When most people hit their 60s, they are starting to plan for retirement. Anne Pitoniak ’43 was just starting to kick her acting career into high gear.
Forty years ago this week, her ambition and talents took her to the Tony Awards red carpet.
The Woman’s College (UNCG) alumna made her Broadway debut in the Pulitzer Prize winning ”’night, Mother” at age 61. She earned a 1983 Tony nomination for Best Actress, as did her young co-star, Kathy Bates. (Pitoniak won a Theatre World Award and Outer Critics Circle Award for “‘night Mother.”)
Jim Fisher ’76 MFA, professor emeritus of theatre, experienced that legendary production at Broadway’s John Golden Theater. “It was a very dark play, but she and Kathy Bates were quite a duo.” He waited afterward at the theater’s stage door to congratulate her. “She was very sweet and we talked about UNCG and our experiences here. She came off as a sweet little lady, but she was a powerhouse on stage,” he says.
Pitoniak was the first graduate of Woman’s College/UNCG to receive a Tony nomination. Did she win? No. With two actors from the same play nominated, the odds of winning are diminished. The Tony went to Jessica Tandy for “Foxfire.” And the evening is best-remembered for all the awards for the new musical “Cats.”
The featured actress nomination was an honor. Eleven years later, she scored another Tony nomination, for her featured role in Inges’ “Picnic.”
For Pitoniak, an illustrious acting career was a second act – and what a second act! For a quarter-century, as she’d focused on her role as a mother and wife; her acting work was largely limited to radio and television commercials. As Playbill and The New York Times note, as her children were grown and she had divorced, she decided in 1975 to take acting classes at the Lee Strasberg Theater and Film Institute in New York City. She then joined the Actors Theater of Louisville. In her sixth decade, she made her Broadway debut.
She did not look back.
On Broadway, she appeared in “Amy’s View” (playing Judi Dench’s mother), “Uncle Vanya,” “Agnes of God,” “The Octette Bridge Club” (for which she earned a Drama Desk Award nomination), “Dance of Death” (with Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren), and “Imaginary Friends.” She appeared in many television shows and films, including the role of Jane Fonda’s mother in “Agnes of God.”
Her Off-Broadway shows were too numerous to list. She won an Obie Award as Mrs. Higgins in a 1991 Roundabout Theatre Company revival of “Pygmalion.” Some more productions were “Talking With,” “The Last of the Thorntons,” “Pygmalion,” “Steel Magnolias,” “All the Way Home,” “The Gay Apprentice,” and “Too Close for Comfort.”
But what about her “first act” all those years earlier? The Massachuesetts native had enrolled at Woman’s College/UNCG as the Great Depression subsided and WWII was building to a crescendo.
In her senior year (1942), she starred in “Night Must Fall” (a scene is in the top visual above, along with her yearbook photo).
She was vice-president of the student theatre club, the Playlikers. The 1943 Pine Needles noted the Playlikers did their part for Greensboro’s war effort. “On Hallowe’en night they had a spooky campus party for the “Little Old Lady” who haunts Aycock (now named UNCG Auditorium). A benefit performance, directed by Mr. W.R. (Raymond) Taylor, was given for the soldiers. The annual “Hecks-apoppin'” brought down the house – a drastic occurrence in this day of building material shortage.”
After graduating in 1943, she continued her acting for several years in the U.S.O., entertaining troops overseas. She married a soldier, Jerome Milord, and they eventually settled in the United States.
She made a celebrated return to campus in 1992, two years before her second Tony nomination. She was a guest artist to perform in the play “Blood Issue” by Harry Crews, says Professor of Theatre Jim Wren. “It was in Taylor Theatre as part of the 1991-92 season – with Ms. Pitoniak and a cast of undergraduate and graduate theater students. She conducted a number of master classes during the process.” He believes she resided in one of the guest rooms at the Alumni House during her time on campus.
Dr. Bob Hansen, who was head of the Communication and Theatre Department, brought her 1992 UNCG residency to fruition. He explains that Pitoniak had created the lead role of the matriarch in a 1989 Actors Theatre of Louisville production. “I saw the production and thought it would be a play we could do at UNCG, inviting Anne back to recreate her role.”
Hansen made contact with Pitoniak and her agent, secured funding from the Centennial Celebration Committee, and asked associate professor Betty Jean Jones ’78 MFA to direct. “Anne was gracious and charming to work with,” he says, “reminiscing about her time at Woman’s College and sharing her knowledge and experiences in theater with the students.”
UNCG has seen several graduates on Broadway in recent decades, including Deon’te Goodman ’16 in “Hamilton” and Chris Chalk ’01 in “Fences” opposite Denzel Washington. Beth Leavel ’80 MFA won a Tony Award in 2006 for her starring role in “The Drowsy Chaperone” and consistently lights up the Great White Way.
A tradition at UNCG is Broadway actors returning to give master classes to students and share their experiences – and tips.
The students learned from Pitoniak in 1992, just as she’d learned from more experienced actors and professors decades earlier. And the learning never stops.
Two years before her death, she was interviewed by actress Amy Ryan, her co-star in “Uncle Vanya.” Pitoniak told her, “What I love about theater is that there’s so much to learn from other people’s points of view.”
By Mike Harris, UNCG Magazine
Photography courtesy UNCG‘s Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Archives.