In the past half-century, Pittsburgh theater hasn’t seen many actors dominate local stages for as long as Bingo O’Malley did. From the mid-1970s into the new millennium, the Pittsburgh native took on a range of ambitious roles for a host of local troupes, and earned the admiration of audiences and fellow theater artists alike.
On stage, “He was so absolutely grounded in any moment, you couldn’t take your eyes off him,” says Melissa Martin, a writer and director who first met O’Malley in the ’80s. “Everybody wanted Bingo for every role he was right for.”
O’Malley died Sunday in hospice at age 86. Megan Gorecki, his niece, says O’Malley had been weakened since April following a surgery for a detached retina, but that no immediate cause of death was available.
O’Malley worked for decades as a juvenile-probation officer and school social worker. He was a self-taught actor who said he began performing almost inadvertently, getting a part in a community-theater production of “The Rainmaker” in the late 1950s, while stationed as a Navy radarman in Key West.
For about two decades, starting in the mid-'70s, O’Malley was among the city's busiest actors. He was a particular mainstay at City Theatre, where he worked frequently with artistic director Marc Masterson.
“Everybody was always courting Bingo to get him to do something,” says Masterson. “What he brought to the process was this deep well of humanity – who he was as a person.”
Masterson recalls O’Malley’s turns in productions of “Nuts” and “Incommunicado,” the latter starring O’Malley as poet Ezra Pound.
Over the years, O’Malley also played Andrew Carnegie; Clarence Darrow; Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman”; an accused Nazi war criminal in Robert Shaw’s “The Man in the Glass Booth”; and a promiscuous, persecuted gay man from Berlin in Martin Sherman's Holocaust drama “Bent.” In a 2009 profile, O’Malley said his own favorite roles included the 14th Earl of Gurney, a British aristocrat who thinks he’s Jesus, in Peter Barnes's classic 1969 satire “The Ruling Class.”
O’Malley’s last role on in a full-scale stage production was as Shelley Levene, a desperate real-estate salesman, in barebones productions’ 2009 staging of David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glenn Ross.”
O’Malley was a long-time friend and mentor to barebones founder and artistic director Patrick Jordan, his junior by several decades. Jordan says O’Malley helped guide almost every show since the troupe’s inception, in 2003. Jordan who acted in seven shows with O’Malley -- including three with barebones -- says his was a presence you couldn’t ignore.
“I’ve been in the room with actors who were known as divas, but when Bingo was there, no one was a diva,” he says. In 2018, Jordan named barebones’ theater space, in Braddock, after O’Malley.
Martin, who directed “Glengarry” for barebones, continued working with O’Malley there.
“He shaped all of our lives … everybody in town, she says. “He was genuinely, deeply loved. The only thing he was better at than acting was being Bingo.”
O’Malley also did occasional film work, with small roles in Pittsburgh-shot features including George Romero’s “Creepshow” (1982), Curtis Hanson’s “Wonder Boys” (2000); Scott Cooper’s “Out of The Furnace” (2013), with Christian Bale; and the 2007 Spike TV miniseries “The Kill Point.” In 1981, O’Malley played famed Pittsburgh painter John Kane in a lauded, one-man WQED-TV production.
O’Malley grew up working-class in Oakland, the youngest of four children. Gorecki, his niece, confirms that “Bingo” was his legal name. (“My family loved Bing Crosby,” O'Malley once said.) His work history included stints as a door-to-door bible salesman and even, in the mid-’60s, a two-year-stint as a Catholic priest at Our Lady of Fatima, in Hopewell, Pa.
Some of O'Malley's earliest successes on local stages came in the 1970s and with avant-garde Lab Theatre; decades later, the company’s head, Bill Royston, called O’Malley “the finest actor I ever worked with.”
“When he's acting, it's not ‘realism,’” said Royston. “He creates real people. It’s something that’s so intuitive that it goes beyond traditional training.”
Many found echoes of O’Malley’s day job in social work in his stage endeavors. Jordan said he's seen O'Malley go out of his way to break up bar fights. "He couldn't stand an injustice," says Jordan.
“The reason he was such a brilliant actor is he had such enormous compassion and empathy,” says Martin. “He was never there for any assertion of ego.”
O’Malley, who lived in Bethel Park, had no children and never married. Many of the theater artists he worked with over the years agreed he could have prospered anywhere as an actor. But O’Malley seldom worked outside Pittsburgh. (Masterson, who left City Theatre only to return as artistic director in 2018, did bring O’Malley to Kentucky a couple times to work with his Actors Theatre of Louisville.)
“He just loved the city,” says Gorecki. “He loved everything about Pittsburgh … his family, his friends and the theater.”
Gorecki said O’Malley did not want a memorial. However, Jordan says he is working with Masterson at City Theatre on an event to honor O’Malley.