86 years since Ben Piazza was born

He shared the screen with Cher, Tom Hanks, John Belushi, Gary Cooper, Robert DeNiro, Judd Nelson, Liza Minnelli, Ken Howard, Shirley Jones, George C. Scott, Karl Malden, and Walter Matthau.

His stage co-stars included Jane Fonda, Shirley Booth, Dyan Cannon, William Daniels, Uta Hagen, Mercedes McCambridge, and Arthur Hill.

Ben Piazza spent his entire adult life earning money solely through work in the arts. (Except for a very brief, failed stint as a waiter for a few weeks after he graduated from Princeton.)  Few in the acting profession can make that claim.

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.

Piazza attended college at Princeton University and graduated in 1955.  While there he continued acting, including an appearance in a Theatre Intime production of Othello.

In February 1958, he starred in Winesburg, Ohio sharing the National (now Nederlander) Theatre stage with James Whitmore, Dorothy McGuire, and Leon Ames. In April 1959, Piazza starred in Kataki at the Ambassador Theatre.  For his performance, Piazza received one of the 1959 Theatre World Awards.

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.

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.)

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, West Side 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.

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, his one-acts: Lime Green/Khaki Blue opened at the Provincetown Playhouse.  Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, Piazza toured in many plays nationally and internationally. 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.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, he appeared in a number of TV shows.  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 . 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.

Ben Piazza focus of Old State House Brown Bag program

piazza“Ben Piazza: Becoming the American Dream” is the title of a discussion at the Old State House today at 12 noon.

Piazza was a Little Rock native who starred on Broadway as well as appeared in movies and TV from the 1950s through the 1990s. Throughout his career he acted with Gary Cooper, Tom Hanks, Jane Fonda, Robert DeNiro, Cher, Dan Akroyd, John Belushi and Walter Matthau among others.   Ben was also a friend of playwright Edward Albee and appeared in many of his plays throughout the 1960s, including The American Dream and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

During his career Ben saw seismic shifts in the acting profession.  He experienced the theatrical, TV and movie industries turned on their heads because of radical changes which few could have foreseen.

This discussion looks at Ben Piazza’s life and career as Broadway and Hollywood underwent drastic changes in the second half of the 20th Century.  It also discusses his career as a writer – most notably the novel The Exact and Very Strange Truth and the Off Broadway play Lime Green/Khaki Blue.

The program is being held in conjunction with the Old State House Museum’s exhibit Lights! Camera! ARKANSAS!

 

 

Movies in the Park: The Zookeeper

zookeeperMovies in the Park continues tonight.  As the night gets dark, this week’s feature will be 2011’s The Zookeeper.  Kevin James plays the title character in this comedy directed by Frank Coraci.

Other leading roles are played by Rosario Dawson, Leslie Bibb, Ken Jeong, Donnie Wahlberg, Joe Rogan and Nicholas Turturro.  Among those supplying the voices of the zoo animals are Sylvester Stallone, Nick Nolte, Adam Sandler, Cher, Judd Apatow, Maya Rudolph and Don Rickles.

Movies in the Park is a free outdoor movie series in Little Rock’s River Market. They take place at the First Security Amphitheatre. The mission of Movies in the Park is help foster a sense of community and enjoyment in downtown Little Rock and throughout Central Arkansas by bringing people together to enjoy a movie in a unique setting along the scenic banks of the Arkansas River.

Movies start at dark. Visitors are welcome to bring picnics but please no glass containers and pick up afterwards. Those choosing not to bring their own picnic, the park does have concessions available for sale.

Bring bug spray, picnic and family and have a good time!

The Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau Technical Services department provides all the equipment for the movies.