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Famous in Hollywood, unknown on island

Emmy-winning screenwriter James Costigan dies in quiet reclusion.

James Costigan lived his final years in such reclusion that his neighbors only began to worry when he hadn’t been seen for more than a week.

Last Saturday, two residents of the Harbourview Condominiums, where Costigan had resided for a quarter-century, used a master key to enter his apartment and found the 81-year-old dead on the floor of his living room.

It was a quiet end for a man whose prodigious Hollywood career as an actor, screenwriter and playwright spanned four decades and saw him lauded with three Emmy awards.

Harbourview resident Lee Gomes, who knew Costigan for more than 18 years, said he may have been known by a handful of grocery store clerks and a few neighbors on Harborview Drive, but he had no apparent family and rarely allowed visitors.

“He was a loner,” Gomes said. “He didn’t have any friends here but me.”

Gomes often went weeks without talking to his eccentric neighbor, but he and his wife Martha grew more concerned as they noticed his mail had gone unchecked.

Costigan usually browsed a stack of newspapers discarded by other condo residents, and would leave a piece of paper in the pile to mark where he had left off. When they saw the paper was missing last week, they asked the condominium board to check on him.

Two neighbors opened Costigan’s door and, after pushing aside a shopping cart blocking the entry, found his body.

According to a police report detailing the scene, Costigan had likely been dead for more than a week. His apartment was in disarray, with piles of newspapers and books and collections of receipts and mail dating back years strewn around the home.

Costigan’s body was taken to the Kitsap County Coroner, where his cause of death was determined as heart failure.

Gomes first met Costigan when the writer had broken his wrist and asked his neighbor to pick him up a Sunday New York Times every week so he could do the crossword.

Over the years they chatted about his career, and Costigan told stories of Hollywood and rubbing shoulders with celebrities at the Actors Studio.

“He was not a name dropper,” Gomes said. “He was just talking about his life. But he was in with all the big timers.”

Costigan was born March 31, 1926. According to an April 1958 article in Time Magazine, he grew up in Hollywood as the “son of a chandelier maker,” and played small parts as a child actor.

At age 19 he left for Manhattan to look for roles on Broadway; as the Time story reported, “his ‘dismal’ years as a Broadway stage hopeful helped turn Costigan into a TV playwright.”

He resurfaced in Hollywood seven years later, notching his first work as a TV writer in 1952, according to the Internet Movie Database.

He started out adapting literary pieces for television anthologies including CBS’s “Studio One,” Kraft Television Theater on NBC and the United States Steel Hour, which aired on ABC and later CBS. Costigan continued to write episodes of the often live TV dramas throughout the 1950s, a decade considered by many the “golden era” of television.

During the same era, he is credited with acting roles in several TV episodes, appearing alongside Paul Newman in 1953’s live drama “The Web.”

In 1958 Costigan made a splash with his original play, “Little Moon of Alban,” written for the “Hallmark Hall of Fame” TV series.

The play, a tale of romance between a nurse and an English soldier in Ireland, prompted the article in Time that raved about Costigan’s writing – “(he) told his mystic-tinged love story with subtlety, taste and poetic fervor” – and offered a glimpse of the actor: “A slight, unprepossessing man with a boyish face and frizzly red hair, Costigan is an actor of considerable force.”

“Little Moon of Alban” was greeted “exuberantly” by TV critics and netted Costigan his first Emmy. He later rewrote the story for a Broadway show that debuted in 1960 with a cast that included Julie Harris and a young Robert Redford.

In the 1970s Costigan wrote a string of successful TV dramas. In 1975, his “Love Among the Ruins,” starring Katharine Hepburn and Sir Laurence Olivier, garnered six Emmys, including a nod to Costigan for “Outstanding Writing in a Special Program.”

He won in the same category the following year with “Eleanor and Franklin,” a dramatic biographical work told from the perspective of Eleanor Roosevelt. Its sequel, “The White House Years” earned him a final Emmy nomination in 1977.

Costigan’s decade of recognition was capped in 1979, when at the age of 53 he received the Writers Guild of America’s Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award, which recognizes a writer who “advanced the literature of television through the years, and who has made outstanding contributions to the profession of the television writer.”

In the 1980s he turned his attention to feature films, and is credited by the IMDB for co-writing “The Hunger,” a vampire thriller starring Catherine Deneuve, Susan Sarandon and David Bowie.

He co-wrote the screenplay for “King David,” a movie version of the Biblical tale starring Richard Gere, released in 1985. His final listed film credit came for co-writing the 1988 movie “Mr. North.”

Then he slipped quietly out of the picture. Despite his creative output, the Writers Guild this week could not provide a biography for Costigan, or even a photograph.

It was unclear whether he has survivors, although David Cook of Cook Family Funeral Home said someone was coming from New York to complete Costigan’s arrangements.

According to Gomes, Costigan was an original owner in the Harbourview complex, and kept studios in Seattle and California.

Though he didn’t boast of the celebrity friends for whom he had written award-winning lines, Gomes said Costigan did let it slip that Hepburn had once come to see him on Bainbridge Island.

“As far as I know, she was the only one who ever came to visit him,” Gomes said.

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