Ellen Burstyn, winner of both a Tony and an Oscar in 1975, is performing live before 210 couples who paid $300 to attend a 75th-birthday party for Lee Strasberg, the legendary acting coach.
Reminiscing about one of her first classes with him, she says, “I cried for two weeks—not because he was unkind. I understood what he was asking of me, and I wasn’t sure I could do it…”
Her tribute is cheered by the star-studded audience—Al Pacino, Martha Keller, Robert De Niro—names that float above the titles on marquees all over the world.
In California a group of Strasberg disciples who couldn’t make the party shot a 15-minute film for the occasion featuring Carroll O’Connor, Shelley Winters and others. Paul Newman, sunglasses hanging from one ear and a beer can in his hand, appears on the screen with Rod Steiger. Newman deadpans, “We both decided after 17 beers, Lee, that you can take either the credit or the blame for what we have become.”
The crowd laughs and Strasberg admits, “Even I somehow am having a good time.” The party, a benefit for Actors Studio, brings in $30,000. For 28 years, Lee Strasberg has been artistic director of Actors Studio, the high temple of the Method. That still controversial, still evolving, controlled effort to portray emotions onstage or in front of a camera began in the late 19th century with a Russian actor named Konstantin Stanislavsky. As Strasberg explains the Method, “It is a summation of what actors have always done unconsciously whenever they acted well.” Strasberg has helped four generations of American performers act well—from John Garfield to Dustin Hoffman.
The Strasberg presence is enough to humble the brightest superstar. Marilyn Monroe studied privately with him for seven years and came to love him like a father. “Marilyn, darling,” Strasberg once said to the chronically tardy star, “if you can’t be on time, be early.” She was—for him.
When Al Pacino won a British best acting award last year, he gave it to Strasberg. Pacino also lobbied for and got the old director a plum acting role—his first in the movies—as a gang leader in The Godfather, Part II. For his performance, Strasberg was nominated for an Oscar.
Ava Gardner and Faye Dunaway, though they have never studied with Strasberg, nonetheless ask him for professional advice, and he is flattered. “Lee is star-struck,” says his friend Burgess Meredith. “He loves his great stars—Brando, Kim Hunter, Geraldine Page. He can be impersonal when he’s at work. But he is very much a fan.”
“Lee has reached a kind of sainthood,” says director Elia Kazan, who popularized the Method by directing Marlon Brando on the stage and in films like A Streetcar Named Desire. “Lee has improved with age,” Kazan adds. “Success hurts some people; it’s helped him.”
Strasberg’s students are doing their exercises. Some consciously relax in chairs, others sprawl on the floor. To an outsider, it is comparable to wandering onto the set of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Is that a budding Brando curled up like a tiger? Will that slim young woman swinging her arms like a chimp become a Kim Stanley?
The scene is at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute in New York, where would-be actors and actresses, from preteens to grandparents, pay $2,050 tuition for 36 weeks. There is another institute in Hollywood. Strasberg himself divides his year between the two. The training and regimen at the institutes are much the same as at the Actors Studio in Manhattan, where new members are almost never accepted unless they audition. Enrollment at the two institutes is about 1,400. The Actors Studio has 498 members—a select group of actors, directors and writers who altogether have won 30 Oscars, 28 Emmys and 26 Tonys.
Although Strasberg has mellowed in the last 10 years, he can still be an angry perfectionist in the classroom. “He scares the hell out of me,” says institute student Norman Macera. “But I don’t feel so bad because I found out he yelled at Al Pacino the same way at Actors Studio.” Is this true, Pacino is asked. “Yes,” the actor replies, somewhat grimly, “he certainly did.”
When Strasberg is not at the institute or studio, he writes or acts. He is collaborating on an autobiography and writing three other books on acting, directing and the history of the theater. He has just completed the role of a peddler in his second film, Cassandra Crossing, with Ava Gardner and Sophia Loren. It will be released next February.
Outside of acting, there is one other passion in Lee Strasberg’s life—his 39-year-old wife, Anna, an actress who is the daughter of a land developer in Venezuela. (Paula Strasberg, Lee’s wife and associate for 32 years, died in 1966 of a heart attack.)
“With Anna,” says Strasberg, “it was sort of love at first sight. Paula had died. I had a year or so when I was with different people. I needed to belong to someone.”
Strasberg now has a second family—two sons, Adam-Lee, 7, and David-Lee, 5—and a second chance at fathering. “With my first children,” he says, speaking of Susan, 38, and John, 35, “I was a little remiss. I did not in any way inject myself. I didn’t hold the children. I didn’t show any great fondness. They complained of that later.”
