Lee Strasberg, Reality and Myth
Did I say last time that my affiliations launched my career? That was an understatement. I began to be known as “Lee’s girl” among Studio members, other coaches, and even Casting Directors. It was kind of strange as I never flaunted my affiliation. And Studio members then also had an unspoken code that you didn’t advertise your membership status either. Even though things had markedly changed from its ultra-elitism of a scant decade or two ago.
But people crossed the floor just to talk to me at gatherings and screenings. I said something arrogant like, “So when am I going to do a scene for you?” after introducing her at one of Lee’s Monday-evening talks and, the very next day, did just that for the top Casting Director in town. A short while later, I landed my first sitcom pilot because of that scene. Which also led to other roles.
I had carte blanche with classes too; I was Shelley Winters’ secretary the day she told me that I was “FANTASTICALLY talented” (my emphasis as I remembered the exact word she used; how could you not!) and “overtrained” (I heard that also; obviously I had been hiding behind Lee much too long) and “needed to go out and get a job”.
For those you who haunt every class way beyond the time you’re good enough to work, listen up! I think this is one of the biggest problems actors who are serious about perfecting their craft have. We stay in class, or go from class to class, without ever looking for work or an agent. Acting class, especially the myriad of opportunities presented by an Institute such as Strasberg’s, can be a dead end unless you don your business hat and venture out onto the unfamiliar and scary terrain of ShowBiz.
So, when a friend asked me to do his Actor’s Studio scene with him, I jumped at the chance. Of course, I was too chicken to actually sign up myself. But hoped it would narrow the gap between student and working actor. Maybe that’s why Walter drilled us unmercifully; I’ve never had such intense coaching before or since. Steve Railsback, in LA to play Charles Manson in the Helter Skelter miniseries, was actually living with Walter at the time to receive the same coaching I was getting gratis. I’ve always been very blessed! And have to continually remind myself even now that energy flows where attention goes.
Day of the audition, and I’m standing on the stage in that same little theatre I had been so in awe of such a short time ago. Out walks my partner, and I saw in an instant that he was totally freaked and up in his whole performance. I grabbed his arm and spent the entire scene getting him back on track. I growled, spit, trilled and pulled him back into line when he forgot the blocking. Fortunately, all those histrionics suited the character I was playing. Later, when I described the whole thing to Walter, all he could say was, “you did your job”.
I found out the next day that I had passed my first audition! My partner didn’t, but was invited to try again. And, remember, I hadn’t even signed up. Looking back on it now, I think Lee mumbled the news to me by the Institute mailboxes. I never had the courage to do my second, however. And I didn’t know then but this was the high watermark of my life with Lee.
Walter and I had an ultimate falling-out a bit later. Don’t know why. But I do know that my life had begun to unravel in many ways. So had Walter’s. He disastrously directed a play around that time and managed to alienate all his actors before slinking back to New York, never to return. We eventually lost track of him, and Corinne found out many years later that he had passed away. I was never able to thank him for everything he did for me. His picture is on my Facebook page; I feel that he’s directing me even now.
I went on to briefly step into Corinne’s job. We are still disagreeing forty years later about whether she quit or was let go. My own career was taking off a bit, and Joe Bernard, technically my boss at the time, said something like, “You shouldn’t be doing this. You’re an actress”, which I took to heart and left soon afterwards.
I worked for Lee on and off until his death. He never called me himself; it was always the one who had my previous job on the phone. So typically Lee. I helped move the Institute to its current home on Santa Monica Boulevard. Lee also tapped me from time to time to aid Mary Mercier at the Actor’s Studio. But the lure was already gone. And Studio sessions were attended by me less and less.
Years later, I ran into Kevin McCarthy at the home of a mutual friend. Some young actor was attempting to monopolize him with Studio stories. Kevin turned to him and asked, “Who runs the Studio?” I guess that was his way of weeding out real Studio people. As the guy was fumbling for an answer, I stole behind Kevin and whispered in his ear, “Mary Mercier, and how are you Kevin?” McCarthy, then in his upper eighties, turned around, took one look at me and I couldn’t believe what he then said! “Jill, where the hell have you been?” It was true rhapsody to my ears. We then retired to a corner and reminisced a bit. About a person and a place that, even though they were separated in our experiences by three decades or so, were magical to us both.
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What’s your experience or knowledge about Lee Strasberg and Method acting? Any thoughts about what I just wrote?