Ron Nyswaner was a writer, director, and producer whose most renowned accomplishment was penning the Oscar-winning film "Philadelphia" (1993). A successful role model for ambitious gay men everywhere, Nyswaner's sexual orientation only enhanced his career, as he enjoyed decades of success writing for film, TV, stage, and even book shelves, following the release of his 2004 memoir of near self-destruction, Blue Days, Black Nights. An activist and in-demand speaker for gay rights and AIDS causes, he also devoted considerable time to the independent film community, working with the Sundance and Woodstock Film Festivals.
Ronald Nyswaner was born on Oct. 5, 1956, in the small Pennsylvania coalmining town of Clarksville. In his memoir Blue Days, Black Nights, he reflected that he was "raised by stoic parents who abhorred self-examination," which may have had something to do with his pursuit of a double major in psychology and writing at the University of Pittsburgh. He further crafted his talent for storytelling and exploring complex characters when he earned a Masters Degree in Film at Columbia University in New York. While he was a graduate student there, he was approached by indie filmmaker Susan Seidelman, of "Desperately Seeking Susan" (1984) fame, who came to the school looking for a writer to help her flesh out an idea she had for a film about a young, downtown, wannabe rocker with a snotty attitude and no discernable talent. The edgy "Smithereens" (1982) received considerable attention and was the first American independent film to premiere at the Main Competition at the Cannes Film Festival.
Based on the newcomer's success right out of the gate, Nyswaner was tapped to co-write the World War II drama, "Swing Shift" (1984), starring Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell. The film introduced Nyswaner to friend and future collaborator Jonathan Demme. That same year saw the release of another period piece, "Mrs. Soffel" (1984), a turn-of-the-century prison drama based on a true story and starring Mel Gibson and Diane Keaton, the latter of whom received a Golden Globe nomination for her role.
Nyswaner revisited his Keystone State roots with a 1988 film about an unhappy teenager growing up in a mining town. "The Prince of Pennsylvania" was also his directorial debut and helped boost the career of the film's star, Keanu Reeves. Nyswaner continued his steady stream of work by writing screenplays for forgettable films like "Gross Anatomy" (1989), about a rebel med school student (Matthew Modine) and "Love Hurts" (1991), a Jeff Daniels romantic comedy set in - no surprise - Pennsylvania.
At the time he was shooting "The Prince of Pennsylvania" Nyswaner and Jonathan Demme began talking about making a movie about the hush-hush issue of AIDS. The two batted around several ideas over a span of a few years until 1990, when they hit on the idea of attaching it to a courtroom drama. They cemented the characters and plot and for the next two years, Nyswaner dedicated himself to writing "Philadelphia" (1993). The highly-touted story of a lawyer dismissed from his law firm after it is revealed that he has AIDS, earned Nyswaner script nominations from the Academy, Golden Globes, Writers Guild, and BAFTAs. Some critics thought the film was a sanitized, timid take on the reality of the issues, but it was generally revered. Most importantly, "Philadelphia" marked an important milestone, as it was the first time a mainstream studio film addressed the not-so-pleasant issues of homophobia, gay rights and AIDS.
Nyswaner had always been openly gay throughout his career, but "Philadelphia" transformed him into a major figure in the gay and lesbian communities, as well as a well-respected speaker on issues of tolerance. Despite his position in the spotlight, Nyswaner's writing output dipped significantly for years, though his first play "Oblivion Postponed" was staged in New York in 1995 to lukewarm reviews and in 1997, "Star Maps," which he had co-produced, premiered at Sundance. A 2004 memoir, Blue Days, Black Nights, explained his absence from the Hollywood scene with its harrowing tale of drug addiction and chaos that resulted from an unhealthy relationship and some unresolved issues that came back to haunt and almost kill the talented writer.
The book was released not long after a recovering Nyswaner was heaped with praise for "Soldier's Girl" (2003), a Showtime movie based on the true story of Private Barry Winchell, a young soldier who was murdered for having an affair with a transgender lover. "Soldier's Girl" debuted at Sundance and went on to win a Peabody Award, three Golden Globe nominations, an Emmy nomination, a Television Critics Association nomination, a Gotham Award, and was named one of the 10 outstanding television events of the year by the AFI (American Film Institute).
Now at the top of his game again, Nyswaner was busier than ever with both film and TV. In 2004, he was tapped to help develop a hospital drama for CBS, but the project never made it onto the fall schedule. Working with Julia Roberts' production company Red Om, he scripted "The Monk Downstairs," a romantic comedy about a single mother renting an apartment to a tenant who has been in a monastery for 20 years, as well as Sam Raimi's "A Trial By Jury," based on a true tale of a murder in the Manhattan underground of transvestites and hustlers.
In late 2006, Nyswaner was again recognized for his screenwriting with a National Board of Review award and Independent Spirit Award nomination for "The Painted Veil," an adaptation of the Somerset Maugham novel about a strained married couple (Edward Norton and Naomi Watts) surviving a relocation to Shanghai. The screenwriter's next several projects were slated to include a film based on the events of a Pennsylvania town's 2005 trial which barred the teaching of creationism in classrooms, and "The Devil's Highway," based on a 2001 incident involving the troubled desert crossing of a group of Mexican immigrants. The writer also maintained plans to adapt his memoir into a screenplay.
Outside of writing screenplays, Nyswaner found time to serve as a board member of the Woodstock Film Festival and as artistic director of the Sundance Film Festival. He was also a founding member of the Actors & Writers Theater Company, located near his home in New York's Hudson River Valley. For his extensive work as a speaker and advocate for the gay and lesbian community and people with AIDS, Nyswaner received recognition from the AIDS National Interfaith Network, Action AIDS Philadelphia, EpiCure, the Night of Stars Ball, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and the Ryan White Youth Service Awards.
Director (Feature Film)
Cast (Feature Film)
Writer (Feature Film)
Producer (Feature Film)
Film Production - Main (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Feature Film)
First feature screenplay produced, "Smithereens"
Penned the romance "Mrs. Soffel"
Feature directorial debut, "Prince of Pennsylvania"
Co-wrote the screenplay for "Gross Anatomy"
Wrote the screenplay for the AIDS-themed drama "Philadelphia"; received Oscar and Golden Globe nominations
Co-produced "Star Maps," which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival
Wrote the screenplay for the critically acclaimed, "Soldier's Girl," which tells the true story of the murder of Pfc. Barry Winchell
Penned the screenplay for "The Painted Veil" starring Edward Norton and Naomi Watts; earned an Independent Spirit Award Nomination for Best Screenplay