A Hit Man's Life

From Annie to The Producers, Thomas Meehan, 72, continues to spin Broadway gold

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Thomas Meehan is sipping coffee by the rooftop pool of the tony Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills. From the ankles up, he's obviously a visitor from the Northeast, swathed in a tweed jacket despite the sunny skies and warm temperature. But on his feet is a dash of West Coast: a brand-new pair of brown suede New Balance sneakers. "Mel got me these," he explains. "He said I looked too much like a New Yorker in my black dress shoes." The munificent Mel is Mel Brooks, and the bond between Meehan and Brooks has been that much stronger since the duo teamed up to spin Brooks' 1968 film The Producers into a Broadway hit--an effort that earned both men Tonys in 2001.

Now Meehan, who looks more like a comparative-literature professor than the zany other half of a comedic duo, is visiting California to see if another Brooks film, Young Frankenstein (1974), can yield the same dividends as their previous endeavor. And if that means wearing a pair of suede sneakers, then so be it.

When it comes to recasting films as Broadway musicals, Meehan's got cachet in movie circles. Last year he helped turn John Waters' 1988 cult film Hairspray into a Broadway blockbuster. Waiting in the wings--until he completes revisions of the London hit Bombay Dreams for New York audiences--is Sylvester Stallone's Rocky.

Meehan is no stranger to theater. He had his first hit in 1977, when he won a Tony for writing Annie. At 72, he shows no signs of waning. "I feel like I'm 27," he says. "I look in the mirror, and I'm surprised to see this old man looking at me."

Like many of the characters he writes about, Meehan had a modest upbringing that was the prelude to a life of fame and fortune. Raised in Suffern, N.Y., then a small town dotted with apple orchards, he was the oldest of four brothers and sisters. When he was 15, his father died, and his mother returned to nursing to support her family. He says with astonishment in almost a whisper that he has a jacket that cost as much as the house he grew up in.

From the age of 10, Meehan was set on becoming a writer, and he went to college fully expecting to be a "serious" novelist one day. At Hamilton College in upstate New York, he earned the senior writing prize of $350 before graduating and moving to New York City. By age 24, he had landed a job at the New Yorker, where his first editor, Roger Angell, remembers him as being "terrifically funny" even then.

Meehan wrote dozens of parodies, short stories and other humor pieces for the New Yorker. One of the more famous was a 1962 short story, "Yma Dream," a frequently anthologized tale of a strange cocktail party whose guests bear tongue-twister names. He adapted it as a sketch for Anne Bancroft's 1970 television special, Annie: The Women in the Life of a Man, which not only won him an Emmy but also introduced him to both its director and producer, Martin Charnin, who later offered him his first Broadway show, and his future writing partner, Bancroft's husband, Mel Brooks.

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