I found myself irritated by the tagline of the 2016 documentary short Starring Austin Pendleton…”the Most Famous Actor Your Never heard Of”. And I should hope you’ll immediately spot why.
How can any self-respecting person who claims to be a movie fan never have heard of Austin Pendleton? As a kid in the ’70s I know him as a key cast member in a long line of wild, woolly and outrageous ensemble comedies, including Otto Preminger’s Skidoo (1968), Mike Nichols’ Catch-22 (1970), Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? (1972), Bud Yorkin’s The Thief Who Came to Dinner (1973), Billy Wilder’s The Front Page (1974), John Leone’s The Great Smokey Roadblock (1977), Jim Henson and James Frawley’s The Muppet Movie (1979), Alan J. Pakula and James L. Brooks’ Starting Over (1979), Marshall Brickman’s Simon (1980), and Buck Henry’s First Family (1980).
If these pictures are too arcane and obscure for you (you’ve never seen The Muppet Movie?), perhaps you have seen The Ballad of the Sad Cafe (1991), My Cousin Vinnie (1992), Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993), Woody Allen’s 1994 remake of Don’t Drink the Water, Steve Martin’s Sgt. Bilko (1996), Barbara Streisand’s The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996), Steve Spielberg’s Amistad (1997), Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind (2001), Pixar’s Finding Nemo (2003) and Finding Dory (2016), Christmas with the Cranks (2004), and Oliver Stone’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010). On TV he had recurring roles on St. Elsewhere (1983-84), Homicide: Life on the Street (1998-2000), and Oz (1998-2002)
In the first great wave of his screen career, Pendleton registered as a type that was then very much in demand: small, mild-mannered, often bespectacled nebbishes. His characters were usually intellectual, frequently whiny. As a type, you might compare the young Pendleton to Woody Allen, the later Danny Goldman, or Max Wright. But who wants to be a “type”? In the ’80s he turned his focus back to the theatre for a while (and as well he should for his birthday also happens to be World Theatre Day!) Pendleton had first made a name for himself in the original productions of Arthur Kopit’s Oh Dad Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad (1962), not to mention Fiddler on the Roof (1964), in which he originated the role of Motel. (In the film versions of these plays he was replaced by Robert Morse and Leonard Frey, respectively). In 1981 he was nominated for a Tony for his direction of a Broadway revival of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes starring Elizabeth Taylor, Maureen Stapleton and Anthony Zerbe.
For decades, Pendleton juggled screen acting engagements with directing and acting on Broadway, Off-Broadway and regionally. Some other stage credits include directing the Mirror Rep’s 1984 production of Ibsen’s Ghosts with Geraldine Page and Victor Slezak; serving as artistic director at Circle Rep (1995-96); acting in the 1997 Broadway revival of The Diary of Anne Frank with Natalie Portman, Linda Lavin, Harris Yullin, et al; and directing Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya (2009, CSC) and The Three Sisters (2011, Lucille Lortel), taking home the Best Director Obie for the latter. Pendleton has also directed dozens of productions of Tennessee Williams plays; go here for my interview with him about that on the occasion of his 2017 revival of Two Character Play.
Pendleton has also written several plays, including Orson’s Shadow, presented at Steppenwolf in 2000. Pendleton had worked closely with Orson Welles in Catch-22; the play is about Welles’ directing Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright in Ionesco’s Rhinoceros in 1960, with Vivien Leigh and Kenneth Tynan also as characters. While at Yale in the late ’50s and early ’60s, Pendleton co-wrote two musicals with Peter Bergman, starring Philip Proctor, both of whom went on to become members of the seminal sixties comedy quartet Firesign Theatre. One, entitled Booth is Back in Town, was based on the life of Edwin Booth. The other was an adaptation of Fielding’s Tom Jones, quite independent from the Richardson film that was released around the same time.
Pendleton also happens to be one of the many who was coached by the late and much mourned vocal teacher Barbara Maier Gustern, who was cruelly taken from us just over two weeks ago, a saga still unfolding, as the culprit was caught just a few days ago. We’ve seen a couple of his cabaret shows with Barbara Bleier; there’s another one coming up at Don’t Tell Mama, which was Gustern’s last directing project, it’s certain to be sold out by now, but info is here.
The pace of Pendleton’s activity has not slacked a jot now that he is an octogenarian. We’ve seen him on the tv shows Difficult People and The Good Fight. At Theater for the New City I caught him in Pamela Enz’s City Girls and Desperadoes (2018) with Julie Atlas Muz, and Bernard Kops’ The Dark Outside (November, 2021). At this writing, he is scheduled to return to Broadway in a couple of weeks in Tracy Letts’ The Minutes!
Once famed for playing callow youths, Austin Pendleton now marks six decades of significant achievement in theatre, film and television. I first saw him onstage halfway across that expanse of time, as the title character in a staged reading of Sophocles’ Philoctetes. That production featured my good buddy Brian Price, whom I discovered this morning has written an indispensable-sounding tome called Classical Storytelling and Contemporary Screenwriting: Aristotle and the Modern Screenwriter (Routledge, 2018) ! (A digression but I think you’ll admit a worthy one). At any rate, as I pen these words, I’m older than Austin was during that reading. At the time, I was shocked at how he had changed since those early screen performances. Nowadays, the feeling is something closer to veneration.