The four performers profiled in the new book, "Role of a Lifetime," released in February 1999 by Back Stage Books, are not celebrities or stars but what theatre people call "working actors" or "actor's actors" -- steadily-employed professionals who have the respect of their colleagues and audiences.
It was this breed of character actor, those who don't live glamorous public lives but have swollen resumes, that author Robert Simonson wanted to profile for the 176-page softbound book ($16.95), subtitled "Four Professional Actors and How They Built Their Careers." In it, Simonson, an editor at Playbill On Line, wanted to show the shape of the careers of a diverse foursome, Austin Pendleton, Ron Rifkin, Gloria Foster and Lois Smith, from youthful roles to middle-age and beyond.
"Just as there is little to learn from the story of a failed actor, there is perhaps even less to learn from that of a fabulously famous one," Simonson writes in his preface. "Neither can tell an aspiring actor how to navigate a routinely successful career."
"I've always been interested in the supporting actors; I find their stories as fascinating as anybody's," said Simonson, 34, an arts writer and critic who is also a playwright.
The book was written following countless hours interviewing his four subjects, whose work ranges from regional theatre to Off-Broadway and Broadway, to film and television. * Pendleton is a respected director and character actor who has worked at the Williamstown Theatre Festival and beyond. One of his important early career roles was Motel the Tailor on Fiddler on the Roof.
* Gloria Foster starred in Having Our Say on Broadway and in numerous New York productions in the 1960s and '70s, breaking the color barrier for such traditionally white-cast shows as Medea, The Cherry Orchard and Agamemnon.
* Lois Smith grew up in the Depression-era midwest and forged a career in films ("East of Eden," Five Easy Pieces") and in such ensemble plays as Frank Galati's adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath and Sam Shepard's rewrite of Buried Child, both for Broadway.
* Ron Rifkin's left acting and worked in a family business, but he was lured back to the stage by actors and playwrights such as Jon Robin Baitz, appearing in Baitz's Three Hotels, The Substance of Fire and (his Tony Award-winning performance) in Cabaret.
The book charts their varied careers, from first flirtations with theatre to big breaks, major and minor roles, role models, disappointments, rebirths and personal turmoil.
-- By Kenneth Jones