Herb Gardner, 68, a playwright whose comic pieces such as "A Thousand Clowns" and "I'm Not Rappaport" featured freewheeling eccentrics defying conformity in work, love and old age, died Sept. 24 at his home in New York. He had lung disease.
Mr. Gardner had only a handful of plays to his credit, but their undeniable humor and commercial appeal made him among the most produced playwrights worldwide. A Paris theater once offered "Je Ne Suis Pas Rappaport."
He first came to public attention in the 1950s as the author of "The Nebbishes," a nationally syndicated cartoon about social gadflies. "I really wanted to be a sculptor like Rodin, but I had to pay the rent," he once said of the strip.
Long hoping to pursue playwriting, he said he knew it was time when the word balloons in his cartoons were threatening to eclipse the characters.
His reputation as a playwright was immediately established with "A Thousand Clowns" (1962), which starred Jason Robards Jr. as a television writer who drops out of society and raises his young nephew with the same iconoclastic spirit -- until a social worker forces him back to conventional living.
Robards repeated the role of Murray Burns for the 1965 film, for which Mr. Gardner received an Academy Award nomination for best screenplay.
Like most of his work, the play had memorable monologues. Among the best was one for Murray's brother, Arnold, who has accepted conformity ("I have a talent for surrender") but declares that he is "the best possible Arnold Burns."
"A Thousand Clowns," which brought Mr. Gardner a Tony Award nomination, set the standard many came to expect from him: using comedy to explore human desires for freedom and inner peace.
For his part, Mr. Gardner tried to avoid earnest conversation with interviewers, insisting that he was simply doing light comedy. He once told the New York Times, "My ambition consists entirely of being able to do it well enough that they let me do it again -- and to avoid public disgrace."
Mr. Gardner was not a quick writer, and his plays reached Broadway sporadically over the years. After "A Thousand Clowns," his next work was "The Goodbye People" (1968), which starred Milton Berle as a retiree who wants to reopen his Hawaiian Ecstasies hot-dog booth on Coney Island in the dead of winter. The play flopped.
His "Thieves" (1974), about a couple who become disillusioned with each other as they rise to affluence from the Lower East Side, ran for 313 performances on Broadway and starred Marlo Thomas and Richard Mulligan.
"I'm Not Rappaport" (1985) ran for two years on Broadway and brought him a Tony Award. The play was about a crusty Jewish radical, Nat, and his nearly blind Central Park benchmate and sparring partner, Midge, who might lose his job to "modernization." Nat is revitalized when he decides to help his friend keep his job.
The two, played on Broadway by Judd Hirsch and Cleavon Little, also take on street junkies and grown children who are overeager to deposit them in nursing homes.
When the play appeared at the National Theatre in 1987, Washington Post critic David Richards called the show "one of the most satisfying plays to come our way from Broadway in some time."
Herbert Gardner was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where his father was a bartender. He grew up immersed in the language of Jewish leftists, who held court at a local deli and spent hours discussing "either Leon Trotsky or the egg salad."
After attending what is now Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania and Antioch College in Ohio, he spent eight years working on "The Nebbishes," which brought him a comfortable living. In one drawing, two characters have their feet propped on a table, and one says to the other, "Next week we've GOT to get organized."
He adapted his short story "Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?" for the movies in 1971. Dustin Hoffman played a successful pop songwriter plagued by insecurities.
His last big work was "Conversations With My Father" (1992), which starred Hirsch as a Brooklyn bar owner who over a 40-year span confronts family issues and his long-denied Jewish faith. Along the way, the narrator speaks to his dead father about life.
"Sure," says the father at one point, "I screwed up, now it's your turn. . . . End of conversation."
His first marriage, to Rita Gardner, ended in divorce.
Survivors include his wife, Barbara C. Sproul, and two sons from his second marriage.