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Ben Daniel Piazza (1933–1991)

Ben Daniel Piazza was an actor, director, author, and playwright who was compared to the young Marlon Brando in his youth but achieved acclaim for character roles in his later years, often portraying an edgy, tightly controlled suburbanite or a repressive parent in films such as The Blues Brothers. He began acting in 1952 during his college days at Princeton University and worked steadily in theater, film, and television until his death in 1991.

Ben Piazza was born on July 30, 1933, in Little Rock (Pulaski County) to Charles Piazza, a shoe repairman, and Elfreida Piazza, a homemaker. He was one of nine children, having two sisters and six brothers. He graduated from Little Rock High School (later Central High School) in 1951. He left Arkansas to pursue his education at Princeton University in New Jersey and made his stage debut in 1952 performing as a senator in Othello at the Theatre Intime at Princeton. Subsequent to his graduation from Princeton, class of 1955, he was accepted as a member of New York’s famed Actors Studio and made his professional debut off-Broadway in 1956 in Too Late the Phalarope. Piazza’s early career on Broadway, in which he was compared to the young Brando in both looks and talent, was one that most actors only dream of.

Winesburg, Ohio (1958), his Broadway debut, was followed by Kataki (1959), an intense two-character drama with veteran Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa. For that performance, Piazza won the 1958–59 Theatre World Award, along with other Broadway newcomers that year, such as Larry Hagman, William Shatner, and Rip Torn. Piazza replaced original cast member George Grizzard as “Nick” in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which Playbill said “hit Broadway like a thunderbolt” in 1962.

Piazza also portrayed tightly-wound Albee characters in The American Dream (1962) and The Death of Bessie Smith/The Zoo Story in 1968. He acted in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame (1962) and directed Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, works which are considered theater classics. Other Broadway appearances included A Second String (1960), The Fun Couple (1962), and Song of the Grasshopper (1967).

Between Broadway engagements, his film career bloomed. Brought to Hollywood after his movie debut in the Canadian production, A Dangerous Age (1958), directed by Sidney Furie, he was selected to co-star with Gary Cooper in The Hanging Tree (1959).

Some of Piazza’s notable movie roles were in Tell Me that You Love Me, Junie Moon (1970), I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (1977), Nightwing (1979), The Blues Brothers (1980), Waltz Across Texas (1983), Mask (1985), Clean and Sober (1988), Rocky V (1990), and his final movie, Guilty by Suspicion (1991). His television appearances include Wide Wide World: “The Western” with Arkansan Gail Davis (1958), The Fugitive, Gunsmoke, Lou Grant, The Twilight Zone, St. Elsewhere, Dallas (in a recurring role as attorney Walt Driscoll), The Winds of War, and his final television appearance in 1991’s Never Forget.

While he was creating Albee characters on Broadway in the early 1960s, he also wrote a novel, The Exact and Very Strange Truth, dedicated to Edward Albee and published by Farrar, Strauss in 1964. The book, told in the first person by a ten-year-old boy named Alexander Gallanti, is a coming-of-age story reminiscent of To Kill a Mockingbird, with its handling of issues involving race and culture, as well as the awakening sexuality of a boy dealing with the death of his father, illness of his mother, and finding his place in the world and in his large Italian American family. He notes in the introduction that any resemblance to real people is “irrelevant.” The action takes place in Little Rock, where the boy’s father had a shoe repair shop called Gallanti’s at 8th and Main. His father was an Italian American, and his mother was an Arkansas Baptist girl born in Paragould (Greene County). Along with trips to Paragould, Bauxite (Saline County), and Benton (Saline County), the action also includes an early 1950s-era airplane trip from Little Rock to Savannah, Georgia, where it was hoped his mother could recuperate from a stroke. At the end of the story, both mother and father are dead, with the nine brothers and sisters scattered. Alexander, the narrator, is sent to Subiaco Academy in Logan County where he received a scholarship.

Piazza was also a playwright whose works were produced by noted theater companies. New York’s La Mama opened The Sunday Agreement on August 30, 1967. In 1969, the prestigious Provincetown Playhouse in New York presented his plays Lime Green and Khaki Blue.

Khaki Blue co-starred actress Dolores Dorn, Piazza’s wife at the time, who had previously been married to actor Franchot Tone. They had no children. In 1973, Piazza and Dorn appeared together as Avery and Katherine in the movie, The Candy Snatchers.

Piazza died of cancer on September 7, 1991, at his home in Sherman Oaks, California. The obituary in the Los Angeles Times listed Wayne Tripp as Piazza’s longtime companion.

For additional information:
“Ben Piazza.” Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0681319/ (accessed December 12, 2005).

“Ben Piazza; Broadway, Screen Actor.” Los Angeles Times, September 14, 1991. Online at http://articles.latimes.com/1991-09-14/news/mn-1948_1_ben-piazza (accessed August 8, 2012).

Piazza, Ben Daniel. The Exact and Very Strange Truth. New York: Farrar, Strauss, 1964.

Theatre World Awards. http://www.theatreworldawards.org/award.html (accessed December 14, 2005).

Nancy Hendricks
Arkansas State University

Last Updated 8/8/2012

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