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Good Judge of Characters

Good Judge of Characters
Bingo O'Malley

It was the early 1960s, and a former Navy radarman named Bingo O'Malley had yet to become a Catholic priest. He'd also yet to become the man many regard as Pittsburgh's finest stage actor.

He was just a young fellow from Lower Oakland who needed a job. So he found himself a trainee, riding with door-to-door Bible salesmen.

But not for long. As a seasoned hitchhiker, O'Malley had met a lot of people. And these men, he says, "just made me squirm with the way they thought about people." When the future priest asked why they sold Bibles only in poor neighborhoods, one told him, "That's who the suckers are about religion."

O'Malley, a working-class kid, was appalled. How could you sell something you didn't believe in?

He would have similar trouble with the priesthood: He left after becoming an atheist.

But now O'Malley is about to play a salesman himself -- one of the profane crew in David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross. The barebones productions staging of the Pulitzer-winning portrait of unscrupulous real-estate men opens Nov. 12, at the New Hazlett Theater.

Tall, with a crevassed visage and gravelly baritone, the white-bearded, blue-eyed O'Malley is an unmistakable presence. But in play after play, he's revered for his ability to disappear into a role. He's good enough that many observers wonder why he hasn't sought fame elsewhere.

The pains he takes with his roles, meanwhile, are such that for decades, he's told himself that each one will be his last. So he picks them carefully. Finding the truth in the fictions of playwrights, he'll sell only what he believes in. 


Good Judge of Characters
Glengarry Glen Ross (barebones productions, 2009)


Remarkably, in a theater scene dominated by the alumni of collegiate drama departments -- Point Park, Pitt, Carnegie Mellon -- O'Malley has never taken an acting class. But praise for him is universal.

"Bingo O'Malley is the finest actor I ever worked with," says Bill Royston, who directed him here in a dozen productions for Royston's adventuresome Pittsburgh Lab Theatre, in the 1970s and '80s. "When he's acting, it's not 'realism.' He creates real people. It's something that's so intuitive that it goes beyond traditional training."

Another of O'Malley's fans (and friends) is Jason Nodler, a Houston-based director who first worked with him in 2004, on Quantum Theatre's When the World Was Green. "Bingo was just a revelation," says Nodler. "I don't know that I've ever worked with an actor that's so generous and so sincere."

Andrew Paul, artistic director of Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre, directed O'Malley in two shows, including Brian Friel's The Faith Healer, in which O'Malley played a barnstorming holy man. Both productions toured Ireland. "He's a very visceral actor. He just throws himself into it," says Paul. "He just has this sort of innate empathy where you feel like you're looking right into him." 

O'Malley often does film work, mostly small roles in Pittsburgh-shot features. In George Romero's Creepshow (1982), he played the ghostly father of the ill-fated bumpkin portrayed by Stephen King; he was a party guest in the adaptation of Michael Chabon's Wonderboys. In 1981, he portrayed another self-taught artist, iconic Pittsburgh painter John Kane, in a lauded, one-man WQED-TV production. In the 2007 Spike TV miniseries The Kill Point, he was a bank-robbery hostage.

But O'Malley says he does film just "to do it." His heart is on the stage. There he's played Andrew Carnegie, Clarence Darrow and Ezra Pound. He's portrayed an accused Nazi war criminal -- in Robert Shaw's The Man in the Glass Booth -- and a promiscuous, persecuted Berlin homosexual in Martin Sherman's Holocaust drama Bent. He's done plays by Eugene O'Neill, George Bernard Shaw and Harold Pinter.

O'Malley is famously selective about plays. But his selectivity frees him to do whatever's needed on stage, says Helena Ruoti, an acclaimed Pittsburgh actor and friend of O'Malley's who first acted with him in 1986. "His commitment allows a certain ferocity," says Ruoti. "Once he's committed to something, he goes full-bore."


