Remembering actor Pat Hingle

Published 6:25 pm Monday, February 23, 2009

&dquo;My poor mother took my sister and me back to Saluda where her parents lived. Theirs was a large family (and) it was kind of lonely for my grandfather and me because we were the only two guys!&dquo;

His grandfather, Ernest Patterson, an engineer on the famous Saluda Grade railway helper engine, was a huge influence on Pat&squo;s life and someone he held in high regard. &dquo;It was the 30s and railroad engineers were quite a romantic kind&ellip; like what airplane pilots got to be, you know. So, there was quite a bit of prestige that came with being the grandson of Ernest Patterson.&dquo;

The acting bug bit when Pat did his first school play at Saluda Elementary where he played a carrot.

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&dquo;It wasn&squo;t a big part–an &squo;under five.&squo; I stepped out dressed like a carrot and belted: &squo;&ellip; and carrots for your eyes!&squo; Then I stepped back beside the cucumber. That was my stage debut; I remember it well,&dquo; he said with a hearty laugh.

Hingle began his studies in advertising at the University of Texas. &dquo;I was an advertising major simply because I had one ambition at that time: to cease being poor.&dquo;

A stint in the Navy during World War II interrupted college, but Pat returned to campus post-war and switched to broadcasting. He also began hanging out at the theater as a way to meet girls.

&dquo;That&squo;s exactly right! I&squo;d see a pretty girl on campus and say, &squo;Who is that?&squo;&ellip;Then I&squo;d find out she was from the drama department.&dquo;

In 1952, a move to New York City quickly landed Pat jobs on stage and in television. His breakthrough Broadway role came in &dquo;Cat on A Hot Tin Roof,&dquo; the Tennessee Williams classic. The play was directed by Elia Kazan, his acting teacher at The Actors Studio, who also directed him in his film debut in an uncredited role as the bartender in &dquo;On the Waterfront&dquo; (1954).

A succession of prominent castings came including &dquo;Dark at the Top of the Stairs&dquo; (1957), for which he was nominated for a Tony as best featured actor, and the lead role in &dquo;J.B&dquo; (1958), the retelling of Job.

His star power seemed unstoppable, especially after he won the title role of the 1960 film &dquo;Elmer Gantry,&dquo; adapted from the Sinclair Lewis novel about evangelists. Fate, however, dealt him a cruel blow.

A freak accident‐a 5-story fall down an elevator shaft‐sidelined his shot at Gantry.

Pat sustained near fatal injuries, lost the little finger on his left hand and the role to Burt Lancaster. &dquo;I know that if I had played Elmer Gantry, I would have been more of a movie name,&dquo; he once told the New York Times.

But he preferred the stage, once stating that in films &dquo;an actor has no bloody control over what the audience sees whatsoever.&dquo;

Pat Hingle returned to our mountains in 1974, in the Flat Rock Playhouse production of &dquo;A Man for All Seasons.&dquo;

Timing was right, as he had done the role of Sir Thomas More the previous summer. Another perk was the fact that his real-life daughter Jody, a Flat Rock apprentice, was cast as Sir Thomas&squo;s daughter.

&dquo;Oh, it was fun! It really was. She was always saying: &squo;Dad, listen, you&squo;re upstaging me.&squo; And I&squo;d say: &squo;Listen, I&squo;ve got the lead in this thing, you know. Get used to being upstaged by actors playing a bigger role!&squo;&dquo;

Pat Hingle portrayed some of America&squo;s most notable and historical figures, too. They included Benjamin Franklin in the Broadway smash &dquo;1776,&dquo; J. Edgar Hoover in &dquo;Citizen Cohn&dquo; for cable TV, Chief Justice Earl Warren in the 1993 cable movie &dquo;Simple Justice,&dquo; Admiral Wm. &dquo;Bull&dquo; Halsey in the miniseries &dquo;War and Remembrance.&dquo;

In recent years, Pat returned to the Flat Rock stage in &dquo;You Can&squo;t Take It With You&dquo; and onstage at Southern Appalachian Repertory Theater at Mars Hill, in both &dquo;Love Letters&dquo; and &dquo;Cat on a Hot Tin Roof&dquo; ‐ this time as Big Daddy.

A multi-faceted actor and the proud grandfather of 11, Pat Hingle&squo;s twilight years brought him back to North Carolina. This time, home was a beach community near Wilmington, where he continued to stay active in TV, film and theater until his death last month.

Once asked what the secret was for continuing to work at an age when many might hang up the costume, he reflected: &dquo;I&squo;m just an Irish peasant that just doesn&squo;t want to go, who loves to act and, happily, I have a very good reputation in the business. I know my craft very well and I&squo;m a very, very good actor.&dquo;