Theater's Top Twofer Is Tom and Theoni Aldredge: He Emotes, She Keeps Broadway in Stitches

updated 06/29/1981 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/29/1981 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It was the theater that brought Theoni and Tom Aldredge together. Alas, it has also kept them apart. Their roles—she as Broadway's top costume designer, he as a leading man—have brought them two Obies, two Tonys, an Emmy and an Oscar. But the more successful they are, the less they see of each other. "She works so hard in the daytime and I in the evening, we pass like ships in the night," laments Tom. Adds Theoni: " 'See you later' is our most frequent phrase."

As Elizabeth Taylor's mortally ill husband in The Little Foxes, Tom, 53, is onstage six nights a week, besides two matinees. And when Tom is off, Theoni is on. Clients of her Manhattan studio have included such current sellouts as Annie, A Chorus Line, Barnum, 42nd Street and Woman of the Year. Though both Aldredges were nominated for Tonys this season—Tom as best supporting actor in Foxes, Theoni for her 42nd Street costumes—only he was present at the June 7 awards (neither won). Theoni was busy working on the movie version of Annie.

Usually Theoni, who is in her late 40s, leaves the Aldredges' Lower East Side apartment in time to arrive at the warehouse-size workshop run by her collaborator, Barbara Matera, by 8 a.m. On a typical day the appointments blackboard lists sessions at 11 a.m. with C. Burnett ("a beautiful woman," says Theoni), 1 p.m. with M. Farrow ("She looks 18"), 2 p.m. with B. Peters ("a Victorian doll"). "Theoni is pliable with stars," notes Matera. "She doesn't demand what she wants. Things are made for them, not for her own ego."

Between fittings Aldredge tosses ideas and fabric swatches around with her staff of four and deals with directors and producers. Her office is as filled with silks, satins, bugle beads and sequins as her mind is with conceptions and colors. By the time she heads home—at about 8 p.m.—her husband is already making up at the Martin Beck Theatre 26 blocks uptown.

After whiling away the first act offstage reading a favorite author, Henry Miller, and nibbling Mallomars cookies, Tom goes on in Act II. There Taylor, who is anxious to get his wealth, hurries along his death from heart trouble by withholding his medicine.

After the curtain falls, Tom signs autographs, scissors through the stage-door crowd and drives an hour and a half north to the Aldredges' 1790 farmhouse in Dutchess County, N.Y. He feeds their pets—mutts Boots and Lizzie and cat Annie—then retires. Tom stays in Manhattan on nights before matinees and the two try to weekend together at their farm.

They met in 1949 at Chicago's Goodman School of Drama. He was the Ohio-born son of an Air Force colonel and a French mother, and was majoring in directing. She, the darkly pretty daughter of a prominent Greek family, was studying costume design. Theoni remembers herself as "this tall, weird foreigner who loved dime stores." To Tom she was "this Greek princess who everybody had dreams about." Yet only after their third year in school did he ask for a date.

Theoni was put off by his reserve. Says she: "I don't always trust the quiet type. I like temperament. If you're angry, throw something." Eventually she herself was thrown. After his 1953 graduation, Tom remembers, "I mentioned it would be nice if she would marry me, and by way of conversation she said, 'Okay.' "

Tom proposed because "she was a beauty—and brutally honest." Theoni accepted because "he was an extremely talented actor and a decent man." Also, "He had humor, and I knew my father would like him."

Her father, Athanasios Vachlioti, was a surgeon and a member of the Greek Parliament. She was born in war-battered Salonika, and her mother died when Theoni was 2. As a teenager, she went to the American School in Athens and abandoned early hopes of becoming a concert pianist. "I never had a childhood," she says. During the war "You would wake up with air raids and next day half your house would be elsewhere. We were interested in surviving."

She longed to visit the U.S., "a country that wasn't touched by war," and finally did so at 17. By the time she arrived in Chicago—it had a flourishing Greek population—she had seen Caesar and Cleopatra. Claude Rains and the other stars "all looked so beautiful," she recalls, "I never wanted to be anything else but a costume designer."

Tom first hoped to be an aeronautical engineer. But after high school and postwar Army service in the Philippines and Korea, he studied law at the University of Dayton. Then his interests changed again. On a 1948 visit to Manhattan he saw a theater marquee touting A Streetcar Named Desire. "I'd never seen a play," he recalls. "There were two guys who looked like stagehands and I asked them if I could watch a rehearsal." They turned out to be Karl Maiden and Marlon Brando. After seeing the play, Tom remembers, "I knew I had to study theater." The next year he transferred to Goodman.

After their 1953 wedding Tom became producer-director at WTTW, Chicago's public TV station, and Theoni taught at Goodman. In 1957 they moved to Manhattan. "Within a year," Tom says, "we were broke." So Theoni designed costumes for an off-Broadway production of Heloise for a flat fee of $150. Tom went to St. Louis to make $65 a week acting in Waiting for Godot. In 1959 they had Broadway debuts: Theoni with Sweet Bird of Youth, Tom in The Nervous Set.

Then Tom auditioned for an enterprising young producer named Joe Papp. After he landed a role in Henry V, he introduced Papp to his wife. Theoni has since costumed more than 80 Papp productions.

Tom's credits now include the Emmy-winning lead in 1977's Henry Winkler Meets William Shakespeare on TV and the leads in Broadway's Sticks and Bones (1972) and On Golden Pond (1979). Says he: "I like the work, but the business itself is tacky. Acting is like playing 'let's pretend,' and if you're pretty good it's gratifying." Theoni's career has broadened to opera, films (she won a 1974 Academy Award for The Great Gatsby) and ballet. "We are not competing," she says. "At times Tom may have wished he could work as much as I do, believing the strain on me would be less, but that's an actor's life. It might have been different had I been an actress."

In spite of their dizzying schedules, the Aldredges occasionally find time to fly to Greece to sail the Aegean. One Christmas Tom gave Theoni a 1927 Fischer piano. Her present: a complete Armani wardrobe, which he dutifully wears. "My wife thinks I have terrible taste," notes Tom, a Levi's fan. Theoni, whose style is energetic and eclectic—she often wears sneakers, sweat shirts and Byzantine jewelry—is as volatile as Tom is taciturn. "She's a fighter," he says. "I wish I could scream, but I go off and sulk."

"It's hard living with anyone," Theoni goes on, "but you try. If you walk out, how do you know there will be something better? It's infantile behavior." Both believe in happy endings. "I have a dream that one day we'll go to Greece for good," Tom muses. "I imagine having a wonderful garden of olive trees on an island," adds Theoni. "I want to tend to this other life before it's too late." But, this week at least, Tom will be in New York with Foxes and Theoni is due on the Annie set in L.A.

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