Getting Inside the Actors Studio
By Neal Weaver
In the course of my 60-odd years in and around theaters as an actor, director, stage manager, playwright, puppeteer, critic and editor, I’ve had opportunities to know, meet, or observe many amazing people and performances, and some of the memories seem to merit setting down, if not for posterity, then for anyone who might be interested.
When I arrived in New York City, fresh out of Northwestern University and a season of non-Equity summer stock, I was the greenest of greenhorns. I’d done lots of shows, at school and elsewhere, but never in a really professional context. I was star-struck, and simultaneously contemptuous of the commercial theater which had created those stars. I was insufferably high-minded, and gave short shrift to anything I thought was less than serious theater.
I soon learned that lacking an agent, an Equity Card, or important useful contacts made it nearly impossible to get into most auditions. But one door that was open was the auditions for membership in the famed Actors Studio. All you had to do was sign up. So I signed up. And I decided that for my 5-minute audition, I’d do a scene from Strindberg’s The Father, which I had played in a workshop production. I rounded up a scene partner and went to work on it. (My scene partner was a beautiful blond actress named Nancy Forsythe, who was as naïve as I was. She said, “I always thought the theater was people like Lawrence Olivier and Helen Hayes, but all I meet are sleazy old men!”)
We arrived at the Studio filled with trepidation, and were told to wait in the lounge/green room till we were called. Eventually the call came, and we were led upstairs to the main studio. There were three judges: director John Stix, actress and teacher Tamara Daykarhanova, formerly of the Moscow Art Theatre, and an actor named Fred Stewart. But they were barely perceptible to us in the darkened studio. Only the stage area was lit, creating an eerie and slightly ominous atmosphere. We did our turn, and left, neither pleased nor displeased with our work. I knew my chances were slim in any case.
A few days later I was surprised to receive a phone call from Fred Stewart. He said that although they didn’t think I was ready for the Studio, he’d like to meet with me and talk about my audition. I was immediately suspicious, fearing he might just be a dirty old man. But it seemed unwise to turn down his offer. We made an appointment to meet at the studio in early evening a few days later. And I began to research Fred. I discovered he had played Reverend Tooker in Elia Kazan’s production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Reverend Parrish in The Crucible, and other respectable productions.
(Later he would play Natalie Wood’s father in Splendor in the Grass.)
When I arrived at the Studio, no one was there except Fred and me. Suspicions alerted. But far from being predatory, he was a portly, distinguished Southern gentleman with white hair and mustache, and more like a mother-hen than a predator. He went to the utility closet in the office and extracted a pair of felt slippers embroidered with pansies, and the makings of a formal tea. He put on the slippers, settled me in the library and served me with tea and cookies. It was as if he were entertaining me in his own home, and indeed, it was his real home. Then he asked me if I was studying with anyone. I told him I was looking for a teacher, and had a tentative list of prospects. He said he was not allowed to recommend acting teachers, but he’d like to add one name to my list: Michael Howard. I took that as a recommendation, and immediately started classes with Michael, and never had cause to regret it. And I felt I had acquired a friend in Fred.
We stayed in occasional touch over the next months, and when I received my draft notice, I called him to inform him of the fact that I wouldn’t be around for a while. He was most sympathetic, because during World War II, he’d been drafted on the same day that he’d been signed for his first show with Kazan, Jacobowsky and the Colonel. He told me to call him when I got out of the army and he might be able to do something for me.
Two years later, after an 18-month stint in the U.S. army in Germany, I was back in New York. I didn’t think Fred would even remember me, but he did. He said there was a job opening for a stage manager for the Playwright’s Unit at the Studio, and I should meet with Molly Kazan to talk about it. Molly was wife to the legendary Elia Kazan, and the woman who’d discovered Tennessee Williams! She was brisk but friendly, and she hired me on the spot. I was thrilled beyond measure.
In addition to a job (poorly paid), I would now have the glorious opportunity to audit all the classes, in the Playwrights’ Unit, the Actors’ Unit, and the Directors’ Unit. (And there was a certain enjoyment in the fact that while many actors I knew were paying through the nose to study with Lee Strasberg, he would be signing my pay-checks ($40 per week).
I immediately rushed to attend the acting unit to watch Strasberg in action. I was giddy at finding myself surrounded by famous faces: Shelley Winters, Mildred Dunnock, Ben Gazzara, Geraldine Page, the young, crew-cut Edward Albee, and a host of others. I took my seat to observe what was happening onstage.
A woman in a white house-coat and scuffs was doing a private moment, and she’d brought in a truckload of personal belongings for the occasion. She was prowling the stage, deep in concentration, as she prepared. Gradually it dawned on me that the woman was Viveca Lindfors. And the scene she was doing was “The Jewish Wife” from Brecht on Brecht, for which she was then in rehearsal. I had seen her in Anastasia on Broadway, in her Hollywood films, and in a wonderfully strange Swedish film called Singoalla, in which she played a beautiful 14th Century gypsy girl in love with a doomed young nobleman. So I was impressed.
Strasberg ceremoniously took his seat in the first row and the scene began. It seemed wonderful to me, and apparently Strasberg also liked it. In the discussion afterwards, he was gentle and approving. But apparently Ms. Lindfors hadn’t lived up to her own personal standards. “Don’t patronize me, Lee,” she said, in her distinctive Swedish accent. “I’m not a child.” She seemed more and more upset. Finally she said, “You know, Lee, sometimes I think I don’t know how to work…No, that’s not true . . . I know how . . . I can teach other people . . . I just can’t DO it.” This from a woman who’d just played a marvelous scene most actresses would be justly proud of.
It seemed that the great and famous were just as insecure as the rest of us.
Fred Stewart remained a stalwart workhorse of the theater and of the Actors Studio in particular. He never achieved a spectacular career, but he worked often, did his job quietly and well, and won the respect of those who knew and worked with him. He was always eager to help, advise and mentor young hopefuls, and he remained a devoted worker for the Studio, as fund-raiser, manager of volunteers, and being a general behind the scenes factotum. And he died there in 1970, of a cerebral hemorrhage, while sitting in the receptionist’s chair in the office, schmoozing with a bunch of old actors and trading theatrical war stories.