Good Judge of Characters
Courtesy of Duane Reider
The Grey Zone (barebones, 2006)

Curtain Up

O'Malley grew up on Frazier Street, in working-class Oakland, overlooking the mill-lined Monongahela. He was the youngest of four children. (He says "Bingo" is on his birth certificate: "My family loved Bing Crosby.") During the Depression, his father, a fireman, and his mother, "the neighborhood nurse," sometimes took in families down on their luck. "I always had the social-worker mentality," says O'Malley.

The actors he saw as a kid were in the movies -- Bette Davis, Clark Gable. He attended Central Catholic High School, where some of his fondest memories involve dancing the jitterbug: "We'd go to every prom in the city."

His taste for hitchhiking, meanwhile, took him all over the country, though it always brought him back to Pittsburgh. It also provided some early character studies. "You'd get into a car and within five minutes you knew the person's whole life history," he says. "It was almost like they used you as a confessor."

He says he got into acting almost accidentally. In the late 1950s, as a 19-year-old Navy radarman stationed in Key West, he wandered into a bookstore. Seeing the book he was holding, a woman said, "Oh, you're interested in theater," he recalls. "And I said, 'Well, to tell you the truth, I'm interested in everything.'"

She invited him to an audition. "Oh, I'm not an actor," said O'Malley. 

"You won't get the part then, will you?" she replied.

He did get the part -- Jimmy, the brother in The Rainmaker -- and was so enamored of acting that he once went AWOL to do a show.

O'Malley recalls little about how he pulled off his transition to stage. "In one way, I was prepared for it," he says. "I had done so much hitchhiking. Every one of those was an experience, something I hadn't done before, somebody I hadn't met before."

He remembers more about the director. "She had white hair, pulled back in a bun -- she was gorgeous, just gorgeous. She would step across the footlights ... and it was like a vision. She might come up to me and she'd stand there for a while, not a word. Then all of a sudden she'd say, 'That's it.'"

The company, the Barn Theater, was known to occasionally involve Tennessee Williams. But after his Navy hitch was up, O'Malley simply returned again to the family, friends and town he loved. "Even now, I don't want to be away from Pittsburgh for too long," he says. 

He didn't return to acting, however, for years. In between came two years (1965-67) as a parish priest at Our Lady of Fatima, in Hopewell, Pa. 

O'Malley now attributes his stint at St. Vincent's seminary and in the priesthood to being a Catholic kid whose parents instinctively helped others. "The draw was that concern for people," he says.

But while he liked working with people, eventually he realized that belief in God didn't square with his logical nature. (O'Malley nonetheless hews to astrology -- he frequently describes himself as a Taurus -- and colleagues say he reacts unhappily to violations of such theatrical superstitions as the one about whistling in a theater.) 

He turned to social work after a position as a county juvenile probation officer opened up. In 1972 -- at the suggestion of a court secretary whose niece was involved -- he auditioned for Characters East, a community theater in Churchill. Soon he was playing in shows like the comedy Absence of a Cello, at venues including Wilkins Junior High. But he quickly found more daring work, too: productions like Fernando Arrabal's absurdist The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria, at Atelier Theater, housed over the North Side's X-rated Garden Theatre. (One night, cops stormed that show, guns drawn -- possibly summoned in response to O'Malley's character's loud account of killing his mother.)

Similarly avant-garde was Bill Royston's Lab Theatre, where shows like a three-and-a-half-hour adaptation of Dostoevsky's The Possessed were staged in a former church rectory in Oakland. Acting for Lab "was exciting in the sense that [Royston] permitted so much freedom in terms of picking plays," says O'Malley. "He would pick plays that you wanted to do as well. What that added was your commitment to the project."

For nearly two decades starting in the mid-'70s, O'Malley was among the city's busiest actors. In the '80s, he was a mainstay at City Theatre; one season, he was in three of the company's four productions. As recently as 2002 -- six years after retiring from his day job -- he did five shows.

