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Steve Tesich

Steve Tesich

Tesich moved to NYC to pursue graduate studies at Columbia University and later, while employed as a caseworker for the Department of Welfare, wrote plays in his spare time. "The Carpenters," the first of six plays produced at the American Place Theater, opened Off-Broadway in 1970. Written just after the turmoil of the 60s, it featured the demise of a family as metaphor for a fragmenting society. His Broadway debut, "Division Street" (1980), came after the success of "Breaking Away" and told the story of a radical trying to rid himself of the past. He would not write another play for nine years, choosing instead to concentrate on film.Tesich mined his undergraduate experience for "Breaking Away," pitting a group of Bloomington 'townies' against their more privileged IU counterparts. The sentimental and uplifting victory of the underdog townies in the climactic scene's team bicycle race, coupled with the film's idyllic portrayal of middle-America, expressed Tesich's warm feelings as a welcomed outsider. Although none of his other five movies came up to the level of "Breaking Away," all were thoughtful and literate. His thriller "Eyewitness" (1980) went off in too many directions, but he rebounded nicely with the consistently absorbing, autobiographical "Four Friends" (1981). Lovingly crafted by director Arthur Penn and Tesich, "Four Friends" delved much deeper into the lives of its youthful characters than had "Breaking Away" and revealed some tarnish discoloring Tesich's immigrant American dream. He fashioned a highly sensible adaptation of John Irving's novel for George Roy Hill's film version of "The World According to Garp" (1982) and returned to cycling for the likable but pat "American Flyers" (1985). His final film, "Eleni" (1985), set in Greece but mirroring his father's Yugoslavian anti-Communism, reunited him with "Breaking Away" director Peter Yates, but as in "Eyewitness" they faltered, delivering a flat, crudely biased pic.Unhappy with the film-by-committee structure he increasingly encountered, Tesich fled L.A. to write for the New York stage. He encountered little success but was much happier exploring "this wonderfully messy life on Earth" than cranking out formula fare for the Hollywood mill. "Speed of Darkness" (1990), a grim tale about the divergent experiences of two Vietnam veterans, failed on Broadway, and "Square One," about the end of a marriage, and the post-apocalyptic "On the Open Road" (1993) were full of regretful pessimism about America's retreat into selfishness. His last produced play, "Arts & Leisure" (1996), continued developing this theme, using his lead character, drama critic Alex Chaney, to personify the mass desensitization of the modern American character. Tesich's final call to us to stop watching dispassionately and " . . . simply participate actively in the life around you" fell largely on deaf ears. While on vacation with his family in Canada, Tesich suffered a fatal heart attack and died on July 1, 1996.
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