Colorful and Busy: Sal Mistretta '66/'67

On stage, on screen, on Broadway (and off), Sal Mistretta ’66/’67 loves every minute of his work.   by George Sapio

In his 43 years as a professional actor, Sal Mistretta has worked both on and off-Broadway, toured all over the United States, and made appearances on long-running TV series. He has been directed by Chris Columbus, Spike Lee, Trevor Nunn, and Hal Prince and acted alongside Lauren Bacall, Yul Brynner, Glenn Close, Madeline Kahn, Kevin Kline, Patti Lupone, and Mandy Patinkin.

Whew! Yet unlike many of his fellow thespians, Mistretta wasn’t bitten by the theater bug early. As a member of the chorus at Hicksville High School on Long Island, he was required to take a public speaking class with instructor Kay Fletcher ’52. “I had no aspirations to act,” Mistretta insists, but Fletcher, “a very tenacious teacher,” urged him to take the place of an injured actor in the school’s variety show. He liked the experience, and after that was cast as Cabel in Hicksville’s production of South Pacific.

Fletcher urged him to follow in her footsteps to theater education at Ithaca. Mistretta went up for a visit, and that was that: “I fell in love with the place the minute I saw it,” he recalls. Soon after he started taking classes, he fell in love with theater as well.

 “It was my first real training,” says the colorful Mistretta. “All of the teachers were bloody interesting.” He especially remembers dance teacher Vergiu Cornea, a very disciplined teacher who stressed the physical aspects of acting. Once, when Mistretta didn’t think he was able to complete a difficult exercise, Vergiu admonished, “There is no such word as ‘can’t.’ ”

Mistretta took that lesson to heart. With a B.F.A. in theater (’66) and a B.S in television-radio (’67), he began a long line of TV and stage roles. On the small screen he’s been seen on Law and Order: CI, One Life to Live, Third Watch, and a New York Knicks commercial directed by Spike Lee. His Broadway adventures include (among many) Cabaret, Evita, On the Twentieth Century, and Sunset Boulevard, and he has toured in Cats, The King and I, and Sweeney Todd with Angela Lansbury. Of the four-time Tony Award–winning Lansbury, he says, “We got along immediately. We’ve been pals ever since. Angie’s the best.”

His efforts earned him not only superb reviews but several prestigious awards, including a coveted Helen Hayes Award twice — once in 1985 for outstanding supporting performer in a touring production (Cats) and again in 1999 for best supporting actor in The Fix. In November Mistretta was leaving for the Baltimore Centerstage to rehearse for Tony Kushner’s musical collaboration with Jeanine Tesori, Caroline, or Change; he was playing Mr. Stopnick in the show, which ran through January 11.

Mistretta remembers where he learned and is eager to pass on the benefits of his experience. He’s given his lecture/master class all around the United States and coaches acting in New York City. If he’s not touring, he attends the IC theater department’s annual Field Studies Program for graduating theater majors in New York.

His advice to up-and-coming generations of actors is simple. “Keep working,” he urges. “If you can’t get an acting job, then work at something else in the theater: tech, building, front-of-house, anything. Be around the community as much as you can. Always challenge yourself to learn new things. And go to every show you can afford to!”