychological abuse, namely from his new stepfather, as he later detailed in his essay "The Rake: A Few Scenes from My Childhood," though the essay detailed numerous occasions where his sister, Lynne, was receiving the worst of it. While attending high school, he worked as a busboy at the famed Chicago comedy club, Second City, which fueled ambitions to become an actor. That led Mamet to attend Goddard College in Vermont, where he trained as an actor while studying literature. During his junior year, he spent a year off-campus studying at The Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in New York City. Upon graduation, the unemployed actor returned to Chicago to work for a shady real estate company - the inspiration for his Pulitzer Prize-winning "Glengarry Glenn Ross" - before turning to playwriting, which led to his first produced production, "Lakeboat" (1970), being staged in Vermont. Drawing from his experience as a cook aboard a cargo ship while on summer vacation in high school, "Lakeboat" demonstrated an early knack for rhythmic dialogue, coarse language and an ability to accurately portray working class men operating on the fringes of society.
In 1971, Mamet once again finding himself back at Goddard - this time as a drama teacher - where one of his students turned out to be William H. Macy, with whom he would forge a decades-long collaboration. During this time, he founded the St. Nicholas Theatre Company with Macy and director Steven Schachter, which soon moved to Mamet's native Chicago. As both an actor and part-time playwright, Mamet found success with the latter vocation after "Sexual Perversity in Chicago" won the Jefferson Award for Best New Chicago Play. Ditching acting altogether to focus on writing, Mamet gained widespread attention when "American Buffalo" (1975), about three smalltime con men, made it to Broadway. While lecturing on drama at the University of Chicago and Yale Drama School, he found more stage success with "A Life in the Theatre" (1977), which explored the relationship between two actors; one young, the other old. The following year, Mamet was appointed the artistic director and playwright-in-residence at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, while making his onscreen debut with a 1979 adaptation of "A Life in the Theatre" for PBS' "Great Performances" series.
Following a revised version of "Lakeboat" hitting the stage, Mamet made an impressive film debut with his first produced screenplay, "The Postman Always Rings Twice" (1981), adapted from the novel by James M. Cain and directed by Bob Rafelson. A remake of the 1946 movie of the same name, the crime noir focused on Frank Chambers (Jack Nicholson), a Depression-era drifter who finds work at a diner, only to have an affair with the owner's wife (Jessica Lange). Soon the lovers plot to kill the diner owner (John Colicos) in order to get the insurance money. Though containing far more explicit sex scenes between the two adulterers, including the infamous scene on a kitchen table, this version of "Postman" dragged under Rafelson's slow pacing while many question the casting of Nicholson, who was deemed too old for the role. Returning to the stage, he won an OBIE Award for "Edmond" (1982), which made its premiere performance at the Goodman Theatre. Though critically praised, the play's racially charged dialogue, which contained numerous slurs against African-Americans, caused outrage across some college campuses, which refused to stage the play.
Mamet next wrote the script for "The Verdict" (1982), a courtroom drama about an alcoholic Boston lawyer (Paul Newman) who takes on a medical malpractice case that ultimately serves as his redemption. Hailed by critics and embraced by audiences, "The Verdict" became Mamet's first success on the big screen, earning him an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. Once again drawing upon his own experiences, Mamet wrote the play for "Glengarry Glenn Ross" (1984), a searing meditation on manhood that focused on a group of shady real estate agents on the fringes who resort to lying, manipulation, deception and even theft to survive. Arguably his best play, "Glengarry Glenn Ross" opened at the National Theatre before moving on to Broadway, where it was nominated for four Tony Awards while also earning him the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Following a lesser stage work, "The Shawl" (1985), and the adaptation of "Sexual Perversity" into the Rob Lowe/Demi Moore feature "About Last Night " (1986), Mamet made his directorial debut with "House of Games" (1987). Based on his own script, the engrossing psychological thriller about a successful psychologist (Lindsay Crouse), who gets pulled into a confidence game by a con man and debtor to a gambler she is trying to help. Chock full of deception and numerous plot twists, "House of Games" was widely praised for both its psychological and emotional complexity.
