A GoPride Interview

Ronnie Marmo

Ronnie Marmo brings a sobering story of Bill W. to life

Sun. February 18, 2024  by Jerry Nunn

I was like a priest working with the Pope!
Ronnie Marmo

ronnie marmo

photo credit // doren sorell

Ronnie Marmo returns to the Chicago stage in March

Performer Ronnie Marmo is returning to the Chicago stage with a new production plus a blast from his past this March. This talented actor, writer and director has been featured in over 60 films and television shows, including 150 episodes on General Hospital.

He is the artistic director for Theatre 68 in California and New York where he cultivates artists honing their individual crafts.

Marmo has spent a great deal of time in the Windy City with his one-man show I’m Not a Comedian… I’m Lenny Bruce while depicting the stand-up comedian in all his glory.

Marmo is returning to play Bruce once again and unpacking a new project at the same time.  With Bill W. and Dr. Bob, he portrays William Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, in his journey of sobriety.

He opened up about his personal struggles and talked about the upcoming gig over coffee before opening night.

JN: (Jerry Nunn) Start off with your background first.

RM: (Ronnie Marmo) I was born in Brooklyn and grew up in New Jersey. I have been in Los Angeles for 25 years now, holy moly! I am bicoastal because I am in New York often. I run a theater group in LA and New York.

JN: You are here in sometimes too.

RM: I consider Chicago my second home actually.

JN: Did you always want to be in theater?

RM: No, I started in a very non-traditional way. I auditioned for a play when I was 24 years old. I had no idea what I was doing, but I fell in love with it quickly. I studied a little bit, but I considered my directors to be my teachers. I don’t subscribe to one method of acting. I take a little bit from everything and make it work for myself.

JN: That seems smart to me.

RM: It feels more authentic. No one wants to watch someone act and I am always trying to do the opposite.

JN: I saw your one-man Lenny Bruce performance last time you were in town. You are doing two shows this time?

RM: Yes. Originally it was just going to be Bill W. and Dr. Bob where I would play Bill Wilson. Someone suggested that I do both shows and that is the draw that people can see both shows. I thought it would be a cool opportunity to say I did it, so on Thursdays and Fridays I am Lenny and on Saturdays and Sundays I am Bill.

JN: That will keep it fresh.

RM: Hopefully I am not saying Lenny’s lines when I am Bill and vice versa.

JN: How did Bill W. and Dr. Bob come to be?

RM: It’s 1935 and the two guys came together to start Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s an inspirational story and I am sober. I have always been attracted to the show and I have put it on five times in Los Angeles.

Folks love the show, but the obvious audience is the 12 Steppers. They have another level of appreciation for what we are doing. It is easy to get out there and perform because I know they appreciate it.

JN: It must feel personal to them.

RM: Yes and we decided to take it out on the road to reach more people. Starting in Chicago is perfect because they are the most savvy theatergoers yet they root for you.

In LA they are just happy to have theater, New York makes a show to prove itself and Chicago knows what it wants. There’s an energy here where I have felt supported in the past.

I didn’t want it to be just one night but for a while.

JN: Bill W. and Dr. Bob is not a one-man show like Lenny Bruce is?

RM: No, there are six actors. I cast local with all five other cast members. I knew it was important when an out-of-town show comes in to involve the Chicago community.

There are local understudies for every role and I guaranteed them to perform at least once to make it worth their time.

JN: This week I celebrate nine years of not drinking this week.

RM: Did you go to meetings?

JN: I went to a couple of them but it wasn’t for me. I didn’t like telling stories in front of everyone.

RM: I love the program because I can easily isolate. Yes, some of the stories can get long, but overall the spirit of it is good. Once something is said out loud it cuts it in half and people won’t feel they are alone.

There is so much more to it if people work with the program and get away from the drama of it. It is more about the steps and the sponsor. It’s basically free therapy. The 12 steps are a guide to life for every human. Anybody can benefit from being a little kinder and taking care of yourself.

JN: Didn’t you begin meetings when you were young?

RM: I was a teenager and 17 years old. I have been sober for 33 years.

JN: What made you stop drinking?

RM: I was a maniac and I was out of control. I had no supervision and was running in the streets. It was wild.

I am grateful because I didn’t squander half of my life like many people I have met in the program.

JN: I had to stop on my own because I would never have listened to others and I thought they were boring if they didn’t drink.

