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Actor Austin Pendleton Returns to Northeast Ohio

Actor, director and playwright Austin Pendleton [Beck Center]

You’ve likely seen Austin Pendleton many times in movies and TV shows, but never as a leading man. He’s always the “other guy,” the buddy or a side character in films like “My Cousin Vinny,” “What’s Up Doc,” “Finding Nemo” and “The Muppet Movie.” 

Austin Pendleton between Ryan O'Neal and Barbra Streisand in 1972's "What's Up Doc" [Warner Brothers]

A Northeast Ohio native son with a 50-year career on stage and screen, Pendleton is now back home headlining in a production of “Glengarry Glen Ross” at Lakewood’s Beck Center. The prolific actor says he developed those acting chops as a kid in his hometown of Warren.

“It was a prosperous, factory town,” he said. “At night, the sky was orange from the blast furnaces.”

His father, Thorn, owned the Warren Tool Company that shipped pick axes, sledgehammers and similar products all over the country. His mother, Frances, was a professional actor at the Cleveland Play House. Following World War II, she became an advisor, actor and director for the Trumbull New Theater.

“The last show she directed there was in 1988,” Pendleton recalled. “I directed her once there, ‘The Glass Menagerie.’” And she returned the favor, directing Pendleton, his wife and his father in a production of Chekhov’s "The Seagull."

Pendleton says this familial affinity for the theater led him to study drama at Yale. But, he notes that he didn’t get into the Ivy League school’s undergraduate theater program because of his acting talent.

“The reason I got accepted was me and some of my friends in Warren began our own little theater group when we were in junior high school and we would perform them in the basement of our house,” he said. “We did the ‘Glass Menagerie,’ for example. They were intrigued by the whole enterprise of that.”

Theater not only propelled him into higher education, it helped him overcome a childhood speech impairment – he developed a stutter as a child. But, he says it disappeared whenever he lost himself in a character on stage.

“I still do a lot of acting, because I associate acting with something that kind of saved my life,” he said.

But, stuttering also played a key role in his 1962 New York Off-Broadway stage debut in Arthur Kopit’s “Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad,” directed by future five-time Tony Award-winner Jerome Robbins. Pendleton’s character stuttered.

“So, I went in and I got an audition, and I got the part,” he said. “I did a very good first audition, and Jerry Robbins was like, ‘Who are you?’”

The two men would collaborate again two years later when Pendleton made his Broadway debut as Motel the tailor in the original cast of "Fiddler on the Roof." But as the show was getting ready to open, the out-of-town test performances were not encouraging. Pendleton says one critic called the show “hopeless,” and predicted it might run two months, based on the performance of Zero Mostel in the leading role. 

Austin Pendleton's 1964 breakout role on Broadway as the tailor Motel Kamzoil in the original cast of "Fiddler on the Roof" [Austin Pendleton]

“And Jerry just kept his head and just kept working on it,” Pendleton said. “We were playing five weeks or so in Detroit, and then two or three weeks in Washington, and then opening after a few previews on Broadway. By the time we opened in Washington, the reviews suddenly were very good. And it just continued that way.”

Pendleton went on to an theatrical career on the stage as an actor, a director and a playwright. But, he also started to develop a presence as a character actor in a number of films. All told, he’s racked up almost 150 movie and TV credits. 

“Who didn’t want to be in the movies? I was hoping that I wouldn’t ever get a successful TV series,” he said, noting that a number of his friends from the stage had gotten typecast due to television roles.

Pendleton shakes his head about the role he’s probably best known for: a stuttering lawyer in the 1992 comedy “My Cousin Vinny.”

“If I had my life to live over, I never would have done that movie,” he said, even though he admits to liking the film. “I remember thinking it’s a terrific script, and I loved the idea of the role. I just wanted someone else to play it.”

Pendleton is back in Northeast Ohio for a stage role in "Glengarry Glen Ross" at the Beck Center. He prefers the thriving theater scene here as opposed to what he calls the “degrading” life of an actor in New York and Los Angeles. He says there are a lot of cities where an actor can make a living outside of the east and west coasts.

Pendleton and Chris Bohan rehearse a scene from "Glengarry Glen Ross" [Beck Center]

"There’s a lot of wonderful things about the theater scene in New York and in Los Angeles, but it’s hard on people,” he said. “It’s kind of wonderful to come to a place like this and act.

The 2016 documentary "Starring Austin Pendleton" will be screened at the Cleveland Cinematheque

The Cleveland Cinematheque is screening some of Pendleton's famous films this week. On Saturday, he’ll answer questions about his career after the viewing of a 2016 documentary about his life. 

david.barnett@ideastream.org | 216-916-6242