Austin Pendleton made his Broadway debut in 1964 when he created the role of Motel in the original production of Fiddler on the Roof. His performance as the nervous, loveable, determined tailor is immortalized on the classic cast album and has served as the gold-standard blueprint to anyone who has played Motel since.
His extensive career spans six decades and nearly all mediums. As an actor, he’s been directed by the greats: Jerome Robbins, Mike Nichols, Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, and Tommy Tune. He has acted alongside the likes of Barbra Streisand (twice), Anne Bancroft, and George C. Scott. He scored a Tony nomination in 1981 for directing The Little Foxes with Elizabeth Taylor. In short, he’s a legend.
Now, after 50 years, he returns to the show that launched his career. His production of Fiddler on the Roof, which runs at New Repertory Theatre through Jan 1, is one of the most hotly anticipated of the year.
Here, Pendleton looks back on directing Elizabeth Taylor, opening night of Fiddler on Broadway, and the immense influence of Jerome Robbins.
Is this your first time returning to Fiddler as a director?
As anything! I haven’t worked on it since Aug 14, 1965, which was the final performance that I was in on Broadway.
In terms of directing, you directed and were Tony nominated for The Little Foxes with Elizabeth Taylor. What was that like?
She was not like working a major star, you know what I mean? It was like she was one of the people in the play; that’s the kind of energy she put out. It wasn’t “this moment is about me.” She was just there as part of the group and that affected the group in a very positive way.
When you got that gig, did it feel like your directing career was taken to a major new level?
Because of the up-and-down experience as an actor, in terms of career perception, I’d gotten to the point that I didn’t think that way anymore. It was a play that I had already been in—I was in the Mike Nichols production with Anne Bancroft, so I knew the play very well, just like I know Fiddler on the Roof very well, so I was really interested in doing the play and doing [it] with a really good cast. For some people, it can be a good idea to stop thinking in career terms. So I didn’t think that, in short. I had stopped thinking that way a few years before that because it can drive you crazy. You become enslaved to people’s perceptions about a career.
How old were you when Fiddler opened?
So you’re a young man in the biggest hit on Broadway—
It didn’t get overwhelmingly great reviews. We all left the party early [laughs] because the reviews weren’t all that great.
Were they negative, or just respectful?
A couple were out-and-out raves, but not the major ones. The Times was extremely respectful. But the critic everybody paid attention to in those days was Walter Kerr, who at that time was still with the Herald Tribune. He just didn’t like it. He dismissed it, essentially. So there wasn’t that triumphant people-jumping-on-tables-and-reading-reviews type moment at the opening night party. I was in bed by 12:30. But we knew, by that point, how great the show was, and it was a product of blood, sweat, and tears. We had been roundly criticized when we were out of town, but it really pulled together thanks to Jerry Robbins. We had arrived at this wonderful, wonderful musical. That great moment of opening one of the great Broadway hit musicals of all time simply didn’t take place at the party!
When did it happen?
We all came in for the Wednesday matinee, happily not hungover because we didn’t party long enough to get really drunk. I had a dressing room with Bert Convy, who was Perchik, and he said, “Have you seen the lines outside?” I said, “No, why?” “It’s around the block,” he said. I said, “You’re kidding,” And he said, “I think something’s happening here.” And, indeed, the lines around the block never stopped.
You hear so many fables about working with Jerry Robbins. What was that like?
Well, he was the ideal director in that he was a mixture of totally supportive and frighteningly challenging. If he wasn’t happy with you or if he thought you were getting in a rut, God help you. At the same time, he would be totally supportive. He wanted you to keep on fighting. He wanted to keep on pressing and fighting against your own limitations. But, I mean, I went through periods where I was mad at him but only because I was afraid I couldn’t do what he wanted, and he would just keep after you. But then he would say, “You got it! You got it!” I was in a show that he directed before that, off-Broadway, Oh Dad, Poor Dad, and so I worked with him twice. If you can say a sentence like this—it’s not provable as a scientific experiment—but he made my career, for better or for worse. To put it mildly, he gave me a launch. And there were times when I couldn’t understand why he was doing that because I didn’t feel up to it. But he did. And so all the ups and downs that I’ve had since then are all part of a trajectory that he launched. I’m so in touch with that feeling right now in directing Fiddler, I just keep thinking about it.
So many stories and memories must come flooding back.
It’s wild. It’s like a dam is broken, you know? It keeps reminding me of what his vision of the show was, which is that it’s about people trying to hold on to their integrity and their identity in the face of terrifying upheavals and changes.
It definitely has a renewed sense of timeliness to it.
We went into rehearsal on election day, what can I say!
You got to witness the creation of so many iconic moments in Fiddler, like the bottle dance.
That went in in the middle of our out-of-town tryout. One day at the end of rehearsal Jerry said, “Will you all stay? We’re introducing something in the wedding scene tonight and I want you all to be on stage with it in rehearsal before you see it tonight in performance.” We thought, “Oh, God, can’t we go have dinner?” And they did the bottle dance. We had no idea it was even being rehearsed or that there even was such a thing. Imagine what that felt like.
Were you all just in awe?
Oh, God! We all collectively fell apart. We had no idea it was even in the works. I guess all the guys in it were sworn to secrecy.
What is this production going to be like?
I’ll just keep going back to Jerry. The two times I worked with Jerry I had no idea at all of being a director. But all during the run I would go stand in the wings and watch the way the scenes were staged and it just fascinated me. Look, you’re in a show by a master, why don’t you pay attention! [laughs] It’s just the moment by moment unfolding of a story, unfolding of a process, beat by beat—literally—what the characters are going through and challenges they’re facing and how they change in facing those challenges. And he just was a bear about the moment by moment articulation of that in the behavior, either in acting the scenes or in dance or in singing, and he endlessly reminded us how every single beat moved the story along in one way or another. So that’s what I’m trying to get. In this case, the struggle is people who, almost from the beginning of the show, are finding everything that’s held their lives together challenged by forces way beyond their control. How they, step by step, find their own foothold with that and have to redefine who they are. I’m glad you’re asking me this because it reminds me what we’re working on. [laughs]
FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. 12.2–1.1 AT THE NEW REPERTORY THEATRE AT THE ARSENAL CENTER FOR THE ARTS, 321 ARSENAL ST., WATERTOWN. NEWREP.ORG
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.