Colleagues have long wondered why O'Malley didn't seek bigger stages. "In my estimation, he certainly could have made a career at any major metropolitan art center," says Scott Lee DeNier, who's directed O'Malley in several plays. 

O'Malley says he's had offers in New York, and for film work elsewhere. But the opportunities never seemed worth the trouble.

"Staying in Pittsburgh, I was able to work another job to put food on the table and be very selective about what I did in terms of theatrical ventures," he says. Moving away would mean "doing a play in New York or someplace just because, of course, you have to work, you're an actor. I can't do that. I would rather not act than take a play -- maybe do it what, six months, nine months? -- you don't totally believe in.

"This way I have the best of both worlds," he continues. "And anyway, I wouldn't want to leave Pittsburgh just -- period."

O'Malley, who lives in Bethel Park, never married. (He "came close once.") One reason was the demands of his three decades as a juvenile probation officer and school social-worker. "You're dealing not just with the kids but with the families," he says -- enough commitment for one life. Rising at 5 a.m. for his day job, and often rehearsing until 10 p.m. or later, couldn't have helped. 

But the job, like any experience, informed his acting. "You learn something, and you impart something to somebody else, and in imparting you learn something, in the giving as well as the taking," he says.

Recently, O'Malley ran into Mike Zellars, among O'Malley's former charges at the North Side's McNaugher School for troubled teens, where O'Malley was a guidance counselor. The Knoxville kid had been thrown out of his own school. He ended up spending lots of time in O'Malley's office -- but only because he wanted to.

They discussed film; O'Malley lent him scripts.

"It helped shaped my life," says Zellars, now a 34-year-old cook (and aspiring screenwriter) with a son of his own. Speaking two days after running into O'Malley -- he calls him "Mr. O'Malley" -- Zellars said, "I've been kind of on a high since I seen him."


Good Judge of Characters
Bent (Pittsburgh Lab Theatre, 1982)

Let's Role

O'Malley is a consummate method actor: He must understand everything his characters go through, and he has to feel it. "The character usually takes over me rather than me taking over the character," he says.

But O'Malley won't take roles he doesn't feel ready for. He turned down offers to play Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman twice -- and had read the script eight times -- before he finally accepted the part, in 1999, for Starlight Productions. "It just clicked with me," he says today. "For the first time, I could say I knew Willy."

O'Malley's favorite roles include the 14th Earl of Gurney, a British aristocrat who thinks he's Jesus, in Peter Barnes's classic 1969 satire The Ruling Class. "I loved the story, about power and how power corrupts," says O'Malley. The Earl eventually comes to his senses, joins the House of Lords ... and turns into Jack the Ripper. "The transition is devilishly difficult, but O'Malley does it brilliantly," wrote Pittsburgh Post-Gazette theater critic Donald Miller during the Lab show's late-'70s run.

In 2006, O'Malley again worked with director Jason Nodler, this time on The Grey Zone for barebones productions. Tim Blake Nelson's stark drama is set in a Nazi concentration camp among the Sonderkommando -- Jews who staff the crematorium in exchange for better treatment and a few extra months of life. O'Malley played Miklos Nyiszli, a Hungarian Jewish doctor who experiments on child twins to save his own wife and daughter.

"Will I be killed?" Nyiszli asks a Nazi guard in one scene.

"Do you want to be killed?"


Grey Zone is O'Malley's kind of play. It refuses to beatify the victims, or to see its moral dilemmas in black-and-white. "It showed the Jews as human beings, and that in turn would say, 'The Nazis might have been human beings, too,'" he says.

O'Malley traces his worldview, in fact, partly to Death Camps to Existentialism, by Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Emil Frankl, which O'Malley read in college. "On the average, only those prisoners could keep alive who ... had lost all scruples in their fight for existence," Frankl wrote in the 1959 book (later retitled Man's Search for Meaning). "[T]he best of us did not return."

