You Can Make a Killing in the Theater, But Not a Living

Robert Anderson? William Goodhart? Sam Taylor? Israel Horovitz? John Guare? Sherwood Anderson? Ron Dante? Norman Mailer?

Dear Quote Investigator: Trying to build a career in the entertainment industry is precarious. One play, movie, or album might be a huge and lucrative hit for an artist, but the next project might be a complete money-losing bust. The situation has been described with the following bitter-sweet expression using wordplay:

You can make a killing in this business, but you can’t make a living.

Would you please explore the provenance of this expression?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in a January 1966 article by playwright Robert Anderson in “The Christian Science Monitor”. The play “Tea and Sympathy” was Anderson’s first Broadway production, and it proved to be a great success that was also made into a Hollywood movie. Yet, Anderson found it difficult to recapture that triumph, and he supplemented his uneven theatrical income by writing screenplays and teaching. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

On the down-to-earth matter of money: A hit play can make a fortune (taxable!) for an author by movie sales, road tours, foreign rights, etc. But I have always felt it was too bad that you could make a killing, but not a living, in the theater. Stable, growing careers cannot be based on chance killings.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The wittiness of the saying was based on the antonym-like contrast between the words “killing” and “living”. A similar type of wordplay appeared in 1919 when the pair was used in a remark about profiteers in an Iowa newspaper: 2

Food profiteers are not trying to make a living. They are trying to make a killing.

Another precursor was printed in an advertisement in a New York newspaper in 1925: 3

We make a living selling CLOTHES but we never make a KILLING when we price them. We believe, that to make our clothes-buying as profitable to you as possible, is a good business for us, and we have built a good business by doing it.

In 1931 the word pair was used in advice given to farmers: 4

Fletcher’s State Rights Farming, out at Hondo, offers the following timely advice: The best way to make a living on the farm is to diversify and not try to make a killing on a one-money crop!

In 1956 the syndicated feature “Daffynitions” printed a humorous definition for “dreamer” that employed the contrasting words: 5

DREAMER: A man who spends so much time trying to make a killing that he forgets to make a living.

In January 1966 “The Christian Science Monitor” printed an article with the byline of Robert Anderson as noted previously. The playwright described the high costs and major uncertainties of mounting Broadway productions, and he stated that he was using a novel distribution strategy for his latest play. More than 50 university and community theaters had agreed to perform the play under the banner of the American Playwrights Theater (APT) while qualifying for a reduced royalty payment: 6

But I have always felt it was too bad that you could make a killing, but not a living, in the theater. Stable, growing careers cannot be based on chance killings. This APT, when it develops, could help a playwright make a continuous living so that he can stick to his last and create a body of work with some sense of continuity.

In October 1966 the playwright William Goodhart who had penned a 1965 Broadway hit called “Generation” used the expression during an interview in the “Chicago Tribune”, but he disclaimed credit by indicating that it was already in circulation: 7

“There’s a saying,” said William Goodhart, “that’s it’s possible for a playwright to make a killing but not to make a living.” . . .
“‘Generation’ was like winning a bet at the race track,” he said in an interview. “It doesn’t carry over to the next time.”

In November 1966 the playwright Sam Taylor used an instance; the ellipsis was in the original text: 8

“Writing a play for the commercial theatre,” he said, “is the most desperate gamble in the world; producing a play is the dreariest, most grinding work there is … in the theatre you can make a killing, but you cannot make a living.”

The linkage to Anderson was remembered in an August 1968 letter sent to the drama editor of “The New York Times”: 9

As Robert Anderson once said, “You can make a killing as a playwright, but it’s difficult to make a living.” A few are making killings, but dozens are working in other fields while trying to turn out plays. For every playwright who can complete a script in six days on a freighter, there are 20 who need a year or more.

In December 1968 an article from the UPI news service quoted the playwright Israel Horovitz using a version of the saying: 10

“I suppose some day I’ll wake up,” he added, “but now I only write the plays I want to. I think a playwright can make a killing if he’s lucky, but it’s hard to make a living. I’ve been fortunate because ‘The Indian Wants the Bronx’ is being performed 60 places tonight. I don’t even know all of them, but I do know I get $15 every time it’s done in Chicago.”

In 1969 a “New York Times” article bemoaning the etiolated state of the theater community in the city titled “Has Broadway Had It?” contained an instance attributed to Anderson: 11

As playwright Robert Anderson once put it, it’s too easy to make a killing on Broadway and too hard to make a living. There’s the whole story right there.

In 1970 a piece by Anderson in “Writing” magazine titled “Thoughts on Playwriting” referred to the popularity of his own expression although the phrasing he presented differed from the version he actually wrote in January 1966: 12

I have been quoted a number of times as saying, “You can make a killing in the theatre, but not a living.” (Incidentally, the killing usually goes for taxes.)

The playwright generally has to be a moonlighter in one way or another. Before Tea and Sympathy, I worked on my plays in the morning, wrote for radio and TV in the afternoons, and four nights a week taught from eight to eleven.

In 1975 a reference work titled “World Authors: 1950-1970” included the following quotation from Anderson: 13

“At forty-eight I feel I have barely begun. But the American theatre at the moment is a rough place in which to grow and experiment and develop. It is a place to make a killing but not a living. It is a place for the occasional hit but not for a body of work, which must contain good, bad, and indifferent plays.”

In 1979 the UPI News Service distributed a “Quote of the Day” from a popular music producer and singer who employed an extended version of the saying 14 15

Ron Dante, Tony Award-winning music producer and a guest lecturer for Sid Bernstein’s class at New York’s New School for Social Research, in answer to a student’s request for advice on a newcomer’s chances of success in the recording industry:

“You can’t make a living in this business — you can make a killing. The trick is to have a string of killings. The thing is not to get yourself killed.”

