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by Bamber Gascoigne

Richard (Thomas) Condon (1915-1996)


American satirical novelist, playwright, and crime writer, best known for his thrillers The Manchurian Candidate (1959) and Prizzi's Honor (1982). Condon ridiculed among other things American politics, President Ronald Reagan, the U.S. Mafia, Hollywood agents, and fast-food business, all representing interconnected aspects of the same mad reality. Several of Condon's books have been made into films.

"I thought that Condon's The Manchurian Candidate was one of the best books I had ever read. I just couldn't put it down and after I had read it, I thought, 'I've just got to make a film of it.' It had great social and political significance for me at the time, and it has certainly been - unfortunately – a horribly prophetic film. It's frightening what has happened in our country since that film was made." (John Frankenheimer in The Cinema of John Frankenheimer by Gerald Pratley, 1969)

Richard Thomas Condon was born in New York City, the son of Richard Aloysius, a lawyer, and Martha Irene (Pickering) Condon, a secretary. At an early age, he developed a bad stammer from which he never fully recovered. Condon himself thought it had been induced by his father, who used to shout at him. "Unconsiously, stuttering led to writing just as surely as the deep need to express oneself with grace must be resolved by anyone denied the pleasure," he once concluded. ('Condon, Richard (Thomas)', in World Authors 1950-1970, edited by John Wakeman, 1975)

Condon was educated in public schools. With his classmate Art Buchwald at DeWitt Clinton High School in New York he later wrote an unproduced story for the screen, Key to Paris. After graduating he worked  in miscellaneous jobs, including as a elevator operator, hotel clerk, and waiter. In 1938 he married Evelyn Hunt, a former model; they had two daughters.  

In the mid-1930s, Condon sold an article to Esquire magazine. He worked briefly in advertising and then from 1936 as a studio publicist in the American film industry for 21 years, among others for Walt Disney Productions (he promoted Fantasia and Dumbo, among other classics), Hal Horne Organization, Twentieth-Century Fox, and other firms. Once he said that during his career, he had watched more than ten thousand movies. After WWII, he ran his own firm, Richard Condon, Inc., for a few years. In 1951-52 Condon was a theatrical producer in New York and wrote a play, Men of Distinction (1953), which was closed after four performances. At the time it was produced on Broadway, he resigned as a vice president of RKO-Radio Pictures to become a writer.

As a novelist Condon made his debut with The Oldest Confession (1958). "I am considered a compulsive writer because I spend a seven-hour day and a seven-day week at the typewriter," Condon said. ('Condon, Richard (Thomas)', in World Authors 1950-1970, edited by John Wakeman, 1975) On the proceeds of the film right to his second novel, The Manchurian Candidate, Condon moved to Mexico and then to Europe, where lived with his family in France, Spain, Ireland, and Switzerland.

Condon returned back to America in the 1980s. For the last 16 years of his life, Condon lived in Dallas, Texas, to be near his grandchildren. With his daughter Wendy Bennett he published a cookbook, Olé Molé!: Great Recipes in the Classic Mexican Tradition (1988). Richard Condon died in Dallas on April 9, 1996. He had suffered from heart and kidney problems. Condon's autobiography, entitled Stained Glass, has remained unpublished. "A writer may call himself an artist," Condon said in And Then We Moved to Rossenarra (1973), "just as an ambulance chaser may call himself a lawyer, but what is art is not likely to be decided for decades or longer aftert he work has been produced . . . so we must not feel bad if we think of literature as entertainment rather than as enlightenment."

The Manchurian Candidate, Condon's most famous thriller, was inspired in large part by the 1950s stories about the brainwashing of American prisoners. "A human time-bomb is turned loose on an unsuspecting nation in this brilliant and startling novel, at once a spy story, a love story, a fascinating tale of adventure, and a savage satire," declared the novel's dust jacket. However, at the core of book is the art of mass manipulation. Condon's critical attitude toward the media surfaces throughout the story.  

In the next ten years Condon published prolifically. His novel, A Talent for Loving (1964), a love story set in the world of bold and beautiful, was made into a film in 1969, starring Richard Widmark and Cesar Romero. An Infinity of Mirrors (1964) is a story about Paule, a daughter of a great Jewish actor, and Veelee, a descendant of a German military family, who fall in love in Paris. They marry, but on the eve of World War II their paths separate. When the persecution of the Jews starts, Paule leaves her husband, part of the monstrous machine. Veelee continues his career in the army and Paule finds a new lover. The death of their son, Paul-Alain, finally awakes Paule and Veele to see themselves as puppets of evil. "What I wanted to say," explained the author in the back dust cover, "was that when evil confronts us in any form, it is not enough to flee it or to pretend that it is happening to somebody else."

