Bernard Pomerance, 76, playwright was author of Tonywinning ‘Elephant Man’

Mr. Pomerance in New York in 1979.
David LeShay/Associated Press/FILE
Mr. Pomerance in New York in 1979.

NEW YORK — Bernard Pomerance, a playwright best known for the Tony Award-winning play about a physically deformed man that has lured some of Hollywood’s biggest names, such as Bradley Cooper and John Hurt, has died. He was 76.

Longtime agent Alan Brodie said Tuesday that Mr. Pomerance died Saturday of complications from cancer at his home in Galisteo, N.M.

‘‘The Elephant Man’’ was based on a true story and has been frequently revived since its 1979 New York debut. It examines the life of John Merrick, an extremely disfigured but indomitable man who becomes a celebrity in Victorian London.


On Broadway, such diverse performers as David Bowie and Mark Hamill eventually followed the mesmerizing Philip Anglim in the title role. Billy Crudup starred in a 2002 revival, and Cooper led one in 2014 that earned four Tony nominations. Hurt starred in David Lynch’s 1980 film adaptation.

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Mr. Pomerance’s tale showcases the triumph of a very human spirit, personified by the sensitive, almost saintly Merrick. He is a man who finds safe haven in a London hospital after spending much of his life in second-rate carnivals as a freak attraction — and then blossoms into the confidante of celebrated actresses, politicians, and royalty.

‘‘Sometimes I think my head is so big because it is so full of dreams,’’ Merrick says at one point in the play. ‘‘Do you know what happens when dreams cannot get out?’’

Mr. Pomerance’s play also puts Merrick in the middle of a tug-of-war between science and religion. ‘‘The Elephant Man’’ becomes whatever the viewer wants. ‘‘I conclude that we have polished him like a mirror, and shout hallelujah when he reflects us to the inch,’’ says his doctor.

Mr. Pomerance was born and raised in New York City and educated at the University of Chicago. Along with Roland Rees and David Aukin, he co-founded the theater company Foco Novo in 1972. He also wrote ‘‘Quantrill in Lawrence’’ and ‘‘Melons,’’ produced at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1984.