By Mark Dundas Wood
Actor, director, playwright, teacher and coach Bill Galarno passed away peacefully at his home in midtown Manhattan on February 15, 2020, at age 86. Mr. Galarno’s career as a theater professional was rich and varied, spanning more than six-and-a-half decades.
He was born in Saginaw, Michigan, on March 1, 1933, to Frederick William Galarno, a civil engineer, and Marie Cecelia (Potvin) Galarno, an office manager. In the early 1950s, he appeared in community theater productions as well as in college shows at Michigan State University as an undergraduate and at Ohio University as a grad student.
In 1954, Mr. Galarno was part of the opening season of northern Michigan’s Petoskey Playhouse. His summer stock experience continued elsewhere in Michigan, then Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, with Mr. Galarno landing his first full-year contract at the Pittsburgh Playhouse in 1956-57.
In 1958, he relocated to New York City. Early on, he landed the lead in Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Flies (1959). Two years later, the New York Times took special note of Mr. Galarno’s performance with scene partner Crystal Field in Talent 61—a showcase for up-and-coming actors, which that year also featured future stars Olympia Dukakis, Ruth Buzzi, and Joan Rivers.
1968 saw Mr. Galarno cast in a Lincoln Center concert version of Candide, mounted as a celebration to honor Leonard Bernstein on his 50th birthday. A Broadway appearance came in 1993 with Abe Lincoln in Illinois, starring Sam Waterston. In 1997, Mr. Galarno joined in the Judith Shakespeare Company production of All’s Well That Ends Well (with Broadway star Merle Louise). Seventeen years of work ensued with the company, including the 2008 Off-Broadway hit Elizabeth Rex, in which he again worked alongside Ms. Louise. Starting in 2010, Mr. Galarno also worked with the Out of the Box Theatre Company, whose mission includes reviving classics that feature roles for actors over age 50. His final role in a full Out of the Box production was as Carl Bolton in Morning’s at Seven in 2017. He continued to perform every year in their annual holiday fund-raiser. Mr. Galarno’s final appearance on stage took place last December, when he played Kris Kringle in a benefit performance of Miracle on 34th Street.
Although Mr. Galarno made Manhattan his home, he continued to work elsewhere over the decades. He appeared in national tours of The Sound of Music (1962-63, in the role of Rolf) and Move Over, Mrs. Markham (1974), as well as in the American/Canadian tour of 110 in the Shade (1964).
Film credits included roles in The Horror of Party Beach (1964) and The Godfather (1973). A career highlight was being directed by Bob Fosse in All That Jazz (1979), in which he served as star Roy Scheider’s stand-in and photo double. In 2013, Mr. Galarno was cast as a stagehand in James Grey’s The Immigrant, starring Marion Cotillard. He continued to accept movie background work, his last being in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies (2015), starring Mark Rylance and Tom Hanks. On television, Mr. Galarno appeared in series including Serpico, Somerset, and The Edge of Night.
Mr. Galarno had an extensive career as a playwright and as a stage director. In 1971, he helped to inaugurate the new theater space in Buffalo’s African Cultural Center, directing the opening show, Purlie Victorious by Ossie Davis. He returned to direct several times over the subsequent decade. In 1988, he directed his own script, A Christmas Carol—The Boston Broadcast of 1932 at The Actors Theatre of Nantucket in Massachusetts. The show was such a success that The Actors Theatre brought it back the following season, this time asking Mr. Galarno to cast it with New York actors.
In the 1990s, Mr. Galarno taught musical theater for seven years at the Turtle Bay Music School. Over the years, he built up a clientele of students for coaching. This was work that brought him great joy. All of his students were adults, until last summer, when the 11-year-old Nicholas Hutchinson asked Mr. Galarno to coach him. After a couple of months of work with Mr. Galarno, Nicky landed a significant role in the new play Underlying Chris at off-Broadway’s Second Stage Theater. Mr. Galarno could not have been more proud of his young pupil’s achievement.
On a lifestyle note, Mr. Galarno was renowned for riding his bicycle through the byways of Manhattan. At first, it was a necessity imposed by the New York City transit strike of 1966. By the time the strike ended, however, it had transformed into a love affair with traveling by bicycle. He gave it up only early last December. “There are people who ride their bikes,” neighbor Dru Dempsey recalled. “Bill commandeered his.”
Mr. Galarno loved to entertain friends and colleagues in his West 44th Street apartment. In recent years, he and his soulmate, Jamie Baker, held many a lively soiree there.
Always eager to keep working and to try new endeavors, Mr. Galarno made his debut as a scripted podcast performer exactly one week before the end of his life, in a project for The Actors Fund senior group.
Though he never became a household name, Bill Galarno treasured his life in the theater. In 2018, he spoke with StageBuddy.com about his long theatrical past:
“I’ve always thought of myself as a migrant worker, following the artistic crops. I never became famous, yet it is hard for me to imagine a more satisfying career.”