Remembering Joe Pintauro, a Beloved Sag Harbor Playwright

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Greg Therriault, left, and Joe-Pintauro at a recent event. Dawn Watson photo

Just as quickly as Greg Therriault answered his telephone last Friday afternoon, he set it down.

“I’m just finishing up with a call,” he said. “Hang on with me for one minute.”

He turned his attention back to his landline.

“It’s the newspaper and I promised them I would do an interview about Joe, okay?” he said. “Thanks for calling, honey. We’ll talk more, okay?”

He paused.

“Big hug to you, too, sweetheart,” he said, his voice soft. “Thank you. Okay, my dear. Okay. Bye, bye.”

Therriault hung up with a heavy sigh, noting that 92-year-old artist Connie Fox had been on the other end. She and her husband, the late artist Bill King, had a long history of collaboration and friendship with Joe Pintauro — playwright, novelist, poet, photographer, painter and, above all, a man guided by his heart.

In the late evening hours of Tuesday, May 29, Mr. Pintauro died of complications from metastatic prostate cancer at his home in Sag Harbor, with Mr. Therriault — his partner of nearly 40 years — by his side.

He was 87 years old.

“I hate to say it, but this cluster of people, it’s sort of the end of an era,” Therriault said. “These people that are between 85 and 95, there aren’t that many of them, when you think about it. There will be more to follow — more talented and creative people — but this was a group of really formidable artists. And extraordinarily influential. And Joe was one of them.”

Joe Pintauro by Jonathan Morse.

A Visionary is Born

Born on November 22, 1930, to a master carpenter and homemaker, Joseph Pintauro grew up in Ozone Park, Queens, as a product of the Italian-American tradition. He was a fun-loving rebel with a sensitive side, showing a penchant for writing by high school.

“He was just one of those wonderful kids,” Mr. Therriault said. “He belonged to a gang where they all had matching, red satin jackets. They would go to Rockaway and the beach. But this, I think, will tell you the whole story. In high school, you could nominate people for the best dancer, the most fun, the most athletic, the smartest. Joe was nominated for everything. And they had to pick one. So they gave him best dancer.”Mr. Pintauro would earn his bachelor’s degree in business administration at Manhattan College and a master’s in American Literature from Fordham University before, in an unexpected move, entering the seminary at St. Jerome’s College in Ontario. He attained his divinity degree and became an ordained Catholic priest in the Brooklyn Diocese, using his position to support community outreach both domestically and abroad — traveling to Chile and Peru to help build houses and churches.

“It was an important period of his life. But after about 10 years, his faith felt challenged and the man that he was at 32 was not the man he had been at 22, and he requested a dispensation, and they allowed him to leave the priesthood — with the opportunity to return should he choose to do so,” Mr. Therriault said. “Joe was a rule-breaker, and I think he really believed he could be more effective in the world than from within the church.”

Leaving the church through the front door, Mr. Pintauro first dipped his toe in the advertising pool — working for the likes of Young and Rubicam, and Ted Bates — before trying his hand at poetry, and then plays.

And it was then, he realized, that this was the way he wanted his life to unfold.

Finding His Calling, And His Tribe

Following his iconic trilogy of illustrated poetry books in the late 1960s — “To Believe in God,” “To Believe in Man” and “To Believe in Things,” in collaboration with Sister Mary Corita  — and “The Rainbow Box” with artist Norman Laliberte, Mr. Pintauro arrived on the burgeoning Greenwich Village theater scene and established himself as a fixture at the Circle Repertory Company.

His plays explored his childhood Italian-American roots, the dichotomy between the beautiful surfaces and rougher underbellies of life, and the socio-economic struggles he saw unfolding around him — often celebrating marginalized, troubled groups through his writing.

“Joe was a very important playwright in the early days of the AIDS crisis with the production of his play, ‘Raft of the Medusa,’ which played Off-Broadway,” explained Stephen Hamilton, who co-founded Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor with his wife, Emma Walton Hamilton, and Sybil Christopher. “It’s a very powerful, powerful piece, and an important piece during the AIDS crisis in the early to mid-’80s.”

The trio would grow to know Mr. Pintauro while living on the East End — the playwright having bought his home in the 1960s. He had retired from the advertising industry to focus on writing, initially penning what would become his first novel, “Cold Hands,” in 1979.

