Don Cilluffo: “I love making magic on a stage.”

Don Cilluffo found his calling in his native Michigan.

“It wasn’t business or accounting, which is what I was supposed to be good at,” he says. “It was when I did an interpretive reading from The Godfather and got an ‘A’. When you do something really well, you just know. It was so rewarding—that feeling of gratification out of communicating a character, the passion of that character. I knew I wanted to share my talent.”

The actor and director comes from St. Clair Shores, near Detroit. He has been in the Coachella Valley for the past eight years.

“It was the weather,” he says. “I was tired of shoveling snow and wanted to get to a warmer place.” Cilluffo and his long-time partner, Tom Hipp, live in Palm Desert.

Born into an Italian-Catholic family as the middle child—with an older brother and younger sister—Cilluffo calls himself “a late bloomer.”

“I was supposed to be the intellectual; I got all A grades,” he says. “My brother was supposed to be the artsy one; he got the dance and accordion lessons. But growing up, we were all exposed to theater, dance and music.”

Cilluffo grew up with his grandparents just around the block.

“That saved me,” he says. “They always just loved me and showed me lots of attention. When I was about 8 to 10 years old, I was selling vegetables from their garden.”

After three years at Wayne State University, Cilluffo dropped out. “I had started working in a flower shop when I was 15. I was making good money in the floral industry. I was a pretty good businessman, and I was creative and inventive.”

Cilluffo came out as gay in his mid-20s. “It was considered a mortal sin, you know. My mom was crushed, but she got over it. I think my father knew before I did. He used to say, ‘I worried about you son, but you turned out OK.’”

So what took Cilluffo into acting and theater?

“When I was in elementary school, my mom said I was a born actor. I believed her. I was doing flower-arrangement classes for a local youth theater, and they told me I just had to try out for Jesus Christ Superstar. I had never had any training, but they told me they just knew I could do it.

“I lucked out, and then learned everything I needed to know from the elders at the Grosse Pointe Theatre just outside Detroit—set design, acting, directing, even studying improv and comedy with a teacher from Second City in Chicago. I loved it all.

“I ended up being with the theater for 40 years, and won awards for acting, set design and directing. I also began doing commercials and got a (Screen Actors Guild) card. But I followed my mom’s advice and didn’t want to ever depend on it for a living. I stayed in the flower-shop business for 30 years.”

Cilluffo has worked locally with Desert Theatreworks, Dezart Performs and Script2Stage2Screen, among other companies.

“I usually do comedies, and I’ve won some local awards, but I was really proud to be honored for playing a serious bad guy in To Kill a Mockingbird,” he said. Cilluffo’s next project is The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife with Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, coming in April.

When I asked about his most memorable moment in theater, Cilluffo’s eyes lit up. “One of the most beautiful sets I ever built was a cottage by a lake. We had artificial tree trunks, a dock with a sand beach, vines, lots of fall leaves we had collected, and a false perspective. I love making magic on a stage.”

As a director, Cilluffo’s philosophy is to help actors see a character through the character’s eyes—and then see that character through their own eyes. I’ve worked with Cilluffo on a couple of presentations, and he spends a lot of time explaining the character’s motivation.

“It’s easy to see a vision, but much harder to communicate it and make it true,” he said. “… It was 15 years before I began to direct, after workshops and classes. You have to be able to communicate and make it true for the audience. When I work with actors, if they put out their best, I can’t ask for more. If you get 95 percent of your vision, that’s a big success!”

If money weren’t an issue, what would Cilluffo do? “I’d love to produce a movie and be the star—but not direct it. It’s too hard to direct yourself. As an actor, I may feel the emotion, but I can’t know if I’m giving out what’s needed for the viewer to feel it.”

Don Cilluffo was fortunate to be affiliated with a strong, influential regional theater for so many years. His advice for locals aspiring to follow a similar path? “Find people who see your potential and are willing to work with you … then listen and learn from them.”

Is retirement in Cilluffo’s future? “I don’t know what retirement really means, except it’s a time when you can do everything you want to do. I can’t see myself retiring. I’d be bored. In fact, I’ve recently taken up rediscovering the Italian foods my grandmother made.” His homemade olives are incredible!

“And I‘d like to go to Sicily. I love the idea of being able to see my face in somebody else—and there, I’d get to see it in everybody!”

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays at noon on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Anita Rufus is an award-winning columnist and talk radio host, known as “The Lovable Liberal.” She has a law degree, a master’s in education, and was a business executive before committing herself...