‘Playwriting is an irrational act. It is the Las Vegas of art forms. The odds are terrible. And the most difficult part is . . . I love it.”

I love writing plays, too, and the reason why is the man who said those things, Herb Gardner, one the best playwrights this country has ever had. He wrote his first in 1962, when he was in his 20s — “A Thousand Clowns” it was called, and it remains a classic.

Gardner would only write a handful more, pretty much one a decade, one in 1968, one in 1974, one in 1985 — “I’m Not Rappaport,” which won the Tony Award and is as fine a play about old people as has ever been written — and his last, in 1992, called “Conversations With My Father,” which was nominated for the Pulitzer.

Gardner wrote so slowly, he joked that he should be called “a playwrote.” He spoke slowly as well. Later in life, he breathed slowly, needing an oxygen tank to deal with lung disease that kept him housebound most of the time.

The only day I ever saw him leave his apartment was for the funeral of a dear friend, Dick Schaap, the man who introduced us. Herb entered the funeral parlor late, sweating, breathing heavily, his portable oxygen tank draped around his neck. He delivered a brief, heartfelt eulogy for his longtime buddy. Then he apologized for having to leave before his tank ran out.

Lesson from a master

Now, a man as accomplished as Gardner didn’t need to spend one minute talking to beginners. But last year, when I was working on my first play — an off-Broadway adaptation of “Tuesdays With Morrie” — Gardner invited me to his Upper East Side apartment. He spent a long time encouraging me, talking to me about the craft, how he loved it, how the theater needed new voices. Over the next few weeks, he called often, wanted to see how I was doing.

When the play opened, it received mostly good reviews. But a New York Times critic penned such a nasty, personal attack that I felt as if I were bleeding all over. That morning, there was a message on my answering machine from Herb. He was cheery and encouraging. He told me how the Times had hated “I’m Not Rappaport,” how it had hated most of his stuff, and how it didn’t matter because the people loved it. You could hear on the machine how labored his breathing was, but still he went on, for several minutes, being upbeat, telling me to keep writing, making sure I was OK.

It was such an unselfish gesture, that I couldn’t bring myself to erase it. I left his voice on the machine — and now, any time I try to retrieve my messages, I have to sit through five minutes of Herb talking.

It is an exercise in patience and humanity.

A fitting tribute

Gardner’s friends called him “Herbie,” which sounds like a guy at the deli. And those were the kind of guys he wrote about. Bar owners. Men on park benches. His characters were conflicted, funny, helpless, hopeless and wise. If they took a long time to form, well, you could see why.

Herb had this recurring dream, that he was sitting on stage, frantically writing the last act of a play, while the crowd grew restless and the actors fidgeted and the producer scowled and called his lawyer.

“Please, wait!” Herb would shout, “I’ll be ready soon!”

Last week, the heavens could wait no more. Herb Gardner died, of lung disease. He was 68.

I still have his voice on my answering machine. And a few weeks ago, I left one on his. I told him I had written a second play, and that it would be staged next year, at the Purple Rose Theatre, and that he was the reason.

I told him I was finished, but I realize now I am not. I have to add one line. A dedication. “For Herb Gardner. Whose love of his craft was more than deep, it was contagious.”

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). He will sign “The Five People You Meet In Heaven” at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday at the RenCen Waldenbooks, Detroit, at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Borders, 3527 Washtenaw, Ann Arbor, and at 12:30 p.m. Oct. 5 at Little Professor, Dearborn.

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