"Paule concentrated on her house, on becoming a good German wife, and on learning to think and feel like a German... She had already read Nietzsche and it had madeher giggle, but she reread him with the memory of the storm troopers at earnest work all around the army staff car. She felt at home with Stefan George and von Hofmannstahl, though George's work had been used recently to make the Nazis more palatable in German intellectual circles. She would not read Kafka, the Czech whom the Germans adored; she could not afford hopelessness."  (from An Infinity of Mirrors, 1964)

Condon gained critical success again with the Winter Kills (1974). It paralled the lives of the members of the Kennedy family with a theme that murdering presidents is a good idea for world leaders who wish to better themselves. The story was also filmed, but despite its cast included Anthony Perkins, Dorothy Malone, Sterling Hayden, Elisabeth Taylor (uncredited) and John Huston, it was never satisfactorily released. One of its producers was murdered and the other sent down for forty years on a drugs charge. Jeff Bridges played a likeable dope and the half-brother of President Keegan, who was assassinated in 1960, tries to track down the man who ordered the murder. John Huston is his father (a Joseph P.Kennedy figure) who walks around in red bikini shorts. William Richert wrote and directed the film which has enjoyed a cult status. "The tongue-in-cheek approach makes what could have been a provocative vision of the corrupt American power elite into something quite trivial. Picture was shut down before completion, and in an effort to raise additional money, Richert made The American Success Company with Bridges and Bauer. Revised for a 1982 re-lease." (from Guide for the Film Fanatic by Danny Peary, 1986)

The political scene and its scoundrels gave much material for Condon's novels. "Politics is a from of high entertainment and low comedy," Condon once wrote. "It has everything: it's melodramatic, it's sinister and it has wonderful villains." American presidents are portrayed in The Star Spangled Crunch (1974) and The Final Addiction (1991), in which a simpleton from Connecticut, Goodie Noon, succeeds President Reagan, and a frankfurter salesman, Owney Tompkins Hazman, tries to find his long-lost mother, Oona Noon, and becomes involved with political maneuvers. The Verical Smile (1971) recast Richard Nixon as "Funky Dunc," a transvetite Wall Street lawyer torned presidential candidate.

Like in the work of Robert Ludlum, the belief that giant corporations and  shadowy governmental powers make all the important decision, found an expression Condon's thrillers. In Emperor of America (1990) a private-sector nuclear device explodes in Washington, wipes out the White House. The Royalist Party and the National Rifle Association take the responsibility but Condon's target is Reaganism and its legacy, embodied in the character of an Army colonel, Caesare Appleton, who becomes Emperior Caesare I. Condon wrote: "The Reagan Administration - that shining definition of reigning glamour and romance associated with queens, big money, great dressmakers, great poverty, colorful (moderate) mullahs, glamorous (if shocking) scandals and entertaining South American drug lords - had overtaken the national imagination of a society which had been compartmentalized by money." (Emperor of America)

Prizzi's Honor (1982), the first part of Condo's 'Prizzi' saga, was a satiric tale of the Mafia killers, and their romance. The novel was filmed in 1985, directed by John Huston and starring Kathleen Turner and Jack Nicholson. Condon wrote the script with Janet Roach. Huston's adaptation follows the novel fairly closely. Charley Partanna, a friend of pasta and a slow-witted hit man from a close-knit Mafia family, falls in love with a woman, Irene Walker, whose husband he had killed as a traitor. The woman turns out to be a freelance assassin. They start to plan a marriage, but finally the both assassins are hired to kill each other.

Condon's stories often deal with the theme of loyalty and betrayal. Charley Partanna is loyal to his employees, although he do not want to marry one of the Prizzi daughters, Maerose. The role was played by Anjelica Huston, the director's daughter. She had read the book before the filming started. "It was a wonderful book, a Mob story full of wit and black humor." (Watch Me by Anjelica Huston, 2014) Irene wants to keep the money her late husband stole from the Prizzis. "Rest assured, however, Mr. Condon never allows reality to be too great a burden for the reader. Charley and Irene, in different ways, are eventually undone by the author's delightfully preposterous and perverse plot complications, but throughout the novel, Mr. Condon's wicked sense of humor keeps the dealings and double-dealings in proper perspective." (Robert Asahina in The Nwe York Times, April 18, 1982) Charley learns his lesson - there is no future outside the Family. 

Prizzi's Family (1986) was a prequel to Prizzi's Honor. Charley Partanna appeared again in Prizzi's Glory (1988), in which Charley marries Maerose Prizzi, and becomes Charles Macy Barton. This time he leaves the street operations for politics and other kind business. Prizzi's Money (1994) told a story of a woman, Julia Asbury, the daughter of a Prizzi hit man. After a few double-crosses, she is chased by the Prizzis who want their money back. Charley is sent after Julia but he falls madly in love with her: "They made cosmic music together. Why else, Charley asked himself, did he always wear a jacket and a necktie when he saw her?"

