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My friend, Bingo O’Malley; Remembering a Pittsburgh Stage Legend

By June 5, 2019 3 Comments

Bingo O’Malley and Patrick Jordan as “Levene” and “Roma” in “Glengarry Glen Ross” (Photo: Duane Rieder)

By Patrick Jordan
barebones productions
info@Pittsburghcurrent.com

I always had to remind Bingo to eat. From the minute we became friends, I would carry protein bars, granola bars, candy bars—whatever I could snag from a gas station—if I knew I was going to see him that day. Food never fed him.

I met the man who would become my mentor, best friend, and brother in the lobby of the City Theater more than 20 years ago during the New Works Festival. I didn’t know he was an actor, and more precisely, Pittsburgh’s most famous and revered actor. I had just come off stage, head full and in a laughing mood. I struck up a conversation with a bearded man in a leather jacket who was gathered with some of my friends. He mentioned he was an actor and we bantered about our favorite plays. Somehow, Glengarry Glen Ross came up and he said he had played the role of Levene…to which I whooped, “the machine!” and we both laughed. A friendship was born on the spot.

Of course, in the same conversation, I told him that Roadhouse is one of the best American Films of all time and that Sylvester Stallone is a genius, to which he replied with a stone straight face, “I can’t talk to you anymore.”

I don’t remember the specifics and I don’t remember an actual start to our friendship.

Now it just seems like it had always been there, like a limb on your body that you don’t appreciate until it’s gone—you still feel it, nonetheless. We just started hanging out, seeing shows together, discussing art, sports, religion, politics, music, movies, you-name-it. He would come to see shows that I had booked and never really offered critique or feedback, just quiet support and observation. It was cool to have a friend who just came out because he loved theater and wanted to support your work without offering some sort of analysis of “how you did.”

Early in our friendship, he told me I should audition for a show he was recently cast in, All My Sons with Starlight Productions. I auditioned and got a small role. At this point, I thought I was a professional actor. I say thought because at day one of rehearsal, Bingo showed up prepared, off-book, working, performing—on day one. We had a few scenes together at the beginning of the play and I was suddenly very painfully aware that I was out of my league. I was completely mesmerized by this otherworldly talent coming from this guy who I thought I knew; so much so that I started coming to rehearsals when I was not called, just to watch him.

When I came to these rehearsals to learn, I found that I watched how he behaved off stage even more than I watched the actual rehearsal.  Bingo treated the other actors, the director, the crew, stage management, interns, everyone, with the same amount of graciousness, respect, and care. He believed everyone had the same value and worth and we were all in this together.

Bingo always showcased the best of humanity.

Bingo lived 100 lives. He narrowly escaped death on dozens of occasions. The irony is not lost on me that he left us quietly and peacefully. He was a social worker, a priest, a teacher, and he hitchhiked across the country several times just because he wanted to.

He was not a formally trained actor. In the late 1950s, as a 19-year old Navy radarman stationed in Key West, he wandered into a bookstore. Upon seeing the book, he was holding, a woman from the Barn Theater invited him to audition for their next show. He landed the part of “Jimmy,” the brother in The Rainmaker. He was in it. He went AWOL for the show—honorably returning, of course—but risking everything in his young life to continue in his very first role.

Bingo could have moved to New York or Los Angeles and been a major star. Everyone in the industry agrees. Ask them. One of my favorite recent stories is when he was filming Out of the Furnace. A day of filming started with scenes with an Academy Award Winner and one of the most renowned American playwrights of the last 50 years. The day of filming progressed into Christian Bale and Sam Shephard asking the great Bingo O’Malley how the scenes should play out.

Bingo stayed in Pittsburgh.

He did this with purpose and with duty. He did this because he loves his family. In this point, we are the same. This magic person somehow made it work for him here and was ok with it. Better than ok. It was his choice, his preference and he was firm in it.  He gave me the confidence, without ever exchanging a word about it, that I could do this, too. We were brothers in so many ways, but perhaps being rooted in family and city was the tie that bound us together so closely all of these years.

That, and Bingo was a badass.

You’ll see many people talk of his kindness and his warmth. His gentleness and charm. But I am here to tell you about Bingo’s bad-assery. I have watched my friend quietly and fiercely check disrespectful machismo in a South Side bar and pull his car over to singlehandedly stop a teenage brawl in his 70s. But more importantly, I have seen him at Ritter’s at 2 a.m. being approached by a former student proudly telling him that she now has her life together. Bingo was always recognized wherever we went, equal parts actor and equal parts social worker.

