It’s always the social catalysts, the witty ones, the dedicated, confident, whip-smart ones that are the hardest to accept as being gone when they’re gone, especially ridiculously soon, when they’ve hardly even had a chance to get started. So it is with me when I think of my old high school classmate Mike Pistone, who died some time in the 1980s of AIDS, along with so many others of his generation.
If there was ever an ideal time and place for Michael Edward Anthony Pistone to come of age, it was probably not Nassau County, Long Island during the Ford administration. At Herricks High School in New Hyde Park, we were both in the drama club and shared stage space on more than one occasion. I wasn’t under any illusion that I was in Mike’s league when it came to drama and comedy and musicals; few at Herricks were. Being a good actor takes an odd combination of self-confidence and willingness to show vulnerability, and being able to project both to an audience – the business of show, after all – which he had in abundance. Mike’s need to perform, to show off what he could do, was obvious. He was in love with stage life, and in truth, who wouldn’t prefer it to the real world, with its mundane qualities, bullying and misplaced priorities? Mike always did have great taste. There were other actors in our class, but Mike was, without doubt, the Class Actor.
Across the river the City beckoned in all its forbidden glory during one of its most fertile periods of underground artistic ferment, just beginning to poke through into the mainstream. New York, still dangerous and dirty, was busy spawning punk rock, among other things, but for Mike Pistone it was the age of “A Chorus Line” – also new back then – which showcased a life he couldn’t wait to leap into. High school was an inconvenience, something to get through as quickly as possible, learn a few things, then graduate from and get down to real life. A slightly built, slender, olive-skinned live wire with straight black hair, piercing eyes, a bright grin and ready laugh, Mike was a triple threat at singing, dancing and acting, and he sang, danced and emoted his way through Guys and Dolls, Sweet Charity, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, and oh, yes, a two-character one-act play called What Day Is It When It Begins, in which I “co-starred” with him. This masterpiece was written by a teacher at Herricks whose name mercifully escapes my memory. To this day I can’t tell you what the hell that play was about; it was a collection of non sequiturs aiming at artiness. (I still remember one line of it and one line only, “Describe the taste of a hard-boiled egg.”) Mike, at least, was as good in the role as one could expect, as he was in any of the roles he tackled. He was dedicated to his craft; in rehearsals nobody worked harder than he did, determined to showcase his best self. Though he sometimes referred to himself by his full four initials – MEAP – and knew how talented he was, he retained a good sense of humor about himself and a good grasp of reality when it came to the outside world.
Mike often regaled his fellow student actors with tales of his weekend sojourns into Manhattan, taking in this musical or that play or even dancing at Studio 54, where he met Liza Minnelli (how ’70s could you get?). Mike said he wanted to tell her how much he loved her, to which she replied, “You’ll have to get in line.” If that bothered him, he didn’t let it show. With his acerbic wit, smarts and self-confidence – and with his acting chops, who could tell if it was just bravado? – he’d honed his survival skills and street smarts in Long Island’s macho culture at an early age; homophobia was unavoidable and not really spoken about, but he’d figured out his identity early on and never looked back. Mike knew the long odds against him, no fool he, but he’d be damned if he wasn’t going to give it his best shot, since lack of talent wasn’t one of his problems. In the high school yearbook he quoted “Don’t Rain On My Parade” – does it really matter which lyrics in particular? – and among his drama club pals he’d have long conversations and toss off quips like “This school has reached a new high in lows.”
Mike wanted nothing more than to practice his craft and find himself in a crowd that accepted him for who he was. I’m sorry I never had a chance to connect with him at least once after high school. If he had survived AIDS he might have become a chorus gypsy for a time, or ended up as a dance director, choreographer, set designer, the female lead’s best gay friend, or a drag queen (which he did for a time) or even the host of a public-access cable talk show. He might have been just another journeyman actor with a tight circle of friends, or perhaps had the career of somebody like, say, Mario Cantone (who reminded me very much of Michael Pistone when I interviewed him for a newspaper a couple of years ago). Of course, we won’t know now.
On a personal level, I owe Mike Pistone something in particular. I was fond of satire and parody in those days (still am) and amused myself by writing parodies of the plays and musicals in which I was appearing, while they were in rehearsal, and showing them around to the director and my fellow actors. I’m sure they were probably more amused by the fact that I was writing them at all than at the actual content of the parodies, but Mike Pistone was the first person to suggest to me that I should be concentrating my energies more on writing than on acting. He was very right, and I turned to writing and journalism as soon as I got to college.
Mike Pistone was not only the epitome of the class actor, but also a class act. He was an avatar of life and epitomized one of its essential functions, self-expression. He remains missed by those lucky enough to have known him.