Peter Parnell was born on August 21, 1953, the only child of Sol and Pearl (née Bogen) Parnell. His father was an executive in the textile industry, and his mother worked for a dentist. He was raised in Douglastown, Queens, New York. As a child, he wrote short stories and poems and was interested in painting and acting as well. He first wrote plays while majoring in theater and English at Dartmouth (B.A., magna cum laude, 1975). He won Dartmouth’s Frost Playwriting Competition three times, and the first of these plays was the first openly gay play produced at Dartmouth. He was awarded a Reynolds Fellowship to study and write in London in 1975–1976. Early on, he was encouraged by playwright Israel Horovitz (to whom Scooter Thomas is dedicated) and later came under the tutelage of Joe Papp at the New York Shakespeare Festival.
His first major play after college, Scooter Thomas Makes It to the Top of the World, was presented at the O’Neill Playwrights Conference in 1977. Sorrows of Stephen was produced at the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1979. For a number of years in the 1980s and 1990s, he was associated with Playwrights Horizons—serving on their artistic board and receiving grants from them to support his work. His plays of that period were produced at Playwrights Horizons, and The Rise and Rise of Daniel Rocket and Hyde in Hollywood—in addition to their theatrical runs—were produced for television on PBS’s American Playhouse (the former in 1986 and the latter in 1991). He cowrote the CBS television movie Listen to Your Heart (1983). His two-part stage adaptation of John Irving’s novel The Cider House Rules was produced at the Seattle Rep, at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, and at the Atlantic Theatre Company in New York. His play Q.E.D., about eccentric American physicist Richard Feynman, was produced at