Bingo once prevented a potential shooting by walking up to a car. Bingo brought comfort to Holocaust survivors. Bingo stopped me from getting in several physical altercations with just one look. Which was social work? Which was acting? He was gentle and he was kind. He could be these things and still stop you in your tracks with a look and still fight for what he believed in. If you messed with the bull, you got the horns.

He was a Taurus after all.

I don’t know if this is common knowledge, but Bingo studied astrology. He was a proud Taurus, as am I. We discovered this love of our shared birth sign early on, and shared all of the expected Taurean qualities. Stubbornness, loyalty, and while generally likable (I hope?) we keep a pretty small circle of those we let in close. In one of our first shows together, I bought him a statue of a bull, which he named “Toro,” as an opening night gift. He would touch that statue before every performance from thereon out. When we did Glengarry Glen Ross together, one of Bing’s final stage performances, he would bring that bull to every rehearsal and performance. His birthday was May 10th.

But Bingo was ageless.

I was annoyed when articles in the press published his age upon his passing. One of the first things Bingo ever taught me as an actor was to “never tell them your age”. This was not for vanity, it was practical. Bingo was not a person who cared how things looked, but rather, how they felt. Feelings are timeless. Feelings don’t fade and perception is palpable.

I took that advice and in the same year have played a person in their early 20s and months later, a man in his mid-40s.

He always offered small corrections and quiet observations. It’s not like he doled out sage advice at every turn of the bend. If I had a question, if something was troubling me, I would watch how he handled a situation or would draw from one of his stories, and I usually found my answer somewhere in between.  When I asked him to collaborate, though, he opened doors that changed my life.

I never made a move without Bingo O’Malley

I started barebones as a “shot in the arm theater.” Trying to prove to bigger companies that works with balls and teeth had a place in Pittsburgh. They were works that I wanted to see. That Bingo wanted to see. I knew I was on to something if Bingo was into it. It was supposed to be a one-and-done deal with the first show, but we had a response that forced our hand. Bingo performed in three barebones shows and had a hand in every selection of every work and quietly sat in rehearsals, offering his feedback. He had strong opinions, but a way of offering them that could be absorbed and received by the most sensitive artistic souls.

A week before he left us to the day, writer/director and often-collaborator Melissa Martin and I were visiting Bingo in the hospital. It turned into an unexpected production meeting. We were discussing the next barebones project and he was making a strong case for me to play a role I don’t want to play because I thought it was type-casting. Eyebrows, brawn, explosive-anger- how predictable. His reasoning always made me laugh and always knocked me down to earth “why not play the role no one but you can play” he said. Ok, Bing, you win.

He called us “the 3 amigos” that day. I think that one will stick.

Bingo’s studio at his home in the South Hills was a magical place. It was a small equipped apartment, adjacent to his actual house, over the garage. He spent most of his time there, sketching, painting, writing, rehearsing, reading scripts. I joined him here often at all hours of the day and night- plus the man made a killer breakfast. To call him a renaissance man sort of cheapens his talents; these things never stood out one over another, they were just a part of Bing.

In the early years of barebones, he organized a reading of a play called Frozen where he invited Melissa Martin and renowned actresses Helena Ruoti and Susie McGregor Laine over for a reading. It was a jovial atmosphere at first, but once we got into the materials, Helena dropped to the ground and set up camp at a coffee table for the entirety of the reading- she was in the zone. We were all in it. There was electricity in the air that I cannot describe.

Before this moment, before this show, barebones was looked upon by some as amateur theater. Despite good reviews and enthusiastic audiences, I never felt that we were taken very seriously. Bingo brought the heavy hitters and put us on the map with this orchestrated meetup. Looking back, this was a pivotal moment for me and for barebones.

The more I think about it, I believe that Bingo had a plan.

When I took barebones to the Fringe in Edinburg, Scotland, Bingo came to visit and see the show. I talked to him nearly every day I was overseas. Upon arrival, in his Bingo way, he bailed me out of a creatively challenging situation and basically ended up directing the show (Cherry Smoke). He would never take credit for that, but I think that’s why he made the trip and stayed as long as he did.

When Bingo arrived, he called me from a payphone because he needed directions to where we were staying. I looked out my window and saw him on said pay phone. What were the chances? Halfway around the world and I look out the window and there he is. He always loved that story because things like that happened with us often, being the same place at the same time, completely unaware and maybe a little lost, and somehow finding each other.

