Feb. 2, 1958 — Nov. 3, 2022
In his junior year at Princeton, David E. Kelley ’79, a hockey jock with plans for law school, had a tight lunch schedule and invariably made do in the old East Pyne student center with a grilled cheese sandwich. One day, the line for hot food was too long, so Kelley just grabbed a bag of chips and a Coke. Suddenly, the short order cook on duty arrived unbidden at his table — with a grilled cheese.
The considerate cook was Douglas McGrath ’80, and a beautiful friendship was born. “He introduced me to the whole creative arts side of the Princeton equation,” recalls Kelley, who would go on to create a raft of hit television series such as Ally McBeal and The Practice. “Doug was like a can opener and said, ‘There’s other things to do here.’ And even though I did go on to law school, and became a lawyer, the seed that Doug had planted inside me about writing and telling stories was never extinguished.”
McGrath himself was a peerless storyteller. He cut his teeth in the Triangle Club and as a staff writer on Saturday Night Live, and eventually earned Oscar, Emmy, and Tony nominations for his work on Broadway and in Hollywood with creative collaborators from Woody Allen (Bullets Over Broadway) to Carole King (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical). At the time of his death on Nov. 3 from a massive heart attack at age 64, he was starring in Everything’s Fine, his own one-man, off-Broadway show about growing up in Midland, Texas.
“The reason he was a joyful person is because he essentially lived the life he wanted. He wanted to be a creator, he wanted to be independent. For lack of a better phrase, he was an entrepreneur of creativity.”
— Sandy McGrath ’84, brother
But to his friends and colleagues, it’s McGrath’s unwavering generosity and kindness that stood out. “Even in that last piece, which could have been this terrible tale of this teacher who developed a crush on [14-year-old] Doug,” says his classmate and friend Creigh Duncan ’80, “it wasn’t a situation of sexual harassment, but became this very uplifting quest of his to find forgiveness for this 47-year-old woman who was acting so oddly, and to try to understand the loneliness that drove her to that.”
Besides his multi-hyphenate career as a screenwriter-playwright-actor-director, McGrath also had impressive side gigs as a journalist and essayist, most recently for Air Mail, the weekly digital magazine founded by Vanity Fair’s longtime editor Graydon Carter. “All the best New Yorkers are from some other place, and Doug was that,” Alessandra Stanley, one of his editors there, says in an email. “He seemed to live in his own musical version of New York (McGrath!) and it was infectious: You wanted to step onto his stage and tap dance at his side.”
On the way to his office near Rockefeller Center each morning, McGrath would stop off at St. Thomas Episcopal Church on Fifth Avenue to light candles for those in need. His memorial service there drew 600 mourners — and warm remembrances from his sister, Mary, and brother, Alexander (Sandy) ’84.
“I’ll get hit with these bouts of disbelief and grief,” Sandy McGrath says, “and in his case, I very quickly rebound. The reason he was a joyful person is because he essentially lived the life he wanted. He wanted to be a creator, he wanted to be independent. For lack of a better phrase, he was an entrepreneur of creativity. He thrived in an arena where vanity and neuroses are common, and he never succumbed to them. He didn’t have his ego attached to achievement so much as he had it attached to creation.”
Todd Purdum ’82 is a longtime author and journalist.
Watch a reel of clips from Douglas McGrath ’80’s films, compiled when he was honored by the Austin Film Society in 2012: