During a spring break in year 1949, while law school students at the University of Dayton, Tom Aldredge and a buddy decided to go to New York City. They were great jazz fans and saw their favorites Dizzy Gillespie, Mel Torme, and Billie Holiday. But what to do while waiting for the clubs to open.
Thinking perhaps they’d catch a movie, they walked through the Broadway area. Aldredge noted that the marquees they were seeing weren’t movie theaters, but playhouses. Since their high school plays, their only prior theatrical experience had been in the gymnasium. They went up to a couple of guys at one stage door and asked if they could take a look at the stage. The answer was "no," but since there was a performance that afternoon, the stage hands suggested they buy a ticket and come in. Aldredge asked how much – it was $1.80. So he saw his first play, "A Streetcar Named Desire." And the two guys Aldredge and his friend spoke to weren’t stage hands, they were Marlon Brando and Karl Malden.
"I was stunned. I had no idea this kind of literature existed," Aldredge says. He went down the block and saw "Mr. Roberts." Going back to Dayton, he finished out the year, quit law school, and enrolled at the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago (now the Theater School at DePaul University). He didn’t know what he wanted to do in the theater, but he knew that’s where he wanted to be.
Aldredge, now 77, has had an illustrious theater career (most recently he appeared in the Roundabout Theater’s acclaimed revival of "Twelve Angry Men") and to television audiences is best known as Carmela’s father on "The Sopranos." He appears in George Street Playhouse’s production of "2 Lives," which is in previews and opens Friday, October 21.
The semi-autobiographical play, written by Arthur Laurents – who wrote the books for "Gypsy" and "West Side Story, the plays "Home of the Brave" and "The Time of the Cuckoo" and the screenplay for "The Way We Were," among other illustrious credits – follows seven recent George Street Playhouse productions authored by the indomitable 84-year-young Laurents. In "2 Lives," about two men who have been in a relationship for 35 years, Aldredge plays Laurents’s alter ego, playwright Matt Singer. Long-term relationships are certainly something that both Laurents and Aldredge know something about. Laurents has been with his partner, a successful Long Island real estate developer and landscaper, for 47 years. Aldredge has been married 52 years this December to famed costume designer Theoni Aldredge.
"It’s a beautiful, hopeful story about mature love," says director David Saint, "about what it means emotionally and spiritually for a couple – gay or straight – to have loved one another for a long time." Since the play premiered in Boston in 2003 in a co-production by Lyric Stage and Huntington Theater Company, rewrites have been made and the play has been completely restaged by Saint. And except for the two lovers, played by Aldredge and James Sutorius, this is a new cast, which Aldredge describes as "perfect."
Aldredge and I talked in the George Street cabaret space after a rehearsal last week. "I’m energized by performing," he says. "That’s why I keep doing it." I have no reason to doubt his verve as his eyes are intense and every detail from
his past is summoned from his memory in a flash.
When I ask him the secret of his long marriage, he is quick with his answer: "She’s not an actress." He laughs at his reply and says that early on he learned that "though the grass may look greener on the other side of the road, once you’re over there, you discover that it’s artificial turf." Singing Theoni’s praises, he says: "When you find an extraordinary person, you’d better hang on for dear life." They share a passion for sailing, buying and decorating houses, and making annual treks to Theoni’s roots in Greece – all of these curtailed a bit now. After 9/11, they decided, after living in many places in the suburbs, to find a "nest" in the heart of New York City. "Others were leaving; it was a good time to move in," says Adredge. With their busy theatrical careers they had often found themselves "passing like ships in the night." Now they can take a cab or subway, be where they need to be, and then get right home afterwards. Theoni has her studio in their home.
He shows no signs of slowing down, and with sturdy genes from his father, a thin physique, and scorn for healthy eating, he plans to keep it up. He says he is quite sure that if at age 82 his dad hadn’t fallen off a roof that he was repairing, he would still be alive today. At an earlier time when Aldredge had chastised his father for climbing a palm tree to trim the dead fronds, his father’s response to him had been to point at a rocking chair on the porch and say, "What do you want me to do? Sit there and wait?"
Aldredge has had none of that sitting and waiting stuff; he has moved seamlessly from one acting role to another ever since he and Theoni came to New York in 1957. His stage credits take pages to list. His first job in New York was as a messenger in an Off Broadway production of "Electra." Over the years, he has done a mix of contemporary and classical productions though he voices a preference for doing new plays. Early on he was in a number of Shakespearean plays produced by the legendary Joseph Papp. He fondly remembers playing the fool to James Earl Jones’ King Lear.