“He was a renaissance man. He really moved fluidly between mediums — an incredible erudite who knew so much about the history of art and literature, and photography and painting,” Andrea Grover, executive director at Guild Hall in East Hampton, recalled. “He just had a very, very incredible mind. Being around him was like being around a professor of many disciplines.

“When I think of him, I think of him laughing, and always with his arms spread open to give a hug, or to put his hand around somebody’s shoulder,” she continued. “I’ve never seen Joe with a dark cloud over him. The memories I have of him are just very cheerful. I know that sounds insubstantial, but in this day and age, that’s something to be commended.”

The first time Terrie Sultan bumped into Mr. Pintauro at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill — where she had just begun her tenure as director — she had to do a double take.

“Of course, I’d heard of him, so my impression was how lucky I was to come to a community where I could actually meet somebody like that, just at the museum, as a person who came to see what was going on,” Sultan said. “It was so impressive. It was like, ‘Wow, you’re Joe Pintauro and here you are, at the Parrish.’”

She was struck by his openness and warmth, and she would often find herself keeping an eye out for him in the museum, which recently inducted one of his photographs, “Lifeguard With Broken Umbrella,” into its permanent collection.

“We’ll miss his voice and his vision. We’ll miss his voice as a writer and his vision as a photographer,” she said. “Any time you look at a work of art that’s created by somebody like Joe, you see the world in a slightly different way because you’re looking at it through his eyes, and the same is true of his writing.”

Mr. Pintauro had a tendency to talk to everyone he could, Mr. Therriault said, “and because of who he was, people couldn’t believe it.” But his conversations were vital, artist April Gornik said, and he was not one to waste time on small talk — always delving straight into a topic that deeply interested him.

“I thought of him as a wellspring of rich thought and invention. I didn’t even realize what a polymath he was, nor that he had danced as a child,” she said. “It felt like he was pulling the world into himself. That’s the way Joe always seemed to me, someone who was pulling the world into himself in this incredible way, and then giving it back in his art, in his work, in his novels, in his plays.”

On the East End, that history dates back to when Bay Street Theater was a pipe dream, and Mr. Pintauro was the key to making it a reality.

‘Men’s Lives’

In the early 1990s, Mr. Hamilton was on his third read of Peter Matthiessen’s book “Men’s Lives,” fantasizing about an adaptation that would open Bay Street — a play that would make a statement about what the theater could be, and a play that would resonate with the community.

They needed a playwright who was a poet at heart, and someone who understood the impact of the story on a local level.

That person was Joe Pintauro — and, unbeknownst to them, he had already written it.

“We called him and asked him if he’d ever heard of ‘Men’s Lives,’ and to our surprise, not only had he heard of it, he’d actually tried his hand at an adaptation of it, which had an ill-fated reading at Guild Hall some years prior,” Walton Hamilton said. “He had stuffed it in the back of a drawer and had never looked at it since.”

With Walton Hamilton acting as dramaturge, they worked through a dozen drafts of the play, rewriting up until opening night in 1992.

“We said, ‘Okay Joe, you have to stop now. We have to let the actors block the play,’” Walton Hamilton said with a laugh. “The thing about Joe is that he was 100 percent heart. In his writing, he wrote from the heart. He lived from the heart. And sometimes that made him nervous, anxious, worried about how his plays would be received, or wanting to make things the best they could be. But everything came from his heart. And that was evident in his work, and that’s one of the things that I think made his work so beautiful and so lyrical. It was never calculated.”

The play opened to a packed house, where baymen rubbed elbows with the Hamptons elite, sitting side by side in a sold-out theater — and it ran sold out during its seasonal run at Bay Street for two consecutive years.

“That was, for Joe, one of the highlights of his professional life: being involved with Emma and Steve and Sybil and Tony Walton at the beginning of Bay Street. It really was a time unlike anything,” Mr. Therriault said. “He just adored all of them. He adored the project of ‘Men’s Lives.’ He just was ecstatic over that experience and being involved with them and making that theater happen, and being the inaugural production.”

His playwriting career would continue for decades on the East End, including “What I Did For Love” in 2002 at Guild Hall, and staged readings of “Beside Herself” in 2006 and “The Lake in August” in 2009. In conjunction with the exhibition “Radical Seafaring,” the Parrish Art Museum rebooted “Men’s Lives” in its theater, moving the Hamiltons and Mr. Pintauro himself to tears, even 24 years later.

