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Tom Stoppard

Tom Stoppard

Born Tomáš Straüssler on July 3, 1937 in Zlín, Czechoslovakia, he was the son of Martha Beckova and Eugen Straüssler, a doctor employed with the Bata shoe company, as were most of the small town's residents. Although neither was practicing, the fact that the Straüsslers were Jewish prompted their departure once the Germans began their occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1938. Like many of his coworkers, Eugen sought refuge for his family at another Bata company location in Singapore. Before long, however, the Japanese invasion of that country forced the doctor to place his wife and two sons on board a freighter bound for Austria. Knowing that his services would be needed in Singapore, Eugen remained behind, only to die in the conflict some time later. Evacuated to Darjeeling, India with his mother and brother, the five-year-old Tomáš began attending the American influenced, co-educational Mount Hermon School, where he soon altered his name to the Anglicized Tom. Picking up the English language came easily to Tom, whose mother remarried to a British major named Kenneth Stoppard in 1945. The following year, the Stoppard family relocated to England and Tom continued his education at the Dolphin School in Nottinghamshire, completing his studies at Pocklington School in East Riding, Yorkshire. A degree at university, however, was not in the cards for Stoppard, who chose instead to enter a career in journalism in 1954.Hired on as a journalist with the Western Daily Press in Bristol, the 17-year-old Stoppard began to hone his skills as a writer, although the minutia of reporting interested him little. In 1958, he was offered a position as feature writer, humorist and theater critic at the Bristol Evening World and it was there that he struck up a friendship with the young actor Peter O'Toole, who was making a name for himself on the stage of the Bristol Old Vic. Moving to London, Stoppard became a drama critic for the short-lived Scene magazine and began pursuing work as a freelance writer for radio and television. His first novel, Lord Malquist and Mr. Moon was published to little fanfare at around this time as well. Based on the response to his first stage play, "A Walk on the Water" - which was staged in Hamburg and later adapted for British television - Stoppard received a Ford Foundation grant that enabled him to write the play that would become "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead." Soon after it was first presented, the playful, breathlessly inventive "Hamlet" reinterpretation in the absurdist tradition of Beckett and Pinter made a name for Stoppard, even as it left many in the audience scratching their collective heads.In the meantime, Stoppard made strides in his television efforts, scripting small screen adaptations of his early dramas "A Separate Peace" (BBC, 1966) and "Another Moon Called Earth" (BBC, 1967).That same year, an opening of "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead" at the revered Old Vic Theatre, suddenly made the struggling dramatist an overnight sensation. The following year, the playwright won his first Tony Award after the play enjoyed a successful run on Broadway. Stoppard consolidated his reputation with the philosophical whodunit "Jumpers" (1972) and the Wildean historical farce "Travesties" (1974), with the latter earning him another Tony. With his first work on a feature film, Stoppard set a precedent of collaborating with authors on adaptions of their own work, as he did with Thomas Wiseman for director Joseph Losey's "The Romantic Englishwoman" (1975). Though he had professed a desire to write a film of his own, Stoppard typically utilized his story ideas for stage plays, initially preferring to adapt the works of novelists like Jerome K. Jerome's travelogue "Three Men in a Boat" (1975), starring Tim Curry and Michael Palin. One of the criticisms frequently leveled at Stoppard had been that he employed his linguistic virtuosity strictly in an effort to entertain and impress, with no effort made to explore deeper subject matter. In response, the playwright demonstrated his global conscience when he attacked Soviet Europe's treatment of its workers in 1977's "Every Good Boy Deserves Favour" - play with music by Andre Previn - and skillfully satirized ethics (or lack thereof) in the field of journalism with the acclaimed "Night and Day" the following year.For film, however, Stoppard stuck to his practice of interpreting existing works of literature, including an adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's "Despair" (1978) for German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder and an updating of Graham Greene's Cold War thriller "The Human Factor" (1979) with revered filmmaker Otto Preminger. As a playwright, Stoppard continued to enhance his reputation as England's preeminent man of words with such award-winning works as the contemporary love story "The Real Thing" (1982), which exposed a more personal, emotional side of the author than ever before. Breaking from his own cinematic tradition, Stoppard collaborated with Monty Python alum Terry Gilliam on the original screenplay of the eccentric filmmaker's Kafkaesque dark fantasy "Brazil" (1985) and earned himself an Oscar nomination for his efforts. Stoppard continued to loan out his talents as a work-for-hire artist in Hollywood for much of the decade, which saw little from the playwright in terms of theatrical output. He was director Steven Spielberg's choice to adapt J. G. Ballard's World War II drama "Empire of the Sun" (1987), a reasonable notion given the writer's own early childhood in war torn Singapore. Less predictable was his uncredited work on the dialogue for Spielberg's "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" (1989), which only made Stoppard harder to define and added to his mystique.Making his directorial debut, Stoppard helmed his own film adaptation of "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" (1990) with rising stars Gary Oldman and Tim Roth in the title roles. More novel adaptations followed with a feature film version of John Le Carre's Soviet-set espionage tale "The Russia House" (1990), starring Sean Connery, and the Dustin Hoffman vehicle "Billy Bathgate" (1991), based on the mob novel by E.L. Doctorow. The stage play "Arcadia" (1993) - a tragi-comic exploration of truth, history and chaos theory - was seen not only as a triumph and return to form, but a next step in the grand evolutionary process of Stoppard as an artist. His "The Invention of Love" (1997), based on the life of English poet and classical scholar A.E. Housman, was full of the trademark Stoppard wit, but also raised questions about the crushing effect a rigid, overly righteous society has upon the individual whose leanings fall outside the accepted norm. For director Bob Rafelson, Stoppard scripted the TV movie adaptation of the private eye drama "Poodle Springs" (HBO, 1998) from crime novelist Robert B. Parker's posthumous collaboration with Raymond Chandler, who had left the novel unfinished at the time of his death.Co-written with Marc Norman, director John Madden's "Shakespeare in Love" (1998) - a witty and romantic fictionalized account of a young William Shakespeare (Ralph Fiennes) wooing a headstrong maiden (Gwyneth Paltrow) as he attempts to write his greatest play - won Stoppard an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Long established as one of Great Britain's most valued artists, Stoppard - who had already been knighted in 1997 - was admitted to the country's Order of Merit in 2000. Stoppard later earned yet another Tony Award for Best Play with his 2002 trilogy of plays built around the philosophical debates of 19th century pre-revolutionary Russia, "The Coast of Utopia." Of all the classic literary works he had adapted for the screen, perhaps Stoppard's most ambitious undertaking was the epic "Anna Karenina" (2012), directed by Joe Wright and starring Keira Knightley as Tolstoy's 19th century heroine. And after 30 years away from British television, Stoppard returned to the medium to script and executive produce the miniseries "Parade's End" (BBC, 2012). Based on a set of novels by Ford Madox Ford, it starred Benedict Cumberbatch as a man dutifully enduring a loveless marriage amidst the turmoil of World War I.By Bryce Coleman