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Quick Wit: Austin Pendleton

This actor/writer/director can't fathom life without theater. logo

Austin Pendleton
Austin Pendleton made his stage debut in 1962 in the acclaimed Off-Broadway production of Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Momma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad, by Arthur Kopit. In short order, he moved to Broadway where he created the role of Motel the Tailor in Fiddler on the Roof. Since then, he has acted and directed on and off Broadway, and across the country. Stars he has directed include Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Langella, Irene Worth, E. G. Marshall, and Olympia Dukakis. He's appeared in "about 50" movies and has had recurring roles on TV in Homicide and Oz.

Pendleton has been associated with Steppenwolf Theatre Company since 1979 (he's now a member of the Steppenwolf Ensemble), initially as a director, then as an actor and a playwright. Although based in Manhattan, Pendleton has directed five plays at Steppenwolf, acted in five more, including the current world premiere of Don DeLillo's Valparaiso (through March 26), and written two plays produced at Steppenwolf, the most recent being Orson's Shadow, which had its world premiere in Chicago in January.

TM: Actor, writer and director. Do you like to be called a triple-threat?

Austin Pendleton: No. The word "threat" implies that it's going to sweep everything before it.

TM: Which do you like best?

Austin: I like acting and writing the best, and it's very hard to compare those two. There's no more gregarious life than acting, or any less gregarious life than writing. When I direct, I have to be really dragged into it.

TM: Who taught you the most about theater?

Austin: Nikos Psacharopoulos. He ran the Williamstown (MA) Theatre Festival for 35 years, and I apprenticed there. He got me started as a professional director, and I acted there a lot, often under his direction. I think he's the most underrated figure in modern American theater. He shaped so many people's ideas about how to work, and what to try to accomplish.

TM: You've been acting for 38 years. What's you're best performance?

Austin: The production that Nikos directed at Williamstown of The Three Sisters the part of Tusenbach, would be one of them. Last year a couple of Shakespearean parts I did with the Frog and Peach Company in New York [would be others]. I played Shylock, and before that I played Claudius and the Ghost in Hamlet. This is not only my own feelings, but what people told me.

TM: Would you like to do more film and TV work as an actor?

Austin: Yeah, I wouldn't mind.

TM: For the money, or do you enjoy it?

Austin: All of that.

TM: What's the difference between acting for the stage and acting for the screen?

Austin: I don't think there is one. Orson Welles says, in that book of interviews with him by Peter Bogdonavich, "It isn't about the size, it's about the focus." And he always uses Jimmy Cagney as an example, whose work is wildly theatrical, but he's a great film actor. If an actor has a focus like a laser, it can work in either theater or film.


TM: What was your best time in theater?

Austin: Right now, and some of those summers in Williamstown.

TM: Worst time? Do you have any horror stories?

Austin: I've probably repressed it. Sometimes you have horrible times in theater, but you learn a lot from it, and your work gets much better because of it. I had a very hard time in a production of Waiting for Godot which was a remounting of a production which Beckett had directed in Germany. A devoted Beckett disciple was there to instruct us in the way the "master" had directed in German. So all the line readings were based on the German translation. I went mad. You just learn that you're a vessel. And somewhere along the line an actor needs to learn that. Sorry, you're just a vessel.

TM: Do you have a physical discipline that you follow?

Austin: No.

TM: Do you have any hobbies?

Austin: No.

TM: What do you like to read?

Austin: Almost anything. I like fiction and biography.

TM: Read any good books lately?

Austin: The Doris Kearns Goodwin book No Ordinary Time, about FDR and Eleanor during World War II. That's a brilliant book.

TM: How do you cope with separation from your family?

Austin: Our daughter's in college, so I've already been separated from her. And my wife kind of enjoys it actually. She's the envy of all the other women in our apartment building. They all say to her in the laundry room, "Oh, I wish my husband would go away for three months once in awhile."

TM: If you weren't involved in theater, what would you be doing?

Austin: That's a frightening question. I can't imagine my life without it. I truly don't know.

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