A LIFE IN THE THEATRE: Actor-Writer-Director Austin Pendleton

Special Features   A LIFE IN THE THEATRE: Actor-Writer-Director Austin Pendleton Meet Austin Pendleton, the actor, playwright, librettist and Tony-nominated director, who will helm Detroit on Broadway this fall.

Austin Pendleton
Austin Pendleton Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

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When Austin Pendleton was six or seven, growing up in Warren, OH, his mother, who had been a professional actress, became involved in community theatre. "The early productions were rehearsed in our living room," Pendleton says. "The first two were [even] performed in our living room. I was transfixed. I thought everything changed when you put on a play. Everything was more exciting."

Pendleton has transformed that childhood rapture into a more than half-century career as an actor in theatre, TV and movies, and as a director, playwright, librettist and teacher. He just won an Obie Award for directing Chekhov's Three Sisters at Classic Stage Company. He was the librettist for A Minister's Wife at Lincoln Center. On Broadway this fall, he will direct Steppenwolf Theatre's highly praised production of Lisa D'Amour's Detroit.

He got a Tony nomination in 1981 directing Elizabeth Taylor in The Little Foxes. He was artistic director of Circle Rep and is an ensemble member of Steppenwolf. His own plays, Off-Broadway, include Booth and Orson's Shadow. A documentary is being produced on his life and career. In 2007, the Drama Desk gave him a special award as "a Renaissance man of the American theatre."

Pendleton began acting in elementary school, continuing through college at Yale. While in school, he apprenticed at Williamstown Theatre Festival. Then he came to New York. In 1961, "by sort of hounding people, I got an audition in my first few months here" for Arthur Kopit's Off-Broadway play Oh, Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad. He got the job. He played Jonathan, the troubled son. His experience was also troubled. "The people involved in the show were very supportive, but I couldn't handle it. I used to dread every performance. Halfway through the run, one of the actors, Barry Primus, gave me subway directions to audition for Uta Hagen's class. That began to turn things around."

He studied with Hagen, and with Bobby Lewis and Herbert Berghof, all renowned teachers. "I should have studied with them for two years before I had a part like that. I gradually began to have some idea of how to know what I'm doing."

His first Broadway role, as the tailor Motel Kamzoil in the original 1964 Fiddler on the Roof, came about through the musical's director, Jerome Robbins, who had helmed Oh Dad.

Why did he take up writing? "I had always wanted to be a writer. Acting became a 30-year detour."

And directing? "The first play I directed as an adult was in Ohio. After Fiddler, I went back and directed my mother" — Frances Manchester Pendleton — "in Glass Menagerie. I enjoyed it. Nikos Psacharopoulos, Williamstown's artistic director, had heard from Bobby Lewis that I had interesting directorial ideas. One summer he said, 'Why don't you direct a show?'" — Molière's Tartuffe. "It went well."

Detroit, he says, involves "two couples on the wrong side of the economic collapse happening in this country."

People ask him how he chooses what to direct. "Sometimes I read a play and the characters leap out at me. I can never at first figure out why. So you could almost say you do the play because you want to find out why you respond to it so much."

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