Getting to Shakespeare was rather a surprise for him. Growing up in Dayton, Ohio, he had never seen a play and had no exposure to the arts, though he says that his mother, who was French, had an artistic bent. His father was a military officer during each World War, and a captain on the police force in between. "I adored him; he was the hero of my life," says Aldredge. His father didn’t want his son to follow in his military footsteps, so after young Aldredge served in the army near the end of World War II, he went to the University of Dayton on the G.I. Bill to study pre-law.
Well, we know what happened to that plan. Aldredge’s first role at the Goodman was as Teiresias, the 100-year-old prophet in Oedipus. Except for playing the boy in a high school production of "Our Town," Aldredge has always been a character actor. He never in his professional acting career "got the girl." But during his final year at the Goodman, he had a fellowship, teaching makeup techniques. Another fellowship teacher was Theoni Vachlioti in the costume department. You only need to "get the girl" once.
At the Goodman, he earned a degree in directing in 1953, and his first jobs were as a television director in Chicago. "I thought this was it," he says. However, Theoni wasn’t so lucky. "We were friends with the actress Geraldine Page. When she was tapped to play the leading role in ‘Sweet Bird of Youth’ on Broadway, she insisted that this ‘young Chicago designer,’ Theoni, do her clothes for the play." So they moved to New York, where both of them have rarely stopped working in the theater. Theoni has designed costumes for over 100 Broadway productions, been nominated for a Tony Award 15 times, and won three.
Aldredge had a rougher start in New York, as he considered himself a television director. "This was 1957 when all the shows were moving to Los Angeles." The only job that he could get was a one-day stint as a floor manager for the cartoon show "Popeye." At the end of the day, the director came up to him and commented on how good he was and that if he played his cards right, he could be the next director of "Popeye." Horrified at this prospect of directing the fill-ins for a cartoon show, Aldredge says: "I left and never went back. They still owe me a day’s pay."
Sometimes he had to leave the city to keep acting, but even that had a fortunate turn. He went to St. Louis to perform at a bar theater at a place called "The Crystal Palace" owned by Alfred J. Landesman, father of the now-great Broadway producer and theater owner Rocco, who then was just a little kid hanging around backstage. Aldredge did a series of plays there, ending with a new musical called "The Nervous Set," which received great reviews and moved to Broadway in 1959. It didn’t last long, but became the first of eight musical productions that Aldredge did on Broadway. He laughs as he brags, "And I can neither sing nor dance."
The production that brings back his fondest memories was the original "On Golden Pond" with Frances Sternhagen; the cast still meets once a year for a reunion. Another favorite actress with whom he shared the stage was Elizabeth Taylor in the Broadway revival of "The Little Foxes." "Everyone in the cast adored her," he says. "I’ve never worked with someone who worked so hard, was so devoted to her work, so generous, so hearty – one of the world’s great broads." He tells of taking his sister backstage to meet Taylor, who not only welcomed Lillian, but shut Aldredge out of the dressing room where the two women laughed and talked for two hours. "She’s one of the most generous, warm-hearted people I’ve ever known."
In addition to his stage work, Aldredge has found time to do television and film. "I was on all of the New York soaps at some time." "2 Lives" reunites him with a star from the soap "Ryan’s Hope," Helen Gallagher, who played the Irish-American matriarch Maeve. Aldredge had a recurring role as detective Matt Pierce.
He received an Emmy Award for his portrayal of Shakespeare in CBS’ production "Henry Winkler Meets William Shakespeare." Probably his most visible television credit is in a recurring role on "The Sopranos." "Every time they want Carmela’s father, I’m there."
He says what challenges him in playing his "2 Lives" role is absorbing the shocks that are tough for his character to digest. "These are areas of life that are tough for any of us to examine." Praising Laurents’ dialogue, Aldredge says, "When lines are written well, that makes it easier. The words come out so easily and clarify everything. That’s good playwriting."
During his illustrious stage career he has been nominated for five Tony Awards, but has yet to win one. Don’t count him out. He explains the secret of his longevity: "Enjoy your work."
2 Lives, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Starring Tom Aldredge, star of Broadway’s "Twelve Angry Men" and featured actor on "The Sopranos." Previews Wednesday and Thursday, October 19 and 20. Opening night Friday, October 21. Through November 13. $24 to $58. 732-246-7717.