Shining in Orson's Shadow

Special Features   Shining in Orson's Shadow Austin Pendleton, now helming Off-Broadway's Uncle Vanya, is proof that the great Welles didn't corner the market on wearing many hats.
Austin Pendleton
Austin Pendleton Photo by David Beyda

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Austin Pendleton — actor, director, playwright, teacher — "a Renaissance man of the American theatre" (or so reads the inscription on his 2007 Drama Desk Special Award for his lifetime achievements) is space-traveling among professions on this sunny wintry morn. He slides into a booth at the Theatre Row Diner for a late-breakfast interview, evidencing all the wear and tear and disarray of an absent-minded professor, which he happens to be at this particular point on the sundial.

Life, a year or so down the road from his lifetime achievement award, is hectic as ever. If anything, his four-hat trick couldn't be more fast and furious — well, it could, but why tempt the gods? "It's a little crowded now for my tastes," even he admits, "but they're projects I've made — except for Uncle Vanya — and they're just happening at the same time. And then Uncle Vanya came up, and I really wanted to do that."

He is coming from The New School (where his directing students have just put up a production of Endgame) — en route to rehearsal down the block at the Theatre Row complex (where he has the title role in The Black Monk) — and ending the day at La MaMa (where he is directing Barbara Eda-Young in a play she has written, Lillian Yuralia). Then there are the acting classes he teaches at HB Studio and The New Play that's ruminating around in his head ("It's hard to talk about yet"). Plus he's working on the book for a musical to be done at Writers' Theatre in Chicago; it has a score by Joshua Schmidt, who composed the acclaimed Adding Machine.

Lillian Yuralia lifts off first. Then he'll see the glimmer of a light at the end of the tunnel. For a few weeks he was rehearsing both that play and The Black Monk, which is an adaptation of an Anton Chekhov short story and a personal warm-up for Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, which he starts directing while still playing The Black Monk. Tony winner Denis O'Hare will be Vanya when the play began its limited run Jan. 17 at Classic Stage Company — the same place where Pendleton played the part the only time he did it in New York, 21 years ago — and he has done it a lot, "almost as many times as O'Neill's father played The Count of Monte Cristo, seven or eight times. The first time I did it I directed it at Williamstown 36 years ago. Then, 11 years later, I began to be asked to play the role, and I've played it many, many times since 1983."

Obviously, he has much to tell O'Hare about the character, but the two have spoken only fleetingly. "I like to get into rehearsal before you talk too much, so you can immediately put the things you talk about into action. Otherwise, it gets awfully theoretical. Besides, everything you talk of before rehearsal, you change anyway."

Jerome Robbins saw Pendleton act at Yale and immediately imported him to Off-Broadway to play Jo Van Fleet's weirdo son in Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad. Robbins also directed Pendleton's Broadway debut (as Motel the tailor in Fiddler on the Roof). "I owe him my career. How could I not love him? He was a good man. He worked so hard when he'd direct a show, and he'd get frustrated and impatient, but he would get more impatient with himself."

Of all his theatrical lives, the one that got Pendleton up for a Tony was as director of the 1981 revival of The Little Foxes, a play he had done in 1967 as an actor. This time out, he steered the Broadway-bowing Elizabeth Taylor to a Tony Award nomination, too.

Yes, she was terrified, "but she was so open about it, it was fun. She never acted out her terror in inappropriate ways. She'd do anything you asked. She was generous, played well with the other actors — they loved her. She's a wonderful lady, Elizabeth."

Excluding (if you can) Pendleton's stunning 2006 portrayal of an insistently suicidal atheist in The Sunset Limited, his greatest source of praise has come from authoring Orson's Shadow, his speculation on a factual clash-of-theatrical-titans (director Orson Welles and player Laurence Olivier trying, in vain, to lift Ionesco's Rhinoceros onto the London stage). Judith Auberjonois suggested the idea to him as a vehicle for her husband, Rene, and Alfred Molina. "It never would have occurred to me," admits Pendleton, who spent three years writing it, breathing humanity into these icons.

He observed Welles' iron-willed machinations up close when he played his military aide and son-in-law in Catch-22. "He wanted to direct all the time and, in fact, took over the direction of certain scenes we were in together. Mike Nichols handled it brilliantly. If anybody ever does that to me, I'll just remember what he did. He was very patient and gave Orson a lot of rope. Orson was always wrong, and Mike was always right, but Orson wouldn't listen to Mike and made a big point of it. I had made some pretty snide remarks about him in the press, and then I regretted that." Austin Pendleton was very much the man in Orson's shadow back then, but he has emerged from that with a comparable complement of multitalented skills.