When a veteran actor has a break in his stage and television career, you assume he'd head for a chichi spot to clear his mind and enjoy a little pampering. When "The People in the Picture" closed on Broadway last year, actor Lewis J. Stadlen took the long train ride to Pittsburgh -- 200 miles out of his way, through Washington, D.C., then via the Chicago Limited -- and spent three days at one of his favorite hotels, the Westin William Penn. He took in a Pirates game and ate at Ruth's Chris before heading back East.
Mr. Stadlen has a long association with both our city and "Fiddler on the Roof," the play he's about to star in for Pittsburgh CLO. His first professional gig, at age 19 in 1967, was as Mendel the rabbi's son in the first national company of "Fiddler," a tour that played Pittsburgh's Nixon Theater. His visits since then include opening the national tour of "The Producers," and now he'll play the iconic theater role of Tevye, the father of five daughters, scratching out a living and facing upheaval in a Russian shtetl.
"It's a masterwork just in terms of the collaboration," Mr. Stadlen says of the Bock (music)/Stein (book)/Harnick (lyrics) musical. "The music is great, the lyrics are fabulous, but two geniuses were involved in the project initially, [choreographer] Jerry Robbins and Zero [Mostel]. Much of the argot of Tevye came from Zero.
"I was 19 when I played Mendel, but I still remember the opening choreography. Now I've done many, many shows, many, many musicals; I don't remember anybody's steps. But every show that Jerry Robbins did had a different choreographic content. Bob Fosse was great, but he had a style that permeated everything. But Jerry Robbins, everything had to be involved with telling the story the best way you can."
Storytelling comes naturally to Mr. Stadlen, who has an anecdote to accompany every answer, some of which appeared in his 2009 book, "Acting Foolish," an autobiography of more than 40 years as a working actor, from his studies with legendary teachers Sanford Meisner and Stella Adler to originating roles in four Neil Simon plays to taking "The Producers" from Broadway to the road. He has learned valuable lessons from observing actors such as Henry Fonda and listening to tips passed along by Victor French.
On stage, the 5-foot-8 actor plays larger than life -- for his 1970 Broadway debut, he was cast as Groucho Marx in the musical "Minnie's Boys." He's most often recognized for his TV roles on "Benson," "The Sopranos" and a recent stint on "Smash."
He described TV dialogue as "disposable." "You learn it and you throw it in the waste-paper basket and never see it again. It's an interesting thing. I have memorized books of dialogue. 'The Sunshine Boys,' huge. 'Fiddler on the Roof,' huge. But give me a page and a half of crappy television dialogue, and I have a really difficult time [laughs] even trying to remember my name."
After all these years, he still has vivid recollections of the "Fiddler on the Roof" that launched his career.
Ms. Adler wrote a letter praising the young actor to her brother, Luther Adler, who was the Tevye in that touring production.
"She said I'm sending you out a boy, he's a little meshuga but a nice boy, and I want you to be nice to him because I know what a miserable bastard you can be to a young actor," Mr. Stadlen recalled.
The letter had the opposite of its intended effect. "He decided he was going to haze me. He was rough ... and yet I had a great deal of respect for him."
The experience stayed with him. When a young actor was "driving me crazy" in a production of Arthur Miller's "The American Clock," Mr. Stadlen recalled wanting to treat that actor as Mr. Adler had treated him. "I didn't have it in me," he said, before switching to a related story about running into the actor years later, when Mr. Stadlen had a few Broadway shows under his belt.
"I said 'Luther, it's Lewis Stadlen.' He said, 'Ah, darling, how are you?' You always knew you were in trouble when he called you darling.
"And I said, 'You were a wonderful actor to make a debut with.' And he said, 'Really? Why is that?' And I said, 'Because you could be such a miserable bastard to a young actor.'
"He said, 'You were so wonderful in that musical. What part did you play again?' "
More words of acting wisdom from Lewis Stadlen:
On why he always wanted to play character roles: "I didn't have enough confidence in my own personality. Some of the people I've worked with, like Richard Dreyfuss, we came up at the same time... he just wanted to be Richard Dreyfuss, which I think was a very good thing when he was starting out. Now I have more confidence that I have an essence. But what I always do, if I am replicating a role that someone played brilliantly, I always attempt to channel them."
On channeling his "betters": "In 'The Producers,' now here I had this wonderful opportunity that not only could I honor Zero, but I could also honor Nathan [Lane], who I've also worked with many times, and Nathan also channeled Zero Mostel. Now I can steal from Zero, and I can steal from Nathan. Any actor that doesn't steal from his better has a problem with his own ego."
What makes you keep at it? "I love it because I am the best possible me when I am being creative, when I'm interacting with my colleagues, when I have the opportunity to give something back to young people."
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960.