Stars Everywhere!

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Marilyn Monroe and Lee Strasberg at a cafe in NYC.

Monday, October 14, 2019. It was the weekend of the Hunter’s Moon, the first full moon after the Harvest Moon on September 13th. It is said that the light of this full moon better illuminates the hunters’ prey. Ironically this full moon is smallest (farthest away) in its present orbital position.

Stars Everywhere! I’d just sat down at my desk to write today’s Diary about Lee Strasberg and the 50th Anniversary of the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute, when I received this photo in the email from Marc Rosen of Jane Powell, Arlene Dahl and Debbie Reynolds, with the following message: 1974 at Arlene’s apartment in the River House. She had a cocktail party to celebrate Debbie’s leaving “Irene” the Broadway musical revival, and Jane replacing her.

What is significant to movie fans is all three women were MGM stars in its heyday of the 1940s, ‘50s and early ‘60s. At this moment Debbie and Jane were 45 and 42 respectively, born on the same day – April, 1st. And Arlene was 49, a Leo, born on April 11th.  Debbie, as we know, has departed although Jane and Arlene are still very much with us and, being old friends, continue to see each other frequently.

Back to the (Show)Business. You may have noticed the advertisement announcing the 50th Anniversary Celebration of the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute. It will be held Monday, November 4th at the Rosenthal Pavilion of NYU, at 60 Washington Square South. Click here to purchase tickets.

Strasberg students Dustin Hoffman, Mike Nichols, and Renee Taylor speak at the Institute.

This year they are celebrating its 50th anniversary of inspiring talented actors, directors, playwrights, screenwriters and filmmakers from across the United States and over 157 countries.  Titled “The Next 50 Years” of the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute, Alec Baldwin and Marlo Thomas are honorary co-chairs, honoring Geoffrey Horne and featuring Ellen Burstyn, Renee Taylor, Strasberg Alumni and friends.

Geoffrey Horne and Jane Fonda in Actors Studio Theatre production of Strange Interlude.

Lee Strasberg. The name itself evokes many memories of the man and his time. Today it is a well known name because of the Institute, and his distinguished career.  But for those of us who lived in the second half of the 20th Century, Lee Strasberg was what today would be regarded as People Magazine-famous as his students — as an acting teacher of the famous Stanislavsky method — popularly known as “method acting.”

Lee Strasberg teaching at The Actors Studio (James Dean front row).
Lee Strasberg conducting a seminar in Bochum, Germany.

His was a distinguished presence in American theatrical circles beginning in the 1931. As the country was falling into a deep Depression, Strasberg and Harold Thurman and Cheryl Crawford founded the now legendary Group Theatre. Their objective was to give actors the opportunity to train in the art of acting. It was a true theatre collective, staging works of contemporary American playwrights of that era. In short time it became known for its groundbreaking Broadway productions, many of which were directed by Strasberg.  The Group Theatre produced writers, directors and actors who greatly influenced theatre and film for the last half of the 20th century.

Cheryl Crawford, Lee Strasberg and Harold Clurman (founders of the Group Theatre).

Fame and the famous as well. In 1950, he was named the lifetime Artistic Director of The Actors Studio, a position he held until his death in 1982. His students, who were almost religious in their respect for the man and his work included — to name only a few — Anne Bancroft, Dustin Hoffman, Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Jane Fonda, Julie Harris, Paul Newman, Ellen Burstyn, Al Pacino, Geraldine Page, Eli Wallach; and directors Frank Perry and Elia Kazan.

Lee Strasberg with Shelley Winters and Paul Newman at the Actors Studio.
Lee with Faye Dunaway and Arthur Penn after a production at The Actors Studio.
Ruth Gordon and Lee in a scene from Boardwalk.
Francis Ford Coppola with Lee on set of Godfather II.
George Burns, Art Carney and Lee in a scene from Going In Style.
Lee with Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino at Lee’s 75th Birthday.
Student Ellen Burstyn at Lee’s 75th Birthday.
Lee with Al Pacino and Anna Strasberg at his 75th Birthday.
Sally Field with her teacher Lee Strasberg.

Marilyn Monroe and Lee Strasberg at an Actors Studio Benefit.

