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'Hairspray' Writer Found Dead in Front of UWS Building

By  Ben Fractenberg Wil Cruz and Emily Frost | August 6, 2012 12:45pm | Updated on August 6, 2012 5:54pm

Mark O'Donnell, a comedy writer for
Mark O'Donnell, a comedy writer for "Hairspray," was found dead in front of 202 Riverside Drive on Aug. 6, 2012. He is shown here in Las Vegas, Nevada, in 2006 for the opening of "Hairspray."
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Ethan Miller/Getty Images

UPPER WEST SIDE — A writer and Tony Award winner for the hit play "Hairspray" was found dead in front of his Riverside Drive building Monday morning, police sources and neighbors said.

Mark O'Donnell, 58, went into cardiac arrest and collapsed in front of his home at the Terrace Court at 202 Riverside Drive, near West 93rd Street, police and fire sources said.

The humorist was pronounced dead at the scene, fire officials said.

O'Donnell's devastated twin brother Steve O'Donnell, a TV writer in Los Angeles, said Mark was an "unusual, brilliant, playful spirit and he's going to be missed very much."

"I loved him more than any other person on earth," Steve O'Donnell said in a phone interview Monday. "I think he'll be remembered for having a unique, inspired take on things that was both eternally wise and beautifully innocent."

Mark O'Donnell collapsed in front of his home at 202 Riverside Drive Aug. 6, 2012.
Mark O'Donnell collapsed in front of his home at 202 Riverside Drive Aug. 6, 2012.
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DNAinfo/Ben Fractenberg

Mark O'Donnell's neighbors remembered him as friendly and helpful.

"He was a good guy," said Jonathan Brown, 43, who has lived in the building for more than 20 years.

"Never an unkind word — at least one that wasn't in jest."

Mark Mishken, 64, another longtime resident of the building, said O'Donnell had just held the elevator for him on Saturday.

"He had a good sense of humor," Mishken said. "[He] always had something funny to say."

Police believe O'Donnell died of natural causes, though the medical examiner could not immediately say when an autopsy would be performed.

Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan won the 2003 Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical for "Hairspray," which was the musical version of the 1988 John Waters movie of the same name.

The musical, a social commentary on the injustices of parts of American society in the 1960s, had more than 2,500 performances on Broadway before it closed in 2009.

O'Donnell was a fixture in the Upper West Side for at least 20 years, said Brown, who exchanged pleasantries with O'Donnell just 20 minutes before he collapsed.

"I'm gonna miss seeing that guy around," Brown said.

O'Donnell and his twin brother Steve — who invented the Top Ten List while working for "Late Night with David Letterman" — attended Harvard University together, where they worked on the humor magazine The Harvard Lampoon.

Mark O'Donnell's humor writing has also appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine and Atlantic Monthly. He is the author of two novels and a short story collection and had a stint as a writer on "Saturday Night Live" from 1981 to 1982. 

In a 2009 interview with his childhood friend Hugh MacLeod, O'Donnell contrasted his career with his brother Steve's.

"Steve has thrived in TV, whereas I preferred books and plays," O'Donnell said. "I joke that he’s the world’s most artistic comic, and I’m the world’s most comic artist."