 "I've always been fascinated with the idea that I am capable of any evil or any good," says O'Malley. "It was, 'Could I justify going to the level he went?' You're going to die anyway, so what's wrong with me performing experiments on them if it in turn will save this woman, this child?"

Most of O'Malley's characters are not under such duress. But they demand his attention all the same. 

After he finally played Willy Loman, he says, the character haunted him for a year. "I would get very emotional thinking about him," he says. More than with other roles, at run's end O'Malley felt he had experienced "the death, almost, of a self."

"Once you start going into Willy Loman, you go so deep that the identity becomes blurred between you and he," he says. "You go to those depths that maybe in your own life you haven't  ... to a point where unwinding all that is difficult."

He cites the wrenching scene in Salesman where Willy's teen-age son discovers his father with another woman, and Willy tries to explain the dalliance away. O'Malley had to believe what Willy did: that the infidelity didn't count because he was lonely. "That's the part of it that was unsettling -- that I could actually go there and excuse Willy Loman. Because then I have to go live with it," he says. "It's like a questioning. 'Am I like him? Can I be like him?'

"Part of the excitement of theater is throwing yourself into this cauldron and seeing what happens to you," O'Malley says. "Sometimes you're not real pleased with yourself."


Good Judge of Characters
Staging ground: O'Malley and Lab Theatre's Bill Royston in rehearsal for Bent, in 1982

Breath of a Saleman

Shelly Levene, O'Malley's role in Glengarry Glen Ross, is sometimes compared to Loman: an aging salesman past his prime, desperate, full of excuses. One afternoon three weeks before opening night, director Melissa Martin and cast hold their second rehearsal. In the day-lit, garret-like upstairs room at the New Hazlett, O'Malley runs the play's opening scene with Jason McCune. The younger actor portrays John Williamson, who manages the office where a group of men attempt, with varying degrees of success, to sell fraudulent properties to unsuspecting clients.

Levene's a former alpha on a long losing streak, his crown taken by a younger salesman named Roma. The scene, set in a Chinese restaurant where Williamson is eating lunch, opens like this:


Levene: John ... John ... John. Okay. John. John. Look:

(Pause.) The Glengarry Highland's leads, you're sending Roma out.

Fine. He's a good man. We know what he is. He's fine. All 

I'm saying, you look at the board, he's throwing ... wait,

wait, he's throwing them away, he's throwing the leads away


Mamet's dialogue is characteristically overlapping, profane, choppily rhythmic. For actors, the timing is a challenge -- perhaps one reason Glengarry (1982) hasn't been staged here for more than 15 years. "There's no dramatic pauses," says Patrick Jordan, who plays Roma. "There's no smell-the-fart acting. You do that and you're dead."

Scene 1 is practically a monologue -- 15 minutes in which Williamson seldom manages a full sentence. Mostly, it's Levene pleading for sales leads, his dignity, his life: "It's a streak and I'm going to turn it around."

O'Malley's own work ethic is legendary. Often he's the lone actor to show up at the first rehearsal "off book," all his lines memorized. Marc Masterson, former longtime artistic director at City Theatre, recalls O'Malley once agreeing to reconsider a part he'd turned down after the actor who'd been cast dropped out: "In 12 hours he had memorized the entire part."

O'Malley says having to remember the words shouldn't interfere with feeling the emotions. It's called being present: Where some actors just say the words, O'Malley is "having a conversation with you," says Mark Staley, who shared several scenes with him in The Grey Zone. "Bingo, 100 percent all the time, is right there."

Levene, whom O'Malley played in a 1986 production at City Theatre, is among the few roles he's ever repeated. It seems a curious choice. O'Malley says he has to like a character before he'll play the role; yet Levene's lone moment of triumph comes after he believes he's tricked an elderly couple into buying $82,000 of imaginary real estate. But the actors who've played Levene -- Jack Lemmon in the 1992 film, Alan Alda recently on Broadway -- must make you care when, by the last scene, this peddler of scams becomes a broken man.