His reputation proceeded him in the theatre and film world. But then, sometime in the mid- to late-‘50s, Marilyn Monroe was introduced to the director by his daughter — Marilyn’s friend, the actress Susan Strasberg.  Attending the Actor’s Studio was a personal statement, a badge of distinction of any actor. 

Monroe, then at her zenith as the classic blonde film comedienne, wanted to be taken seriously and to expand her talent. She fascinated the public with her aspiration to higher distinction as an actress, and much was written about it in all the top magazines of the day. The world’s most famous film sexpot was now — as the press would refer to her — a devoted student of the very serious Lee Strasberg and also a welcome friend of his family.

Aside from his fame, in real life, he was an actor, director, master teacher and author, and known throughout the world as the “Father of Method Acting.”  Lee Strasberg revolutionized modern acting technique in the theater and film and taught several generations of prominent actors, directors and playwrights.

In 1951 he became director of the nonprofit Actor’s Studio  in New York City, considered “the nation’s most prestigious acting school.” Fifteen years later, in 1966 he was involved in the creation of Actors Studio West in Los Angeles.

Lee Strasberg teaching at the Actors Studio (Marilyn Monroe in the background).

His family was part of the great European emigration to this country around the turn of the 19th to the 20th century. He had been born in 1901 in Budaniv, Poland, in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and now in the Ukraine. His family immigrated when he was 8 years old. 

Growing up on the Lower East Side — then a kind of ghetto of recently emigrated Europeans —  he educated himself in great literature and the arts by reading books from the public libraries. He also discovered his love of the theater by acting in plays at the Chrystie Street Settlement, as well as being inspired by the great actors who came to New York to perform, especially Eleonora Duse and The Moscow Art Theatre, which introduced him to the innovative work of the actor and director, Konstantin Stanislavsky.

Lee Strasberg represents the United States at the Stanislavsky Centennial in Moscow, 1963.

Author Mel Gussow wrote, for more than 60 years, until his death in 1982, Lee Strasberg “revolutionized the art of acting by having a profound influence on performance in American theatre and film.” His student Elia Kazan, described him in his autobiography, “He carried with him the aura of a prophet, a magician, a witch doctor, a psychoanalyst and a feared father of a Jewish home….[He] was the force that held the thirty-odd members of the theatre together, and made them permanent.”

In 1970, after twenty years as director of the Actors Studio, he was ready to expand his horizon. He had become less involved with the Actors Studio, and with his third wife Anna, The Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute was founded in 1969 at 115 East 15th Street in the Union Square neighborhood of Manhattan. They also launched a branch in Hollywood. Its objective was to continue teaching the “system” of Konstantin Stanislavsky  which he had interpreted and developed, particularly in light of the ideas of Yevgeny Vakhangov for contemporary actors.

Anna Strasberg and Lee Strasberg in session at the Actors Studio.
Anna and Lee Strasberg with Federico Fellini.

The Institute’s primary goal was “to reach a larger audience of eager and emerging talent” than was being served by the Actors Studio’s notoriously selective admission process, as well as its teachers of the method deploying their own personal interpretations of the discipline. 

The Institute is the only acting school that teaches Lee Strasberg Method Acting™ in its authentic form, with a second campus in West Hollywood, Los Angeles.  The Institute has been a partner acting studio with New York University since 1974.  Strasberg alumni figure prominently on the stages and film, television and digital screens, as well as behind the scenes, around the world.

Lee Strasberg receives his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (with Anna Strasberg, Susan Strasberg and Shelley Winters).

Lee Strasberg believed in giving back to the New York City community that nurtured his talent.  For over 42 years, The Lee Strasberg Creative Center® has awarded scholarships to young people to offer them the opportunity to pursue their dreams in the performing arts. Among these is an annual scholarship program for residents of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA).    

As time moves on and history re-defines us, Lee Strasberg is probably best known by the movie-going public as an actor, especially for his memorable supporting role as gangster Hyman Roth  alongside his former student Pacino in The Godfather Part II (1974) — a role he took at Pacino’s suggestion after Kazan turned down the role, and which earned him a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. He also appeared in ...And Justice for All (1979).

Lee Strasberg with Francis Ford Coppola and Al Pacino on set of Godfather II.

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