News & Articles

A Conversation with Director Austin Pendleton

Austin Pendleton's career spans five decades and encompasses work on stage, in television, and in film, both behind the scenes and in front of the lights. His recent film roles include, A Beautiful Mind and Finding Nemo, as well as the classics Catch–22, What's Up Doc, The Muppet Movie, and some seventy others. His stage roles include hundreds of shows on and off–Broadway and regionally. As a critically acclaimed director, he was nominated for a Tony Award for directing Elizabeth Taylor in The Little Foxes. In recent years, he has turned his hand to playwrighting with great success. Associate Artistic Director Curt Columbus called Austin at his New York home to talk about his career – and a series of happy accidents that have brought him were he is as an artist today. CC: I was looking for information about you on the internet and found a site called "The Austin Pendleton Worship Page." There, in a review of The Thief Who Came to Dinner, (1973) by Harlan Ellison, he says, "Oh my, Austin Pendleton ought to be on exhibit in the Smithsonian. He is a national treasure..." AP: Good God! I wonder if he's revised that opinion. [laughter]. CC: Ellison goes on to say, "People ought to come pouring out of studios and bury him in money to make film after film starring Pendleton in whatever he wants to be. He's so good." AP: I couldn't agree more. [laughter]. CC: The career you've made as an artist seems to come from a series of accidental encounters with people. What are some of the most fortuitous accidental encounters that you've had? AP: An important one was the first time I met the Steppenwolf ensemble. It was all because of the play Say Goodnight, Gracie, which I had directed Off–Broadway. The producer wanted to bring it to Chicago, but the playwright wouldn't give him the rights unless I was the director. But I kept saying, "I don't want to direct it, I've already directed it." But, he convinced me and I flew out for auditions in a foul mood...and it was like Alice in Wonderland. I fell into this rabbit hole of brilliance that I didn't know existed. I met and auditioned the whole ensemble, which was an unforgettable couple of hours. I hadn't even heard of any one of them, and all of a sudden, I had to choose between actors like Laurie Metcalf and Joan Allen for the same role. The rest of the cast included John Malkovich, Glenne Headley, and Fran Guinan. I remember offering another role to Jeff Perry, and he said to me, "Buddy…" – we had just met and he calls me "Buddy" – "Buddy, I can't do this. I've played too many big parts in recent productions. For the good of the ensemble, I shouldn't take this part." And I said, "Are you out of your mind?" I was a New York actor, I had never heard a sentence like that! He said, "Oh, I want the part and I'd love to work with you, but I mustn't. It will disturb the equilibrium of the ensemble." I thought, "These people are lunatics." CC: What other accidental encounters have you experienced in the course of your career? AP: Almost everything has been an accident. I can't think of a project that I have pursued. Even Orson's Shadow was written because Judith Auberjenois asked me to write it for her husband Rene, who then didn't want to do it. CC: At least you got a great play out of it... AP: But I never would have thought of that idea. In fact, when I first heard that she wanted me to write a play about Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles, I resisted it. CC: Because you had worked with Orson Welles on Catch–22? AP: That was actually the only thing that drew me slightly to it. I was such an asshole about him after that film, I thought I had to make it up to him somehow. CC: But, I've always heard that he was the difficult one to work with. AP: He was. But when the movie came out, I was quoted in all these magazines saying really snide things about him. And, as big an asshole as he was, he was still a great artist, though he really injured Catch–22 artistically. He redirected all the scenes he was in – and I was in all of them with him, so I know. [Director] Mike Nichols would finish a scene, and then Orson would redirect it and take all the humor out of it. He would say to Mike, "You don't understand comedy." Now, the worst detractors of Mike Nichols have never said he doesn't understand comedy! [laughter] Orson would give these pompous little speeches about comedy and then redirect the scene. CC: It's interesting to hear you talk about Orson Welles this way, because when one watches Orson's Shadow, they get such a balanced and sympathetic view of him. AP: I realized that he was great artist that he had been punished by the Hollywood system – partly by his own arrogance, but by no means entirely. There are film directors in the past 20–30 years who are treated with awe and respect who don't even approach his genius. And that's the story of the play, how this great man becomes the victim, and the audience always goes for the victim. The fact that Orson emerges as sympathetic is almost not any of my doing. CC: Let's talk about your work as an actor, Austin. You've been in big Broadway shows, major motion pictures, and yet in recent years, you've starred in several Off–Off–Broadway productions of Shakespeare. Why do that? AP: Being an actor, at least in America, is like being in an abusive relationship with your own profession. It's just so degrading. So why endure a lifetime of abuse without playing any of the great roles?! It doesn't matter where you do it, just doing it is exciting. Of course, if you act in the theater, even on Broadway or in respected regional theaters, you're considered to be a loser in Los Angeles. The profession is so disrespected there. CC: But that's what's really inspiring about you as an artist, the active pursuit of your passion, and that's not common among many American artists. AP: Because it's radically discouraged. The agent I had for years – she's retired now – she used to support me in that sort of thing. And my manager still flies around the country and sees me in everything I do. I've been really fortunate.