When I was a kid I wanted to be a movie star. It wasn’t until I was in college that I fell in love with theatre. I spent my undergraduate years at The Catholic University of America, where I was fortunate to be cast a lot – a rarity for an undergraduate in a program that prided itself on its graduate-actor-training. During the summer between my sophomore and junior years I got my first paying gig, playing John in a production of Life With Father at the Olney Theater in Olney, Maryland. And I got my first significant review too, when The Washington Post mentioned “magnificent performances by James Kenny as ‘Father’ and a genuine scene-stealer named John Pielmeier as one of his sons…”
From Catholic U, I moved on to Penn State for grad work. Even though I was in the playwrighting program, I did a lot of acting, and met my mentor Archie Smith, who taught me a lot about writing and acting and life. Archie cast me as Teddy in Arsenic and Old Lace in the summer theatre there –– and near the end of my third year sent me to a national acting audition where I got eight job offers. (April 1, 1973 – a significant day in my life.)
I took a job at Milwaukee Rep, my first professional gig, and earned my Equity card in a terrific production of Our Town, appearing with Penelope Reed, William McKhereghan and Judith Light.
After a season in Milwaukee I moved on to Actors Theatre of Louisville where Jon Jory gave me some truly wonderful roles and opportunities, including The Ballad of the Sad Café with Adale O’Brien.
After a performance of Ballad one night I was approached by Eugene Lion, newly-appointed artistic director of the Guthrie Two, an experimental play company about to open at The Guthrie in Minneapolis, and he hired me pretty much on the spot.
The next year I played the lead in the company’s opening production, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, a show which audiences either hated or loved but never, never forgot. (It’s also where I first performed with my future wife.)
It was a huge critical hit, but by then the powers-that-be were unhappy with Eugene (a true genius) and cancelled the second season before we had even opened the first! I was asked to join the main company at the Guthrie for the next season, however, and appeared in The Matchmaker with Karen Landry, Peter Michael Goetz and Helen Carey; and A Winter’s Tale with me and Mark Lamos. It was also here I was tapped to produce, co-direct, and perform in my graduate thesis play, A Chosen Room.
This was a play that had been hanging around my neck for years, and getting it on its feet finally freed me of it, and allowed me to move on to other writing projects. The following year I moved to New York, and while still acting regionally – in The Shadow Box with Adale O’Brien and in The Rivals – I also began writing seriously.
When Agnes of God took off in ’82 I stopped acting (my last appearance was in a Faerie Tale Theatre production of Thumbelina with Carrie Fisher) and with occasional exceptions (most notably appearing in my two one-person shows, Courage and Willi, as well as in two of my miniseries: The Capture of the Green River Killer, playing Gary Ridgway, and The Pillars of the Earth, playing Brother Cuthbert) didn’t start again until quite recently. My first reappearance was as Albert Einstein in Deborah Brevoort’s My Lord, What A Night! The reviews were quite satisfying:
The Washington Post commented: “My Lord benefits hugely from Pielmeier’s endearing portrait of the disheveled, enthusiastic Einstein…” while Bob Ashby of D.C.Metro wrote: “Robert Oppenheimer, in a 1966 New York Review of Books article, said that with Einstein there was always ‘a wonderful purity at once childlike and profoundly stubborn…The sense of grandeur never left him for a minute, nor his sense of humor.’ John Leonard Pielmeier, himself a successful playwright and screenwriter (his credits include Agnes of God) embodies those aspects of Einstein in a thoroughly grounded portrait of a warm, kind, passionate man, who lives with the frustration of knowing that his groundbreaking work is behind him. He fortunately avoids presenting Einstein as the frizzy-haired, too cute, cartoonish figure of the popular culture caricature.”