Austin Pendelton: A True Legend Still Thriving As He Directs His Latest Play

Austin Pendelton, who wrote and directed “Orsons Shadow,” for its recent limited run revival at the Theater for the New City in the East Village, was already onto his next venture, directing a production of “Fingers & Spoons” by the time it wrapped. F&S opens later this month at the SOHO Playhouse. After six decades as an actor, director and playwright, he shows no sign of slowing down.

| 04 Apr 2024 | 10:23

At one-point last year, I was watching “From Riverside To Crazy” on Broadway. I noticed this short white-haired man roaming the lobby nervously. It was Austin Pendleton, who directed that show. Not long before, I had seen him on Broadway as one of Tracy Letts’ very funny members of a local political meeting in “The Minutes.” Oh, and when I tried to reach Pendleton to do an interview several months later, I was told he was working on something at Chicago’s legendary Steppenwolf Theatre.

This man is two years older than Joe Biden. I’m just saying.

One has to be cautious using the word legend. As Patrick Hamilton, playing art critic Ken Tynan, opines at one point in “Orson’s Shadow” the Pendelton-written play which enjoyed a nice revival at the Theater for the New City in the East Village: “once one is called a living genius, one only exists to disappoint.”

But ask anyone in the entertainment world about Austin Pendleton and they’ll have a story, a favorite memory and spirited, living testimony to his still-building legacy.

Back in 1981, he was nominated for a Tony after directing Elizabeth Taylor and Maureen Stapelton in Lillian Hellman’s “Little Foxes.”

He graduated Yale in 1961 and by 1964, he was on Broadway, playing Motel the tailor in “Fiddler on the Roof” directed by Jerome Robbins.

As a character actor his varied film credits include: Catch-22 , What’s Up, Doc? The Front Page , Short Circuit; Mr. and Mrs. Bridge and My Cousin Vinny in 1992. His performance in 2001 in A Beautiful Mind earned him a Screen Actors Guild nomination for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. His varied career also saw him with roles in Guarding Tess (1994); Amistad (1997); and in 2003 the animated hit Finding Nemo.

The latest version of his “Orsons Shadow” which originally debuted off Broadway in 2005 was also directed by Pendleton this time around and presented by Crystal Field, Executive Artistic Director of Theater for the New City, in association with Oberon Theatre Ensemble and Strindberg Rep.

“I’m very happy with this production,” said Pendleton, who was watching the night I went. For good reason: a stellar cast. Aside from the aforementioned Hamilton, the rest of the cast featured Brad Fryman portraying Orson Welles, Ryan Tramont as Laurence Olivier; Natalie Menna as Vivian Leigh and Kim Taff as Joan Plowright.

Pendelton, amazingly, does not seem to be falling into that trap that Hamilton’s character warns about pertaining to Welles, and the struggles that co-writer and actor had living up the success he enjoyed after the debut of his first feature film, the critically acclaimed “Citizen Kane.”

Pendelton’s more recent Broadway acting turns included The Choir Boy in 2016 The Minutes in 2022, as well as directing Between Riverside and Crazy, in 2022.

Pendelton is already on to his next project, directing “Fingers & Spoons” which opens later this month at the SOHO Playhouse.

As for the Steppenwolf connection, Pendleton is officially part of that ensemble and loves it. “At one time, I was directing a show there, and I “had” to choose between Joan Allen and Laurie Metcalf,” he recalls. “I was flying blind...and who was this guy named Malkovich? (As in John) That is another home for me.”

Dale Launer, the writer of “My Cousin Vinny” recalls Pendleton’s scene stealing in that film where Pendelton played public defender John Gibbon for Vinny’s falsely accused nephew. ”I’d written a scene about a guy who has a panic attack in court,” Launer recalls. “That involved sweating, trembling, hyperventilation, possibly fainting. If you’re up for a murder you didn’t commit, and your lawyer is completely falling apart? Horrible. Which to me is really, really f---ing funny. And Austin was hilarious.”

And he knows how to deal with actors as well as anyone. When the music star Common came into “From Riverside to Crazy” late in the production, “I did wonder about him at first,” admits Pendleton, “whether he was being used as a way to sell tickets...But he’s easy to work with and slipped into our ensemble seamlessly. He’s a terrific actor and a lovely soul.”

As a long-time teacher, Pendleton is truly beloved. “Austin treats us like professionals,” says Annette Fox, who left the art world to return to her first love, acting. “In his deceptively casual and friendly directorial manner, he asks us provocative questions that guide us to discover by ourselves, the truth of our characters, their relationship to the text, and to each other, and the authenticity of our performances.” Hamilton, who portrayed Tynan in “Orson’s Shadow,” says, “Austin is one of my favorite people of all time. He is witty and sharp and has an anecdote for everything.”

Not every anecdote is necessarily complimentary. Like the time Pendleton recalls sitting next to a ticket-buyer who was not aware he was sitting next to the playwright. “At intermission, this guy said, ‘This is the worst play I’ve ever seen. The only one worse was “Moon for the Misbegotten.” Pendleton laughs, saying how flattered he was to be in the same sentence as a Eugene O’Neill classic.

As he starts his 84th year, the energy and curiosity are still there. Aside from the week his wife gave birth to their “surgeon daughter,” he has seemingly never taken a break. Right now, aside from the SOHO Playhouse production, he’s directing a new play called “What Keeps Us Going,” written by Barbara Dana (former wife of Alan Arkin) which will open soon at the Schoolhouse Theatre in Croton.

We can thank the theatre gods that Austin Pendleton just keeps going.

Michele Willens’ “Stage Right or Not” appears on the NPR affiliate Robinhoodradio.