But growing older (and therapy) has helped Susan and John adjust to the rivalry for attention with the Strasbergs’ other dependents over the years—the hundreds of actors and actresses. Susan, who made her Broadway debut at 17 in The Diary of Anne Frank and is now making a film in California, recalls, “Marilyn Monroe once said to me, ‘If I could be anyone, I would want to be you.’ And I said, ‘Well Marilyn, I would like to look like you.’ And there we sat.”
John and his actress wife, Ellen, have joined the family business. They both teach at the Strasberg Institute in New York.
A shy man, Lee Strasberg reserves a warm, humorous part of himself only for those he feels at ease with. His gold-rimmed glasses, knit vests and bantam stature give him the look of an Old World professor. He is in fact a high school dropout, who speaks the convoluted grammar of a self-taught, immigrant scholar. “Maxwell Anderson once said,” Strasberg volunteers, “that he heard me speak for three hours in one sentence. And he was right.”
Strasberg was born in the Jewish quarter of Budzanov, Austria-Hungary. At 7 he came in steerage on board the S.S. Amerika to Ellis Island. His father worked as a presser in the garment district, and young Lee pushed racks. When the flu epidemic of 1918 struck, it killed one of his brothers and kept Lee out of school so long he never went back. With no training or skills, Strasberg did odd jobs, becoming a clerk at a company that bought and sold human hair. As a teenager he had acted at a Lower East Side settlement house, and by 1925 he landed a role in a play called Processional for the Theatre Guild. A year later he married Nora Krecaun, a vivacious actress from the settlement house. Only three years after they were married, Nora died of cancer. Strasberg’s compulsive involvement in the theater helped him through the ordeal. He moved on to the Group Theatre where he directed Sidney Kingsley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Men in White. (“Lee can be as close to actors as a psychoanalyst and as distant as a god,” says Kingsley.) In 1948, a year after the Actors Studio was formed, Strasberg was asked to join to replace one of its founders.
The Strasbergs’ 10-room apartment has a postcard view of Central Park’s autumn beauty. In the apartment is one of the most extensive private collections of theater memorabilia in the world—records, antiques, photographs, and artifacts like Marilyn Monroe’s white piano and sofa.
Strasberg plans to move some of the belongings Monroe left to him to a new three-room museum of theater history at the institute in New York. “Her furniture, her books, her artwork will give a sense of her taste,” he explains. “I think everyone will be quite surprised.”
On Sunday afternoons friends drop by the Strasbergs’ apartment. Occasionally Lee improvises a sukiyaki served with sparkling wine, the only liquor the Strasbergs drink. The salon has allowed Anna to meet his disciples—and to let them know her. “The first year we were married, I cried a lot,” Anna says. “I was prepared to marry a man but not an institution. People would just shove me out of the way to talk to him.”
While the room buzzes with conversation, Lee will sometimes slip away to wash David’s hair or read the boys a story.
On a recent Sunday Anna is teasing her husband about overbooking his Monday appointments. They wrangle good-naturedly until he demands, “You want to go in my place? What did I marry you for?”
Anna lunges playfully at Strasberg. He defends himself with a love pinch on her bottom and then throws his arms up in innocent surrender. “I didn’t know what I was doing,” he pleads.
Anna points at him like a hunter lining up her prey. “Strasberg,” she warns, “you owe me one.”
Later a contemplative Strasberg sits in his small TV room (where he often watches football and baseball). “The movies,” he says, “have siphoned off a good deal of the pure entertainment that previously only the theater supplied. If people could see Paul Newman, Marlon Brando and Al Pacino in good plays, then the theater would be what it should be today.
“The problem for the theater is to create an environment that will be stimulating to the best actors. Talented actors will not come back to the theater for money—the theater cannot possibly give them as much as they get in movies. The only thing the theater can give them is excitement and artistic satisfaction.
“We have more and greater theatrical talent than anywhere in the world,” says Strasberg. “What we need is to create a theater of national standing and international reputation. When there is a home, people find their way there.” Despite his 75 years, Lee Strasberg would like to help establish “the theater America deserves. The next 10 years will tell. After that I’m not responsible.”
He is asked about the greatest actors of all time. He lists Friedrich Ludwig Schröder, Edmund Kean, David Garrick…He will hang a gallery of 50 of them in the institute museum.
“Great actors do not come easily,” says Strasberg. “The only great actor I know of in America was Laurette Taylor.”
Paul and Al and Dustin and Ellen: Back to the Studio.