Pendleton parks his latest vehicle in the Garage.
Simply put, 66-year-old Steppenwolf ensemble member Austin Pendleton has spent his four-decade career surrounded by American entertainment titans. From the much-feared Jerome Robbins to collaborations with Mike Nichols, Elizabeth Taylor and Orson Welles (about whom he would pen the affectionate play Orson’s Shadow), actor, director and playwright Pendleton brings every experience imaginable to his new project, a humble Garage premiere of novelist Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited. Yet we had no choice but to start by asking him about the time he directed a revival by one of the theater’s most astringent (and black-listed) writers.
Tell me your best Lillian Hellman story.
Oh, I love that woman. I miss her still. I never fought with anyone professionally as much as I fought with her. One time at a preview in New York [of Hellman’s The Little Foxes] we were having a big fight between Acts 2 and 3 out in the lobby. And she got me so mad I started kicking the wall and yelling—and I mean yelling, “This is the worst fucking night of my life!” And she started to pound the floor with her cane, and she yelled, “Every night I see this production is the worst fucking night of my life!” A great deal of the audience heard that. She would drive me to wild rage, and then she would cackle and laugh and make me light her cigarette. It was like that.
What the best lesson you’ve learned from watching someone else screw up?
I understudied Joel Grey on a famously problematic show called Goodtime Charley. I would be an understudy again in a heartbeat, because everybody talks to you about what’s not working. The chorus confides in you. The lighting designer weeps to you. The guy you’re understudying tells you all his troubles. You can see what’s not working from the outside.
You’ve got a fairly ubiquitous face in television and film. Do you like L.A.?
I live in New York. I go to L.A. when I have a job there, which is more and more infrequent, partly because they don’t do anything in L.A. anymore. They don’t make movies there. A lot of the TV is in Vancouver. I have a bad dream that happens once a month where I get a long-running series and it’s in Vancouver.
Is that unappealing to you?
I’ve resisted it all my life. Prayed for pilots and then prayed I didn’t get them. And pretended to be upset when producers called to say it didn’t work out. But the thing is, in this business you spend your whole adult life at the whim of other people—the casting directors, directors, critics. I remember in the late ’70s being in the office of a very prominent casting director, who, in fact, I like. She said, “You know who I just don’t respond to at all? That Meryl Streep. Why is there any interest in her?” My blood went cold. Jesus Christ. It’s one of the reasons one turns to writing. No one’s going to turn to John Updike and go, “We’re going to go another way with the Rabbit books.”
Worst advice you’ve ever gotten?
Some New York producers told me to do Orson’s Shadow with an all-star cast. They said, “With an all-star cast, who cares if the show gets attacked?” And I said, “Uh, I do.”
Were you close to Orson Welles?
I worked with Orson on Catch-22, and he was very destructive to that film. And I was an asshole. I thought he was just this kind of loser and I said so to the press. I was haunted by that for years. With Orson’s Shadow, I thought now is the chance to make it up.
Cormac McCarthy is obviously a heavy-hitting novelist, but this is his first play. What’s it like?
Black guy rescues a white guy from a suicide attempt on the subway. Black guy takes him back to his Harlem apartment and tries to get him to give his assurance that he won’t do it again. And that’s the whole thing. I’m not giving anything away, because it all becomes clear in the first 15 minutes. [McCarthy]’s an extraordinary writer. A small part of the reason I took this show was so that I could just meet him.
The Sunset Limited is running in the Steppenwolf Garage.