Long-time Whole Backstage member, and professional actor Autry Pinson died recently after extended illnesses.
Best known for his Mark Twain one-man shows, his success with this role created career opportunities for him for more than 30 years. Pinson’s stellar portrayal of Mark Twain gained rave reviews from newspapers and theatre critics across the United States. He made his ‘mark’ with personal interpretations and adaptations of the Twain character as his performances evolved and gained national recognition.
He played in various places such as: high school auditoriums, 10,000-seat theatres, college classrooms, supper clubs, riverboats, and private parties. At one time, Pinson was ranked third in the country as a performer of this iconic American author and quipster.
In 2012 Pinson asked Johnny and Katherine Brewer to organize and produce a tour as he bid “Farewell to Mark Twain,” presenting his monologues in his original show entitled “A Visit with Mark Twain.” Originally from Boaz, he wanted his final performances to be in local venues, and Theatre of Gadsden’s Ritz Theatre, Snead State Theatre in Boaz, and The Whole Backstage in Guntersville hosted his wish with a Saturday night show in each place.
In a promotional interview in 2012 for his farewell tour, Pinson described how his career began, “I did my first ‘Mark Twain’ by accident. I was approached by the Albertville Pilot Club to put on a program for their special annual meeting in the late 1970’s. I decided to do an evening with Mark Twain. So, I put together a script, gave the performance, and was paid $25 for that first presentation. At present, and about 300 Mark Twain performances later, I typically receive $2,500 per night. Many people in the profession and fans across the country tell me I am as good as actor Hal Holbrook, best known for his portrayal of Mark Twain”, Pinson said.
“Autry Pinson was the most dedicated actor I ever knew. For him, acting wasn't just playing a part; it was building a character who was completely believable to the audience. He loved creating a character, and he would work tirelessly on perfecting every word, movement and gesture. Theatre was the love of his life, and his passion for it never faded,” long-time friend and fellow actor, Jan Price stated.
Pinson’s stage career began at University of North Alabama, graduating in 1973. Next, Pinson worked in radio and performed in local stage productions for several years, then Mark Twain entered his life. Pinson also wrote and presented a one-man show, “Their Finest Hour,” in the personas of Winston Churchill and Edward R. Murrow, playing in various places nationally. And in 1994, he performed this act in the Great Hall of the Smithsonian Institution. Also to his credit was his stage appearance with Van Johnson and Peter Pagan in “There’s a Girl in My Soup” and a role in the 1976 movie “Stay Hungry”, filmed in Birmingham with Jeff Bridges, Sally Field, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Fannie Flag.
Additionally, the impressive list of Pinson’s work includes performing in significant theatres, such as the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Circuit Playhouse of Memphis, Birmingham Festival Theatre, Twickenham Repertory Company in Huntsville, Gadsden Civic Theatre, Fort Payne Opera House, and The Whole Backstage in Guntersville.
Pinson once stated, “I did about 10 years of shows with The Whole Backstage in Guntersville and Gadsden Theatre. I played such characters as: the murderer in “Dial M for Murder,” Hornbeck in “Inherit the Wind,” the common man in four different productions of “A Man for all Seasons,” and the list goes on and on. The biggest job during this time was directing “Inherit the Wind” at the Whole Backstage.”
In 1990, together with Founding Mother of the Whole Backstage Dot Moore, also now deceased, Pinson organized, and Johnny Brewer produced a regionally traveling play, “Groucho! A Life in Review.” This unique show was a humorous, but poignant stage adaptation depicting the careers of Groucho along with his brothers, Chico and Harpo.
“I met Autry when a mutual friend, Cheryl Couch, introduced me to him in 1975. I was 14 years old at the time and only knew of Autry as this iconic figure in our community. He had done plays at the Whole Backstage and I knew from the newspapers that he was a “movie star.” We became close as I followed his professional journey. We worked together on several shows, but none were as fun as when I played Chico and Harpo to his Groucho in the play “Groucho! A Life in Review.” I was honored and humbled when he approached me to produce and host his last tour, “A Farewell to Mark Twain.” I am sad of my friend’s passing, but I know that a star shines a little brighter in heaven because he’s there,” Johnny Brewer explained.
Autry attributed much of his success to his late mother, Violet Pinson. Recognizing his talents early, she encouraged and supported him throughout his formative years. She worked very hard to enable him to attend college and master his craft. At the age of 71, she journeyed on a 14-year national tour with her son, as his assistant, costumer, seamstress, organizer, patron and traveling companion. Autry said, “Mom advanced the start-up money for the show, then made calls and reservations, packed, and did everything to help. I couldn’t have done this tour without her.”
Together, Autry and his mother, Violet, traveled about 200,000 miles throughout the U.S., with props, costumes, microphones, and portable scenery. When his tour came to a close, she was 85 years old, and then passed away in 2009 at the age of 96. Autry said, “I would have to write a book to describe our experience. Let’s just say nothing could have worked better. I am convinced my mother was an angel that just came down to stay with us for a while. She turned out to be the best partner I could have ever had. It was the toughest job I had ever done in my life. But the memories we made from this experience together and presenting our special shows made all the work worth it.”
Jaton Meyer, former director of the Guntersville Chamber of Commerce and Whole Backstage Lifetime Achievement honoree, described Autry, “I met him when I saw my first play at the Whole Backstage, “Knock, Knock,” in 1973. It was so easy to become his friend because I listened as his captive audience to his quotes from ‘Tombstone’. I asked, ‘How can you remember all these lines?’ And his reply was, ‘Since you don’t know them, I can ad lib.’ Autry grew to be such a close friend that he would often stop by our home for a minute, and end up staying for hours. Most of the time, he would stay for dinner, and we would spend late evenings talking and visiting. Over the many years of our friendship, I became his sounding board. There were so many special and wonderful things about Autry, he will be missed.”