Having perhaps his greatest success on the silver screen, Mamet scripted "The Untouchables" (1987), Brian De Palma's blockbuster update of the well-remembered TV series about FBI agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) and his obsessive goal of taking down notorious gangster Al Capone (Robert De Niro). While nominated for four Academy Awards, Mamet was unfortunately left off that list, but still praised for creating what film critic Pauline Kael called "a wonderful potboiler." Also that year, he published his first book, Writing in Restaurants (1987), a series of essays that addressed numerous issues dealing with contemporary American theater. Sitting back down in the director's chair, Mamet wrote and directed the whimsical comedy "Things Change" (1988), starring longtime collaborator Joe Mantegna as a mob henchman tasked with keeping an eye on an 80-year-old shoeshine man (Don Ameche) who was arrested for a crime he did not commit. He next wrote his first of several show business satires, "Speed-the-Plow" (1988), which premiered on Broadway with a cast that featured Joe Mantegna, Ron Silver and an ill-suited Madonna.
Mamet reprised the Bob Gould character from "Speed-the-Plow" for the one-act "Bob Gould in Hell" (1989), before writing the script for "We're No Angels" (1989), a comedy by Neil Jordan about two escaped 1930s convicts (Robert De Niro and Sean Penn) hiding out as priests. He teamed up with Mantegna, Macy and Ving Rhames for his next feature directing effort, the occasionally gripping, but uneven police thriller "Homicide" (1991), which focused on a spiritually disillusioned detective (Mantegna) who investigates the murder of an elderly Jewish woman that ultimately forces him to question his own ethical roots. Mamet followed with another banner year, putting on the play "Oleanna" (1992), a searing psychological drama about a female student who accuses her professor of sexual exploitation. Next he wrote and produced "Hoffa" (1992), directed by Danny De Vito, which starred Jack Nicholson as the famed Teamsters Union leader who mysteriously went missing. Meanwhile, "Glengarry Glenn Ross" (1992) was adapted to the screen and featured an all-star cast including Kevin Spacey, Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris and Al Pacino. Adapted by the playwright himself, Mamet wrote a new scene for the film that allowed Alec Baldwin to deliver a seven-minute tirade - his only scene in the film - that was arguably the most vitriolic dressing-down ever captured on film.
Never fully leaving behind his desire to teach, Mamet routinely imparted his creative wisdom in a number of books and essays throughout the year. Perhaps his most noted was On Directing Film (1991), in which he expressed his views on modern cinema, namely in the form of rejecting accepted conventions while embracing the work of montage theorist Sergei Eisenstein. The book derived from a series of classes he held at New York' Columbia University. Mamet next directed a film adaptation of "Oleanna" (1994), starring Bill Macy as the professor and Debra Eisenstadt as the accusing student. While the play seemed to address prior calls of misogyny by creating a dimensional female lead, Mamet's film version struggled to define itself. After writing the OBIE-winning play, "The Cryptogram" (1995), Mamet adapted his play, "American Buffalo" (1996), for the big screen, which starred Dustin Hoffman and Dennis Franz. He next wrote the biting political satire, "Wag the Dog" (1997), which starred Hoffman as a big shot film producer hired by a scheming political consultant to orchestrate a fake war two weeks before an election in order to re-elect a vulnerable president (Michael Bilson). Mamet co-shared an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay with original scribe, Hilary Henkin, though controversy swirled over how much either writer contributed to the final draft. The situation turned a tad ugly when director Barry Levinson threatened to quit the Writer's Guild, arguing that Mamet had written all the dialogue while creating several new characters.
After returning to Broadway with "The Old Neighborhood" (1997), Mamet published Three Uses of the Knife: On the Nature and Purpose of Drama (1998), which discussed his conscious and unconscious processes for writing. He next returned to the director's chair with "The Spanish Prisoner" (1998), a "House of Games"-like psychological thriller about a corporate executive (Campbell Scott) taken for a ride by a wealthy man (Steve Martin) in an elaborate confidence game. The film also starred Mamet's second wife, Rebecca Pidgeon, who almost exclusively worked with her husband. He went on to write "Ronin" (1998), director John Frankenheimer's taut post-Cold War spy thriller that starred Robert De Niro as a former CIA agent who infiltrates a crew put together by the IRA in order to steal a case with unknown contents. Once again frustrated by having to share screenplay credit, Mamet used the pseudonym Richard Weisz instead of his own name. Mamet moved on to his first love, the theater, to address continuous criticism over his alleged inability to write three-dimensional female characters. The result was "Boston Marriage" (1999), which he directed for the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA, and starred Rebecca Pidgeon and Felicity Huffman as two turn-of-the-20th-century women with an ambiguous relationship.