As two proud Irishmen, we spent a few days in the Motherland when the Festival ended. Lots of conversation, lots of good Irish whiskey, and high adventure. We played tourist on some days, and on others just soaked in the people and the place.

Bingo loved his Irish heritage.

Bingo would always look at his young nieces and nephews and say, “where’s your green?” He loved Irish music, he proudly played Irish roles, and he could usually be found in an Irish flat cap in the cold Pittsburgh months. He always joined my family’s rowdy St. Patrick’s Day celebrations at some local bar. My cousins sing Irish songs all day long on this day, and Bingo always knew every word, despite my cousin handing out hundreds of song sheets to everyone at the bar.

Bingo somehow always became the life of the party.

I loved going to parties with Bingo there. If there was no dancing and Bing arrived, the atmosphere would change, and people would suddenly be on their feet. He was a throwback. He loved the jitterbug. Back in the day, Pittsburgh theater artists were a real family. We would go to house parties all the time and Bing was a fixture. I remember gatherings at our dear departed friend, Marci Woodruff’s house, she entertained often. I would look up from a conversation and Bingo would have grabbed a dance partner and was off. There was so much joy in him and so much energy.

Bingo never slept.

With a mind like that, it was understandable. Bing was a night owl- another common bond we share. About six or seven years ago, Deb Docherty, the head of the Docherty Talent Agency that reps us, called me concerned. “Patrick, is Bingo OK? I called him this morning to book a job and he seemed really out of it.” I responded, “Deb, what time did you call him.” She says “9am.” I laughed and told her that he just went to bed at 8 or 8:30 and he had likely just fallen asleep when she called.

He was usually in his studio all night long writing, reading, sketching, learning lines, working his family’s football pool, doing Bingo things.

Bingo did everything on his own time and in his own way.

Bingo always greeted the audience after a show, but sometimes he did it long after the curtain had dropped. After he played Shelley Levene in barebones productions’ Glengarry Glen Ross, he wouldn’t come out of the dressing room to talk to the cast and patrons for over an hour. He was so shaken as that character that he needed time to come back into himself. People waited, though—they always waited— and when he emerged, he exuded that famous warmth and graciousness.

He fully inhabited whatever character he played and gave himself time to heal and to come back.

He shaved his signature beard to be in our production of The Grey Zone. There’s a blackout and Bing takes the stage to open the show. He stands there bathed in the pool of one spotlight and begins speaking. The room is vibrating and becomes electric but it’s just him on that stage. The audience is just in it with him. He plays a good man who does despicable things. The audience cries for him and his heart is with them. It takes him a really long time to emerge after this show, too.

Sharing a stage with him was and is the joy of my life.

Bingo and I were in seven shows together (four of which were barebones’) and countless readings.  In one of these shows, my character had to beat up Bingo’s character. I have never been so hated in my life, on and off the stage. The audience could not separate my character from me and what I had done to their City’s favorite son.

Bingo was really superstitious and held up every theater superstition known to man. No whistling in the theater, no utterance of Macbeth, no reading your reviews, and the list goes on. These superstitions extended to how he accepted praise from the audience, too. He was a stickler.

When playing the iconic role of Shelly Levene for barebones, Bingo and I got into an argument. We rarely, if ever fought. He did not want to take a solo bow. He only wanted to be a part of the ensemble bow. I got my way and I have never, to this day, seen an audience love on an actor the way they loved on him during that bow.

It’s hard for me to imagine a world where Bingo is not out there being Bingo, getting into adventures, slaying dragons and not telling anyone about it.

In his last days, I took him chocolate ice cream almost every day. As usual, eating was not a priority in Bing’s world. It became my mission to feed him. I’ll never know if he ate the ice cream to appease me or if he actually enjoyed it. I don’t think it was ever about the ice cream. Food never fed him.

 

3 Comments

  • Kathleen O'Malley says:

    Thank you Patrick for writing so well about my cousin Bingo. He’s smiling upon us all.

  • Anonymous says:

    Best tribute I have ever read.

  • Kate Rakow says:

    Mr. Jordan, your tribute captures the essence of who Bingo was and how he lives on in our hearts. All of us who knew him could write our own stories of how he lived fully in the world and lived in a way that represented the best of humanity. Thank you.

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