“To this day, Steve and I still get choked up when we read a particular monologue from ‘Men’s Lives’ that the character of Lee, who’s the son of the fishing family, delivers — and it’s about death, and the way he hopes to die one day,” Walton Hamilton said. “It’s beautiful. It goes like, ‘I’m gonna jump out of a plane and give my body back to the fish who have given their lives up to me.’

“He managed to take this character — this tough-talking, hard-drinking fisherman — and capture the essence of that man and that character’s heart in such a way that felt totally authentic to the character, but also was all Joe,” she said.

Inside Bay Street Theater, Walton Hamilton still feels the ghosts of days past. There, Mr. Pintauro will live on forever, she said.

“Joe’s spirit is very much in the windows and walls of that theater. And always will be. He was a member of our family from day one down there, and was instrumental in establishing Bay Street as a place for serious professional theater,” Walton Hamilton said. “He really was a local treasure, as is Greg — his life partner since forever, for as long as we’ve known Joe.”

Joe Pintauro. Photo: Daniel Gonzalez

A Love Story

It was the summer of 1978 when Mr. Therriault — a recent Sag Harbor transplant by way of upstate New York — found himself spellbound by a kind-hearted, white-haired playwright, who had welcomed him with open arms to a gathering in the then-sleepy village, a hub for young artists and established talent alike.

“I just thought Joe was incredibly warm, and intelligent, and handsome, and full of life and ideas, and interested in me, and willing to be a friend — even though there was an age difference. I was 30, he was 48,” Mr. Therriault said. “People were often shocked by how old he was. He often came off as a bit younger than he actually was chronologically. Not in an immature way, but in his ability to embrace new things and his sense of life and excitement.”

The early months of their relationship were intoxicating, Mr. Therriault said, and after a dance of sorts, they gave into one another, finally embracing their deep connection.

“At a certain point in a relationship, as it moves along, you realize this is gonna be it. This is going to be the relationship of my life. This is the person I’m going to spend the rest of my life with, if you’re lucky enough,” Mr. Therriault said. “And it became perfectly clear that we were going to be together as long as we could be together.”

Six months after same-sex marriage became legal in New York, Judge Deborah Kooperstein married the couple in December of 2011 at home — “within a foot of where I’m sitting now,” Mr. Therriault said — with decades of love leading up to the intimate ceremony, both between them and from within the community.

“Sag Harbor embraced Joe and I. All of the people we went to parties with, oftentimes, we were the only gay couple there. And there was never the least bit of any kind of unease, and I found that really remarkable — having grown up in upstate New York where there were biases,” he said. “That’s a special Sag Harbor thing. This is a welcoming community and if you love someone and you’re honest and you’re straightforward, they can tell. They know. They know the real thing. And Joe and I presented ourselves as the real thing.”

In May, the couple made their first recent public appearance at the Parrish Art Museum for the world premiere of “Salvation” — an adaptation of three of Mr. Pintauro’s one-act plays from “Metropolitan Operas” by composer/director Kevin Jeffers.

Mr. Pintauro was in a wheelchair, but in good spirits, his partner said.

“It was a moving experience on all levels,” he said. “For Joe to be seen out in the community, after not having been out and about very much in the last six months, was a big deal. So many of the people he really cared about were there.”

They would say their final goodbyes four days later.

“He was one of the kindest and gentlest and open people. He was an incredibly forgiving and tolerant person of people’s quirky behaviors, or mistakes, or errors — especially mine. He was very forgiving of everyone, and it’s something I aspire to myself, to be more understanding, because he certainly was,” Mr. Therriault said. “I retired early so that we could spend as much time together as possible, and we were together every day for the last 15 years.

“It was a gift,” he said. “To be with him was a gift.”

Funeral services for Joe Pintauro will be held on Wednesday, June 6, at 11 a.m. at St. Andrew Roman Catholic Church in Sag Harbor. A memorial service will also be held in Manhattan at a later date.

Donations in lieu of flowers may be made to the Animal Rescue Fund of the Hamptons or the Sag Harbor Partnership, in its effort to rebuild the Sag Harbor Cinema

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