Mamet next directed "The Winslow Boy" (1999), an unlikely G-rated addition to his oeuvre based on the real-life story of a young naval cadet (Guy Edwards) in 1912 England who unexpectedly returns home from the academy after being accused of stealing a five schilling postal order. Convinced of their boy's innocence, the Winslows persuade England's leading attorney (Jeremy Northam) to take on the case amidst a growing national frenzy that exacts a heavy price upon the family. Little seen by audiences because of limited release, "The Winslow Boy" nonetheless enjoyed a small degree of critical kudos. Also in 1999, Mamet penned the script for HBO's "Lansky," a gangster biopic about the life and times of Meyer Lansky (Richard Dreyfuss), who rose up from the streets of New York City to become one of the most notorious-and celebrated Mafia kingpins. He next wrote and directed "State and Main" (2000), a biting and often hilarious satire depicting a Hollywood takeover of a small New England town by a film crew run out of a neighboring community because of the star's predilection for under-aged girls. Mamet's well-known distaste for Hollywood was on full display in his characterizations of a practically callous director (William H. Macy), a devious and aggressive producer (David Paymer) and the self-absorbed star (Alec Baldwin) who is taken in by a crafty local girl (Julia Stiles).
Mamet next adapted his 1970 play "Lakeboat" (2001) into a feature film, which focused on a semi-autobiographical drama about a young Ivy League student (Tony Mamet), who spends a summer as a cook aboard a steamboat populated by men whose subculture is completely foreign to him. He next wrote the original draft for Ridley Scott's "Hannibal" (2001), a shock to those understanding of Mamet's distaste for mainstream Hollywood movies. A long-planned sequel to the Oscar-winning "Silence of the Lambs" (1991), "Hannibal" was written by Mamet in a month while he prepped to direct his next feature, "Heist" (2001). The hastily-produced draft and Mamet's general unavailability led Scott to bring on Steven Zaillian to write subsequent drafts, which forced the latter writer to share screen credit with Mamet; an ironic twist given Mamet's own battles with sharing writer credit. But he was also busy with "Heist," a talky crime thriller starring Gene Hackman as an aging thief forced into one last job following a botched robbery that ended with him getting caught on a security camera. Back in the director's chair again, he wrote and directed "Spartan" (2004), a low-key political thriller about a stalwart Secret Service agent (Val Kilmer) who tries to find the kidnapped daughter of a high-ranking official.
Mamet produced three more plays - "Dr. Faustus" (2004), "Romance" (2005) and "The Voysey Inheritance" (2005) -while making a rare foray into series television by directing the season three episode "Strays" (2004) for "The Shield" (FX, 2002-08). Because of his positive experience on the show, he approached executive producer Shawn Ryan with the idea of creating a series around a special forces unit, inspired by Mamet's reading of Eric Haney's nonfiction book, Inside Delta Force (2002).With Ryan's less abrasive approach to handling studio executives, they managed to sell their show and put it on air. Starring Dennis Haysbert, Robert Patrick and Regina Taylor, "The Unit" (CBS, 2006-09) showed the inside lives of the members of a fictional Special Forces team that is routinely uprooted from their comfortable-and often troubled-domestic lives to handle a vast array of geopolitical crises. Though ratings were substandard, the show managed to hang on for four seasons before the network finally canceled. Back in the feature world, Mamet wrote and directed "Redbelt" (2008), a small-budget mixed martial arts movie about a Jiu-Jitsu master (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who is conned by a group of celebrities, including a big movie star (Tim Allen), to enter the ring again after spending his life exclusively as an instructor. Meanwhile, Mamet returned to Broadway with "Race" (2009), which followed three attorneys - two black, one white - who must defend a white man charged with a crime against a black woman.
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"I'm a writer, trying to work from day to day and tell a story. As far as reaching people, I don't think it's the wrfiter's job to reach people. It's the writer's job to write." --David Mamet to Daily News, November 2, 1994.
"When I'm making a movie, I'm just about as happy as I can be. I'm playing doll house with my best friends." --Mamet quoted in The New YorkerR, November 17, 1997.
"They call a movie 'art house' until they find out people like it, in which case it's mainstream. Art house just means no one wants to release it very widely." --Mamet to The Hollywood Reporter, November 11, 2000.
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