Though The Manchurian Candidate was anything but adaption-friendly, it has inspired two film productions and some run-of-the-mill imitations. First it was turned down by every studio in Hollywood until the screenwriter George Axelrod approached the director John Frankenheimer. They bought the motion picture rights to the book for approximately $50,000. "I think everyone would agree that George Axelrod's screenplay of The Manchurian Candidate is probable one of the best adaptations from a novel to the screen with which I have been associated," Frankenheimer  recalled. "I think people tend to forget George's contribution to the film." (The Cinema of John Frankenheimer by Gerald Pratley, 1969)

In Frankenheimer's Cold War version from 1962 a soldier, Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) comes back with his platoon from the Korean War with a Congressional Medal of Honour. However, he has been brainwashed with the rest of his unit by Chinese during his captivity in North Korea, and primed to kill at the release of a certain code. Shaw's primary target is a U.S. presidential nominee. His own mother (Angela Lansbury) turns out the be the Russian agent, who plans to elevate her husband to the White House. In the case of Major Marco (Frank Sinatra) the brainwashing has been only partially successful, and Marco unlocks Shaw's mind. Shaw kills his mother, stepfather, and then himself. "MARCO: Poor Raymond... poor friendless... friendless Raymond. He was wearing his Medal when he died. I tried to tell you what that means... to be a Medal of Honor winner... to a soldier, anyway..." (from George Axelrod's screenplay)

The film was forbidden in Finland during a period of self-censorship, when center-left coalition governments wanted to maintain a good and trusting relationship with the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, the book was translated into Finnish in 1960. It has been claimed, that the film was taken out of circulation in the United States after President John F. Kennedy was shot to death in Dallas. Condon's controversial story inspired also Jonathan Demme's screen version from 2004, starring Denzel Washington as the plagued soldier and Meryl Streep as the intriguing mother. In this remake the Operation Desert Storm provided the background for the paranoid story.

For further information: 'Condon, Richard (Thomas)', in World Authors 1950-1970, edited by John Wakeman (1975); 'Condon, Richard (Thomas)' by Shelly Lowenkopf, in Twentieth-Century Crime and Mystery Writers, edited by John M. Reilly (1985); The Reader's Companion to the Twentieth-Century Writers, ed. by Peter Parker (1995); What Have They Built You to Do?: The Manchurian Candidate and Cold War America by Matthew Frye Jacobson and Gaspar González (2006); Vote with a Bullet: Assassination in American Fiction by Sascha Pöhlmann (2021)

Selected works:

  • Men of Distinction, 1953 (play, prod. in New York)
  • The Oldest Confession, 1958
    - Väärät madonnat (suom. Antti Vahtera, 1960)
    - film: The Happy Thieves, dir. George Marshall, starring Rita Hayworth, Rex Harrison, Joseph Wiseman, Alida Valli
  • The Manchurian Candidate, 1959 (a play by John Lahr, 1993)
    - Mantšurian sankari (suom. Juhana Perkki, 1960)
    - films: 1962, prod. M.C. Productions, directed by John Frankenheimer, starring Laurence Harvey, Frank Sinatra, Angela Lansbury; 2004, prod. Paramount Pictures, dir. by Johathan Demme, starring Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber, Meryl Streep, Jon Voight
  • Some Angry Angel: A Mid-Century Faerie Tale, 1960
  • A Talent for Loving; or, The Great Cowboy Race, 1961
    - film: A Talent for Loving, 1969, dir. Richard Quine, starring Richard Widmark, Cesar Romero, Caroline Munro, Topol
  • Robin and the 7 Hoods, 1964 (screenplay with others; uncredited)
  • Any God Will Do, 1964
  • An Infinity of Mirrors, 1964
    - Mustien kotkien vuodet (suom. Seppo Heikinheimo, 1965)
  • A Talent for Loving, 1965 (screenplay) 
    - film 1969, dir. by Richard Quine, starring Richard Widmark, Cesar Romero, Topol, Genevieve Page
  • The Ecstasy Business, 1967
  • Mile High, 1969
  • The Summer Music, 1969 (screenplay) 
  • The Long Loud Silence, 1969 (screenplay)
  • The Vertical Smile, 1971
  • Arigato: A Novel, 1972
  • And Then We Moved to Rossenarra; or, The Art of Emigrating, 1973
  • The Mexican Stove: What to Put on and in It, 1973 (with Wendy Bennett)
  • Winter Kills, 1974
    - film 1979, dir. by William Richert, starring Jeff Bridges, John Huston, Elisabeth Taylor, Sterling Hayden, Eli Wallach, Dorothy Malone, Richard Boone, Toshiro Mifune and Anthony Perkins
  • The Star Spangled Crunch, 1974
  • Money Is Love, 1975
  • The Whisper of the Axe, 1976
  • The Abandoned Woman, 1977
  • Bandicoot , 1978
  • Death of a Politician: A Novel, 1978
  • The Entwining, 1980
  • Prizzi's Honor, 1982
  • A Trembling upon Rome: A Work of Fiction, 1983
  • Prizzi's Honor, 1984 (screenplay with Janet Roach) - film 1985, prod. ABC Motion Pictures, directed by John Huston, starring Jack Nicholson, Kathleen Turner, Robert Loggia
  • Prizzi's Family, 1986
  • Prizzi's Glory, 1988
  • Olé Molé!: Great Recipes in the Classic Mexican Tradition, 1988 (with Wendy Condon)
  • Emperor of America, 1990
  • The Final Addiction, 1991
  • The Venerable Bead, 1992
  • Prizzi's Money, 1994

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