Obituary: Allan Pinsker / Pittsburgh theater mainstay for 70 years

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By the time Allan Pinsker was performing in Tony Kushner's play "Slavs!" at the City Theatre in 1995, he was in his mid-70s.

"He played an old, ancient optimistic communist in the play, which was somehow right," Jed Harris, longtime Pittsburgh theater director, said of Mr. Pinsker, who died Sunday of pneumonia at St. Clair Hospital in Mt. Lebanon at age 94.

"He had a beautiful, extraordinary speech to make where he would say 'We must LEAP into the future,' and then he would actually take a leap," said Mr. Harris, now a professor of directing at Carnegie Mellon University. "Then he'd say it again and take another leap, and say it again, and then he dies of a heart attack. That role was so suited to Allan, because he was leaping until the end."

In fact, Mr. Pinsker, who was involved in Pittsburgh theater for 70 years, was auditioning for plays just a few months before he died, noted his daughter, Eve Pinsker of Chicago.

"He was the grand old man of Pittsburgh theater," said Christopher Rawson, senior theater critic at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. While Mr. Pinsker excelled in character roles, "his larger significance was very much in his longevity." When Mr. Rawson started going regularly to Pittsburgh theater more than 40 years ago, Mr. Pinsker "was already an old-timer who linked back to the fondly remembered days of the Pittsburgh Playhouse's past, when it was an essential cultural and social center with a national reputation."

In 1963, an article in The Jewish Chronicle said Mr. Pinsker was "fast becoming an institution around the Pittsburgh Playhouse. Practically every time the curtain goes up in the community theater, there stands [or sits] Mr. Pinsker with his wide-eyed innocence and his expressive way of putting across a character."

A native of Uniontown, Fayette County, Mr. Pinsker moved with his family to Pittsburgh in 1935. Trained as a sheet metalworker, he nonetheless became immediately involved in theater, first building sets, then stage managing, then acting.

After serving in the Navy during World War II, Mr. Pinsker returned to Pittsburgh and went to work, not just as a sheet metalworker but as an actor. Between 1948 and 1968 he would appear in approximately 30 productions at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, Ms. Pinsker said, mostly in character parts and earning good reviews.

"He probably could have made a living as an actor if he had chosen to leave Pittsburgh," his daughter said, "but he was always concerned about making a living for the family. He could have gone to college with the GI Bill, but never wanted to leave the jobs he felt were providing support for his sister, his mother and later his wife and children."

It wasn't until after he retired that he got his Actor's Equity card -- at age 67 -- when he appeared in "Room Service," a comedy by Allen Boretz and John Murray, at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, and his career started to really blossom.

In 1993, he went to Chicago for the first time, to play aged antiques dealer Gregory Solomon in Arthur Miller's "The Price," a role that earned him Chicago's prestigious Jefferson Award for best supporting actor. "It was Chicago's local equivalent of the Tonys," Ms. Pinsker said. "I was so proud. It was a really good performance, and he got a chance to do what he wanted to do."

He played the role in Pittsburgh 10 years later at the Jewish Theatre of Pittsburgh, in what Mr. Rawson called "a world-class performance ... we belong to Pinsker's Solomon, one of those choice supporting roles that energizes a play with a magic beyond any earnest intent."

He also performed in three different independent films, including "The Devil and Sam Silverstein" in 1975, "about an older Jewish man who wants a fling with a young girl that never happens," Ms. Pinsker said. A press agent came up with the idea of promoting the film by persuading Mr. Pinsker to become a candidate for president, under the name Sam Silverstein.

That earned him his only performance before a national audience, when he was included, along with comedian Pat Paulsen and others, in a story on "The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite" about quirky presidential candidates.

He played his last film role at age 88, in another independent film, "The Nightowls of Coventry," which was filmed in Cleveland.

"It was mostly the longevity of this guy that was important. He was a good actor and very funny with a million stories to tell," said Richard Rauh, a longtime actor and supporter of Pittsburgh theater who worked with Mr. Pinsker at the Playhouse, founded by Mr. Rauh's father.

"A call from Allan always meant a long and lovely conversation," added Rob Zellers, a playwright and education director at the Public Theater, who marveled that Mr. Pinsker and his wife, Frances of Mt. Lebanon, attended all of his own plays, and just about every other live theater performance in Pittsburgh.

"Here's the thing about Allan and Frannie," Larry John Myers, an award-winning actor based in Pittsburgh, said of the Pinskers. "They came to everything. Even when he stopped performing, I always loved that they were in the house. I almost didn't consider it an official production if Allan and Frannie weren't there on opening night."

Besides his daughter and wife, Mr. Pinsker is survived by his son, Robert of San Diego; and sister, Lee Mussoff, of Rehoboth, Md.

Friends may call tomorrow at Ralph Schugar Chapel, Inc., 5509 Centre Ave., Shadyside, at noon. Services will be at 1 p.m., followed by interment at Beth Shalom Cemetery. Contributions may be made to the Southern Poverty Law Center, 400 Washington Ave., Montgomery, Ala. 36104.

The theater community of Pittsburgh plans to hold a celebration of his life in the spring.

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Mackenzie Carpenter: or 412-263-1949.


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