But O'Malley loves Mamet, and he warmed to Levene. "I think it was again because of the hints that [Mamet] gives you of the levels that [Levene] has that aren't apparent," he says. "It's like, 'Wait a minute, you gave me a little clue,' and I start looking."

He cites Levene's two abortive mentions of his daughter. Each, in its entirety, reads: "my daughter ..." Audiences may question whether Levene even has a daughter.

"The first time you may get one idea," says O'Malley. "The second time, you think, 'No, there's something else.' You think, 'Why does he not follow through? Why does it stop there?' Then I start thinking about it. I start thinking about as if it's my daughter. And you start living with that, something has stirred in him. Now, is this real, is this not real? And that takes you someplace else."

At the rehearsal, O'Malley wears jeans and an old work shirt with the sleeves rolled up, his white hair characteristically rumpled. Lean, almost gaunt, he's an apt contrast to the sleek, sandy-haired McCune. Both men sit at a table as O'Malley begins with exasperation and slowly summons braggadocio: "All I'm saying, put a closer on the job," he says, jabbing a thumb into his own chest. 

The scene, Martin says later, is about Williamson's passivity, his refusal to risk his job to help the older man. McCune is largely relegated to body language, using it to signal Williamson's displeasure ... and to convey that Levene is putting him off his lunch.

Levene curses Williamson. When Williamson says he's just following the boss's rules, Leven even slags his old front-office ally, known only as "Murray." "Fuck him. Fuck Murray," says O'Malley, turning his head and furiously scratching behind his ear. "John? You know? You tell him I said so."

Eventually Levene pesters Williamson into giving him some leads. "Gimme the one lead. The best one you got," says O'Malley, making it sound as though Levene is settling for this, though he knows he's actually not getting even that much out of Williamson.

On paper, the scene looks like a tour-de-force for the actor playing Levene. But the run-through feels like a group success.

"You're such a prick," Martin tells McCune. McCune grins in satisfaction.

"He is," agrees O'Malley, smiling.


Good Judge of Characters
Screen test: O'Malley's favorite filmed roles include Pittsburgh artist John Kane, in WQED TV's John Kane: A Self-Portrait (1981).

Next Stages

His acting aside, O'Malley has long been a booster of Pittsburgh theater. Back in the '80s, when Martin was just starting out, for instance, "Bingo was always supportive of me as a playwright," she recalls.

Lately, he's found a new cause with barebones productions. O'Malley met the company's future artistic director and sole staffer, Patrick Jordan, a decade ago, when Jordan was still a student at the University of Pittsburgh.

Jordan, like O'Malley, stumbled upon theater. (A girl he knew in college signed him up for an acting class.) And O'Malley says he and Jordan share a sense that theater should reflect not only human emotions but society as well. In the wake of the economic meltdown, for instance, both consider Glengarry's anatomy of business-world perfidy more relevant than ever.

O'Malley has starred in two of the past three barebones shows. In 2008, after Grey Zone, O'Malley played the fatherly manager in the comedic baseball drama Take Me Out.

O'Malley "makes everyone on stage with him better," says Jordan. "You can't look in his eyes and not bring it." 

 In 2005, O'Malley had consulted informally on barebones' taut serial-killer drama Frozen. The play, which Martin directed, featured Jordan and established talents Helena Ruoti and Susan MacGregor-Laine, and marked a big step for the company Jordan co-founded in 2003.

When barebones took Pittsburgh-native playwright James McManus' Cherry Smoke to Scotland's Edinburgh Fringe Festival, in 2007, O'Malley pitched in again. "He essentially directed that show and made it better than it could have been," says Jordan.

Glengarry is another landmark. It's the first classic play for a company that's focused on Pittsburgh premieres of lesser-known work, staged in borrowed spaces. Thanks to the New Hazlett, which is sponsoring barebones in a season-long residency, it's the company's first show in an actual theater.

And it's got Pittsburgh theater's ultimate closer: Bingo O'Malley.

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