RM: That is why it is a unique disease because it is self-diagnosed. It’s not like cancer. I could tell you have alcoholism in you and you could say that you don’t.

I have seen people at 80 years old trying to get sober and others at age 23 where they emotionally drink and want to stop. Those are two very different things.

JN: How do you make this heavy subject entertaining in a production?

RM: It’s about two guys coming together so it is funny and inspirational with drama and art. We touch on them being drunk and then have a random chance of meeting each other.

Bill was manic and over the top and Bob was a proctologist from Akron, Ohio. They are the most unlikely pair who met and their lives were changed forever. They also changed the world.

JN: I want to see how this plays out.

RM: People will see all the near misses and the miracle of it all. If Bill had been drunk on that day instead of calling 10 people in the church directory things would have been different. The 10th woman that he called connected him with Bob. It was divinely meant to be.

JN: What happened to the two of them?

RM: Bill died in 1971 and Dr. Bob died before that in 1950. Audiences also see Bill’s wife Lois W. who started Al-Anon.

JN: Are there any LGBQT+ characters in the show?

RM: No. The focus is on the two men who are straight.

JN: Are you ready for the double duty of directing and starring in this piece?

RM: It will be tough and on other shows like Lenny Bruce I brought in Joe Mantegna to give me notes. Normally I am not a big believer in an actor directing themselves, but I know this show so well that I feel I can do it. I know where the laughs will be and I just tell the actors to figure it out. My plays are snappy!

JN: I rarely like a long show.

RM: I saw the same script of Bill W. and Dr. Bob performed somewhere else where it ran two hours and 45 minutes. My production runs two hours with an intermission.

JN: How was it working with Joe Mantegna?

RM: I was like a priest working with the Pope! He’s kind, gentle, smart and so talented. It was a thrill to be in a dark theater six hours a day for six months with him.

The gift was I knew I had to bring my very best every day. There was no taking a day off. I didn’t want to waste his time. He loved the show.

Some directors will see the show only on opening night or a few times. I have done 438 performances of I’m Not a Comedian… I’m Lenny Bruce. Joe has seen about a hundred of them!

JN: Did you film Lenny Bruce yet?

RM: I filmed it with a four-camera shoot and just completed it. Now we are going to shop it around.

JN: What did you think of Lenny Bruce in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel?

RM: The show opened up an entire generation to Lenny Bruce so I looked at it with gratitude. We sold a lot of tickets to younger people when I expected an older crowd.

You saw my show and it was much more edgy and controversial. People have said that they heard about Lenny on Mrs. Maisel, but learned more about him with my show. I appreciate that and don’t compare the two together because they are completely different.

JN: Is there a real-life person that you would still like to play but haven’t?

RM: I have played my heroes Lenny, Bill W. and Jesus. Joe Pepitone, who was a New York Yankee and such a colorful character. I bought his book and really liked it.

I had a chance to play Frank Sinatra once and that fell through in Canada. I would still like that to happen.

JN: I could see you playing Al Pacino.

RM: I get that a lot! I have met him a few times and he’s a very quirky guy. He’s eccentric and nice.

JN: Talk about Hellcab.

RM: It ran here for about nine years. It’s from a guy named Will Kern who was a cab driver in Chicago. I was looking for a Christmas show and it was on the shelf. I liked it because it could be done with just a few actors or all the way up to 32 different performers. It’s great for a company.

I directed it in New York and LA at the same time. It could be another show I do around Christmastime with as many actors as possible. It’s fun!

JN: You could make an Uber version.

RM: I could call it HellUber!

JN: What are your plans after this run at the Biography?

RM: I have a couple of cities already booked and I am still negotiating with others, including London’s West End for Lenny Bruce. That would be a bucket list moment for me.

I am nurturing my theater groups on both coasts and would love to have a Chicago chapter eventually!


Bill W. and Dr. Bob premieres on March 7 and I’m Not a Comedian… I’m Lenny Bruce returns to the Windy City on March 15 at the Biography Theater, 2433 North Lincoln Avenue. For tickets visit billwanddrbobonstage.com and lennybruceonstage.com.


Interviewed by Jerry Nunn. Jerry Nunn is a contributing writer to the GoPride Network. His work is also featured in Windy City Times, Nightspots Magazine and syndicated nationally.