Actor-director-playwright-author Ben Piazza was born on July 30, 1933, in Little Rock. Piazza graduated from Little Rock High School in 1951 as valedictorian. He also had starred in the senior play that year (The Man Who Came to Dinner) and edited the literary magazine.
Keeping the Tiger as his mascot, Piazza attended college at Princeton University. While there he continued acting, including an appearance in a Theatre Intime production of Othello. Following his 1955 graduation, he moved to New York City and studied at the Actor’s Studio.
Piazza was an understudy in the 1956 play, Too Late the Phalarope at the Belasco Theatre. In February 1958, he starred in Winesburg, Ohio sharing the National (now Nederlander) Theatre stage with James Whitmore, Dorothy McGuire, and Leon Ames. Other cast members included Claudia McNeil (who originated the part of Lena in A Raisin in the Sun) and Sandra Church (who originated the part of Gypsy Rose Lee in Gypsy).
In April 1959, Piazza starred in Kataki at the Ambassador Theatre. This two actor play also featured Sessue Hayakawa, who played a Japanese soldier who spoke only his native l
anguage. Therefore, Piazza’s part was largely a very lengthy monologue. For his performance, Piazza received one of the 1959 Theatre World Awards.
As the 1960s dawned, Piazza joined a small cadre of actors who had achieved status on Broadway who then also returned to acting Off Broadway. Colleen Dewhurst, George C. Scott, and James Earl Jones were others in this select group who helped establish Off Broadway as an entity in itself, instead of being just a farm team for Broadway.
Piazza started the 1960s on Broadway starring at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre in A Second String with Shirley Booth, Jean-Pierre Aumont, Nina Foch, Cathleen Nesbitt, and Carrie Nye. Following that, he started his association with Edward Albee by appearing as the title character in The American Dream. That play opened at the York Playhouse in January 1961. Later that year, he appeared in Albee’s The Zoo Story opposite original cast member William Daniels at the East End Theatre.
Also in 1961 Piazza starred in several plays during a South American tour sponsored by the American Repertory Company. He played Christopher Isherwood in I Am a Cameraand Chance Wayne in Sweet Bird of Youth. In 1962, he starred in a series of plays at the Cherry Lane Theatre. Piazza returned to Broadway to star along with Jane Fonda and Dyan Cannon in The Fun Couple at the Lyceum Theatre. This play had a troubled rehearsal period, which was documented in a short film about Jane Fonda.
Ben Piazza stayed on Broadway and returned to Albee in February 1963. He took over the role of Nick in the original run of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? when original actor George Grizzard left to play Hamlet at the Guthrie Theatre. (He had participated in earlier readings of the play prior to it being mounted on Broadway.)
This play was at the Billy Rose Theatre, which marked a return for Piazza. He had acted at this theatre when it was the National while appearing in Winesburg. Piazza played Nick for the remainder of the run and acted with Uta Hagen, Arthur Hill, fellow Arkansan Melinda Dillon, Eileen Fulton, Nancy Kelly, Mercedes McCambridge, Rochelle Oliver and Sheppard Strudwick.
During the run of this show, Piazza’s novel The Exact and Very Strange Truth was published. It is a fictionalized account of his growing up in Little Rock during the 1930s and 1940s. The book is filled with references to Centennial Elementary, Westside Junior High, Central High School, Immanuel Baptist Church and various stores and shops in Little Rock during that era. The Piazza Shoe Store, located on Main Street, was called Gallanti’s.
Following Virginia Woolf, he starred in The Zoo Story at the Cherry Lane Theatre in 1965. In August of 1967, his play The Sunday Agreement premiered at LaMaMa. This was Piazza’s first playwright output to be professionally staged.
As Sunday Agreement was opening, Piazza was in rehearsal for his next Broadway opening. He appeared with Alfred Drake in The Song of the Grasshopper in September 1967. In 1968, he returned to Albee and starred in The Death of Bessie Smith and The Zoo Story in repertory on Broadway at the Billy Rose Theatre.
Later that season, in March 1969, a double bill of his one-acts: Lime Green/Khaki Blue opened at the Provincetown Playhouse. It was directed by future Tony nominee Peter Masterson and starred Louise Lasser, Robert Walden (who starred in the 2013 production of Death of a Salesman at Arkansas Repertory Theatre), Clinton Allmon and Dolores Dorn-Heft, to whom Piazza was married at the time.
Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, Piazza toured in many plays nationally and internationally. He also appeared in major regional theatres as an actor and a director. During this time period he was in productions of Bus Stop, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, You Know I Can’t Hear You when the Water’s Running and Savages. In 1970, he starred as Stanley Kowalski in a production of A Streetcar Named Desire in New Orleans. As the 1970s progressed, he turned his focus to television and movies.
Piazza’s film debut was in a 1959 Canadian film called The Dangerous Age. That same year, his Hollywood film debut came opposite Gary Cooper, Karl Malden, Maria Schell and George C. Scott in The Hanging Tree. Though he received positive reviews for his performances, Piazza chose to return to New York and perform in stage and TV productions.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, he appeared in a number of TV shows including Studio One, Kraft Theatre, Zane Grey Theatre, The Naked City and Dick Powell Theatre. He had a recurring role during one season of Ben Casey and appeared on the soap opera Love of Life.
In the 1970s, he starred in the films Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon; The Candy Snatchers and I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. He also starred as the City Councilman who recruits Walter Matthau to coach a baseball team inThe Bad News Bears.
Among his numerous TV appearances in the 1970s were The Waltons, Mannix, Switch, Barnaby Jones, Gunsmoke, Mod Squad and Lou Grant (where he was reunited with Walden).
In the 1980s, he appeared in The Blues Brothers, The Rockford Files, Barney Miller, Hart to Hart, Family Ties, The Winds of War, Dallas, Dynasty, Too Close for Comfort, The A Team, Saint Elsewhere, Santa Barbara, The Facts of Life, Mr. Belvedere, Moonlighting and Matlock.
Piazza’s final big screen appearance was in the 1991 film Guilty by Suspicion. He played studio head Darryl Zanuck in this Robert DeNiro-Annette Bening tale of Hollywood during the Red scare.
Ben Piazza died on September 7, 1991.
In November 2016, a room at the Robinson Conference Center was dedicated to his memory.