Bill C. Davis Dies: ‘Mass Appeal’ Playwright-Screenwriter Was 69

Courtesy family

Bill C. Davis, whose 1981 Broadway hit play Mass Appeal was adapted for a 1984 feature film starring Jack Lemmon and Željko Ivanek, died Feb. 26 of complications from Covid-19, his family announced. He was 69.

Born in Ellenville, NY, and raised in the state’s Hudson Valley, Davis attended Catholic schools and, after graduating from Poughkeepsie’s Marist College, worked at a residential community for developmentally disabled and emotionally disturbed adults in Rhinebeck, NY. He wrote Mass Appeal, about the conflicting personalities of a stern, conservative priest and a younger, rebellious seminarian, during his time in Rhinebeck.

Roberts, O’Shea 1980 Everett Collection

The play originally was produced Off Broadway in 1980 at the Manhattan Theatre Club, starring Milo O’Shea and Eric Roberts and directed by Geraldine Fitzgerald. Mass Appeal moved to Broadway the following year, with Michael O’Keefe taking over for Roberts.

The Broadway production earned Tony Award nominations for O’Shea and Fitzgerald.

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Davis wrote the screenplay for the 1984 film adaptation directed by Glenn Jordan, with Lemmon taking the role of the elder priest and Ivanek the young upstart. For the film, Davis expanded the story to include supporting characters, with Louise Latham and Charles Durning added to the cast.

In addition to Mass Appeal, Davis’ plays, many produced Off Broadway and regionally, include Dancing in the End Zone, Wrestlers, Spine, Avow, Coming2Terms, All Hallowed, Jeremiah Rules, Expatriate, Austin’s Bridge, Concierge, Household Accounts, The Human Cocktail, Open For Me, The Sex King, SIP, Spine, Village Rites and Visiting Day. He wrote the teleplay for the 1999 TV movie The Secret Path, starring Della Reese, Crystal Bernard and Ossie Davis.

Davis’ honors include the Outer Critics Circle Award, the Moliere Award, Critic’s Choice LA Times, a National Board of Review citation and the Dramalogue Award. He was playwright-in-residence at the Manhattan Theater Club and at Brooklyn College, and Playwright Mentor at Carnegie Mellon.

He is survived by brother Warren Davis, sister Patricia Marks and extended family members.

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