Spend an hour talking with the actor and director Austin Pendleton in the lounge above Studio 54, and three slightly alarming things happen. First, the diminutive eighty-two-year-old, in the manner of a sleepy hedgehog, will gradually slouch down into the banquette, so that his head ends up where his shoulders once were. This will cause what Pendleton calls his “very excitable hair” to pouf up vertiginously. Finally, an extension cord under the table will somehow get wrapped around his ankles.
Pendleton is currently performing in a play at the theatre downstairs: Steppenwolf’s production of Tracy Letts’s dark comedy “The Minutes,” which is a parody of a Midwestern city-council meeting that descends into bloody political chaos. Pendleton plays a querulous council member named Mr. Oldfield. “It’s almost uncomfortable how readily I’m able to identify with this character,” he said, explaining that in real life he’s on the council of the Dramatists Guild. “Sometimes when I ask a question at a guild meeting it becomes clear that I haven’t followed anything that was said in the last half hour.”
Pendleton, best known for his supporting roles in movies—the nerdy musicologist Frederick Larrabee, in “What’s Up, Doc?”; Charles Durning’s shy sidekick, Max, in “The Muppet Movie”; Gurgle, in “Finding Nemo”—has worked with Steppenwolf for forty-three years. But it’s a relationship that almost didn’t happen. In 1979, when the fledgling Chicago-based troupe asked him to direct “Say Goodnight, Gracie,” he declined at first. He wasn’t a Broadway regular at the time (though he’d originated the role of Motel the tailor, in “Fiddler on the Roof” and would go on to direct Elizabeth Taylor in “The Little Foxes”), but his wife was pregnant, and he didn’t want to move. Also, the name bugged him: “Either they’d named themselves after a rock group, which is beyond pathetic,” he said, “or after a novel by my least favorite novelist.” But he ended up taking the gig and started auditioning the troupe—twelve relative unknowns. “For one role, I had to choose between Laurie Metcalf and Joan Allen,” he said. A second role went to a guy named John Malkovich.
Anna D. Shapiro, who directed “The Minutes” and has known Pendleton for twenty-five years, marvels at his continuing interest in theatre. “He’ll do, say, a part on Broadway, and then he’ll play Lear in an elevator,” she said. “For the rest of us, who are weighed down by our ambitions and by the narrative we want to write about ourselves? We’re shamed. He’s so pure.” Meryl Streep, who performed with Pendleton in “Mother Courage and Her Children,” has said of him, “There’s no line between the man and his work.”
Pendleton has been teaching acting at Greenwich Village’s HB Studio for half a century. In 2011, an article in the Post described how many of his female students found their rumpled, married septuagenarian teacher sexy, calling him a “babe magnet.” An accompanying photo showed Pendleton surrounded by fourteen attractive acolytes. Reminded of the “babe magnet” line recently, he thought for a moment, and said, “Still true.”
Pendleton has been in show business for sixty years; married to the same woman, Katina Commings, for fifty-two; and at HB since the moon landing. This fall, he will bring to Broadway the production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s “Between Riverside and Crazy” which he directed Off Broadway in 2014.
“A lot of it is luck,” he said, of his longevity. He recounted how, in 2000, his play “Orson’s Shadow,” which had had successful runs in Chicago and at Williamstown, landed with an unexpected thud at the Westport Country Playhouse, which was then being run by Joanne Woodward. At intermission one night, Pendleton and Woodward watched, horrified, as audience members streamed toward the exits. Woodward graciously broke the silence, referring to her husband, Paul Newman. “Paul and I knew when we took over this theatre that, to build the kind of theatre we wanted, we’d have to drive away the audience they’ve had here for years,” she said. “And I can think of no play I’d rather drive them away with than yours.” ♦
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