In 1982 the notable playwright John Guare was profiled in “New York Magazine”. During a discussion of his fluctuating income, Guare highlighted the saying which he ascribed to Anderson: 16

“As Robert Anderson says, the theater is where you make a killing but not a living. From 1976 to 1979—years in which four major plays were produced—I earned a total of $24,000.”

In 1985 the statement appeared as the solution to a syndicated puzzle called “Celebrity Cipher”. Oddly, the words were attributed to the prominent short story writer Sherwood Anderson. QI hypothesizes that the shared last name “Anderson” caused confusion that led to this spurious ascription: 17

PREVIOUS SOLUTION: “You can make a killing as a playwright in America, but you can’t make a living.” — Sherwood Anderson.

In 1998 an essayist in the magazine “Chronicles” tentatively reassigned a modified version of the expression to the well-known author Norman Mailer: 18

Remember, it was Norman Mailer, one of our most prominent literary figures, who supposedly said that in America, a “writer can make a killing, but not a living.”

In 2004 the saying was included on the collection “Oxymoronica: Paradoxical Wit and Wisdom from History’s Greatest Wordsmiths” by Mardy Grothe: 19

You can make a killing in the theater, but not a living.

In conclusion, Anderson can be credited with the saying he wrote in January 1966. Unfortunately, his initial phrasing used the word “could” which was not ideal for transmission as a freestanding statement; hence, alternative versions proliferated. In 1970 Anderson claimed the version “You can make a killing in the theatre, but not a living”. QI believes it is fine to credit Anderson with this version.

(Great thanks to Evan Kindley whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Kindley correctly identified Robert Anderson as the originator of the saying.)

Update History: On February 28, 2016 the 1975 citation was added.


  1. 1966 January 31, The Christian Science Monitor, A playwright’s view: What it is like to ‘go APT’ by Robert Anderson, Quote Page 6, Column 3, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)
  2. 1919 July 24, The Lake Park News, Local Notes, Quote Page 5, Column 2, Lake Park, Iowa. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1926 May 14, The Steuben Courier, (Advertisement for Wagner: The Up Stairs Clothier and Tailor of Bath, New York), Quote Page 4, Column 6, Bath, New York. (Old Fulton)
  4. 1931 March 13, The Hondo Anvil Herald, Section: Editorials, Endorses Our Advice by Fred B. Robinson (in Waco News-Tribune), Quote Page 6, Column 3, Hondo, Texas. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1956 January 27, The Daily Independent, Just for a Smile: Daffynitions, Quote Page 5, Column 2, Kannapolis, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1966 January 31, The Christian Science Monitor, A playwright’s view: What it is like to ‘go APT’ by Robert Anderson, Quote Page 6, Column 3, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)
  7. 1966 October 2, Chicago Tribune, Author of ‘Generation’ Finds Success Doesn’t Carry Over by Linda Crawford, Quote Page I11, Column 1, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
  8. 1966 November 20, Kingsport Times-News, Porterfield Is Back In Barter Country — On A Hunting Trip, Quote Page 5B, Column 4, Kingsport, Tennessee. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1968 August 18, New York Times, Drama Mailbag: Subsidy For the Older Author? (Letter to the Drama Editor from John Cecil Holm), Quote Page D4, Column 7, New York. (ProQuest)
  10. 1968 December 29, Bridgeport Sunday Post (The Bridgeport Post), Three New Playwrights Impervious to Critics by William Verigan (UPI News Service), Quote Page C9, Column 6, Bridgeport, Connecticut. (Newspapers_com)
  11. 1969 November 23, New York Times, Has Broadway Had It? by Alan Schneider, Quote Page D1, Column 6, New York. (ProQuest)
  12. 1970 September, Writing, Volume 83, Thoughts on Playwriting by Robert Anderson, Start Page 12, Quote Page 12, Published by The Writer, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified on microfilm)
  13. 1975, World Authors: 1950-1970: A Companion Volume to Twentieth Century Authors, Edited by John Wakeman, Section: Robert Woodruff Anderson, Start Page 54, Quote Page 55 and 56, Published by The H. W. Wilson Company, New York. (Verified on paper)
  14. 1979 November 2, Logansport Pharos-Tribune, Peopletalk: Mother Teresa Going Into Seclusion (United Press International), Quote Page 13, Column 7, Logansport, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
  15. 1979 November 2, The Salina Journal, People: Quote of the day, Quote Page 2, Column 1 and 2, Salina, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)
  16. 1982 February 22, New York Magazine, The Coming of Age of John Guare by Ross Wetzsteon, Start Page 35, Quote Page 38, Published by News Group Publications, New York, (Now Published by New York Media, New York). (Google Books Full View)
  17. 1985 June 1, Mobile Press Register, Celebrity Cipher (Previous Solution) by Connie Wiener from NEA, Inc., Quote Page 9-C, Column 3, Mobile, Alabama. (GenealogyBank)
  18. 1998 May, Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, Maxwell Perkins Is Dead: The Decline of Commercial Publishing by Clay Reynolds, Start Page 18, Quote Page 21, Published by The Rockford Institute, Rockford, Illinois. (Unz)
  19. 2004, Oxymoronica: Paradoxical Wit and Wisdom from History’s Greatest Wordsmiths by Mardy Grothe, Quote Page 125, Publisher HarperCollins Publishers, New York. (Verified on paper)