(Henry Alford’s article appeared in the The New Yorker, 5/16; Photo: WFMJ.com.)
The actor and director hangs at the lounge of Studio 54, where he is performing in “The Minutes,” to discuss sixty years in the theatre, casting a young Laurie Metcalf and John Malkovich, and being an octogenarian object of desire.
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.