Towering above his students, the big man—Richard Boone is 6’1″, 220 lbs.—strides from a rehearsal at the Neighborhood Playhouse, New York’s famed theater school. He takes a seat in an upstairs room, a cup of something dark in his hand. At age 57, Boone’s face is a florid eruption marked by a college boxing career, a couple of automobile accidents and perhaps the rich living possible for a TV star like Paladin. His belly is comfortably encased in a blue French jumpsuit. His voice is a modulated growl. “I came to the Playhouse in 1946, two weeks out of the Navy. I didn’t know what a Martha Graham was, but I opened the door to one of her dance classes and saw 40 broads flat on their backs. I knew this place was for me.”
Indeed Boone stayed and learned. He went on to Broadway, movies like The Alamo and a string of TV series—Medic, Have Gun, Will Travel, The Richard Boone Show and Hec Ramsey. Now Boone has returned to his origins as an actor. Since last September he has shared the directorship of the Playhouse acting department with his first drama teacher and esteemed mentor, Sanford Meisner.
Boone began teaching in 1954 on the set of Medic—”those people who got through the door and then didn’t know what to do”—and has been at it ever since. In order to break the monotony of the long-running Have Gun, Will Travel, he taught acting to stunt men and stand-ins. When The Richard Boone Show died a low-ratings death, Boone thought he’d enjoy beachcombing in Hawaii. But idleness didn’t suit his restive spirit, and he found a federal youth opportunity program in the islands that could use his skills. “The kids in that village were tough to hook,” Boone says. “But I had a guitar and my Have Gun revolver. That got ’em.”
After returning to the mainland Boone taught acting at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Fla. But when Meisner summoned, Boone headed north.
The Neighborhood Playhouse teaches acting on a professional level, accepting 75 students for first-year classes and reducing that number to some 25 the second year. “We are looking for people willing to take the pounding that’s required to change a civilian into a beginning actor in two years,” Boone says.
Boone spends two hours a day with his classes—practicing scenes that are calculated to free the emotions. Then he paces through the school for another four hours, trying to read each student. “I go to the dance and speech classes so I can see what their true attitudes are. In the middle of a scene once this kid took off his shoes. It didn’t make sense. Something in a line made him react, but he had the wrong reaction. And I had to help him find the right one. If it had happened in the Broadway theater, I’d have said, ‘Jesus Christ, will you leave your goddamn feet alone!’ ” Boone chuckles. “Anytime you get a glib explanation of the acting process, you’re talking with a charlatan or a damn fool. I’ve got 25 funny instruments to play all at the same time.”
In Boone’s recent production of Lope de Vega’s Dog in the Manger, each of his 25 “instruments” played a different part at every performance. Is there a term for such a complex and ambitious experiment in theater? The craggy face curls into a smile. “Insanity, I guess!”