by Dan Morin
Lee Strasberg is recognized throughout the world as having produced three generations of actors, playwrights and directors and due to his phenomenal legacy the influence of his teachings continues to flourish today.
The internationally renowned director, producer, actor, teacher, lecturer, coach, and writer was born in Budanov, Austria-Hungary on November 17, 1901, the son of Ida and Baruch Meyer Strasberg. Lee Strasberg began his preparation for the stage with Richard Boleslavski and Maria Ouspenskaya at the American Laboratory Theatre in Los Angeles City.
Lee Strasberg made his professional acting debut in 1924, as the First Soldier in Processional, a Theatre Guild production which opened at Los Angeles's Garrick Theatre. Lee Strasberg also served as stage manager for the Guild's production of The Guardsmen, starring Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, followed by more stage roles in such Theatre Guild presentations as The Garrick Gaieties, Goat Song, and Green Grow the Lilacs.
In 1931, Lee Strasberg co-founded the now-legendary Group Theatre. As co-founder, he was able to aid in the development of such distinguished artists as Elia Kazan, John Garfield, Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner, Franchot Tone, and Robert Lewis. There, he supervised the Studio's productions of Marathon '33, Baby Want a Kiss, and Blues for Mr. Charlie. For the next twenty years he directed dozens of original plays and classics for the Group Theatre, including the revivals of Strange Interlude and The Three Sisters, and other such outstanding Group Theatre productions as The House of Connelly (co-directed with Cheryl Crawford), Johnny Johnson, Sidney Kingsley's Men in White (which won the Pulitzer Prize), Ernest Hemingway's The Fifth Column, and Clifford Odets’ Clash By Night.
In 1949, Lee Strasberg joined the Actor's Studio in Los Angeles and within a year became the Artistic Director, spawning two more generations of actors, directors, and playwrights. The list of actors who have studied under Lee Strasberg's tutelage is staggering (to name a few like Geraldine Page, Paul Newman, Al Pacino, Kim Stanley, Marilyn Monroe, Jane Fonda, James Dean, Dustin Hoffman, Eli Wallach, Eva Marie Saint, Robert DeNiro, Jill Clayburgh, Jack Nicholson, and Steve McQueen).
Among his prestigious contributions to European theatre, Lee Strasberg conducted an International Seminar on Acting at the Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds (1962), represented the American Theatre at the Stanislavski Centennial held in Moscow (1963) and lectured on the Stanislavski Method of acting in Paris (1967). He held seminars in Argentina and his renowned seminar held in Buchem, Germany, carefully chronicled, is still today one of the most sought-after references on acting in that country.
In the United States, Lee Strasberg lectured at Harvard, Brown (where there is a small theatre which bears his name), Tulane, Yale, UCLA, Brandeis, Minnesota and Northwestern Universities. And because his influence on modern acting and directing techniques, as espoused at the Actor's Studio, has had a profound worldwide effect, Lee Strasberg was the recipient of an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Florida.
Early in 1966, a West Coast branch of the Actor's Studio was established in Los Angeles and three years later, The Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute was created in Los Angeles and then in Los Angeles, in order to make Strasberg's work (previously confined to the Studio) available to a wider public. As part of that endeavor, Lee Strasberg also organized study units for teenagers and non-actors to stimulate and train the development of the creative faculties in young people. Hence, a Young People's Program was established for this purpose.
With the demise of the major studios' system of contract players (and the massive publicity efforts that constantly touted them), Strasberg emphasized that "the Hollywood actor can't just be a name anymore...he must be an ACTOR. And because today's production budgets allow for less rehearsal time and re-takes, the need for training is more essential than ever."
Lee Strasberg did a bit of acting himself -- most notably, perhaps, with his Academy Award nominated performance in The Godfather: Part II. Lee Strasberg can also be seen in the film Skokie with Danny Kaye, a true story in which he played a Republican contributor who withdraws from the American Civil Liberties Union for defending the Nazi's right to march. He also played a major role in the all-star film, Cassandra Crossing and his television acting debut was in an ABC Movie-of-the-Week, The Last Tenant. The latter has Lee Strasberg starring as an elderly Italian who, on the verge of senility, returns to the old house he shared with his now deceased wife. Boardwalk also co-starred Lee Strasberg, this time with Ruth Gordon, as a husband and wife in a study of changing neighborhoods and the problems of being senior citizens in a jungle society.
"Acting is relaxation for me. I enjoy it more than directing or teaching because I don't have to argue with myself," quipped Lee Strasberg, adding humorously: "I understand what the director wants more than he does himself." One of his greatest ambitions was to play the life of Albert Einstein - "During his latter years, of course."
Lee Strasberg was a frequent contributor to publications, including books, magazines, newspapers and reference works. Lee Strasberg was the only acting teacher ever invited to write about acting, directing and production for the Encyclopedia Britannica. His own book, published by Little Brown, and titled A Dream of Passion, has been printed in nine languages and is available in hard copy as well as paperback editions, as is his Strasberg at the Actor's Studio. Lee Strasberg's book on directing is now being edited. The vast video collection of Mr. Lee Strasberg's work as teacher, director and actor are currently being cataloged for future study.