Tag Archives: Marlon Brando

Stella! The Book Trailer for the First Biography



Elia Kazan, Stella Adler & Falling for Harold Clurman

ClurmanTheatreToday I made a new friend on Goodreads who noticed I had written a biography on Stella Adler and said she was “interested in learning about her.” I asked if she had ever heard of Stella. Negative. Then I asked if she had heard of Lee Strasberg. Her answer should have been predictable to me at this point in my journey, but I continue to think for some reason that if people outside the theater and entertainment industry don’t know who Stella is they would logically not know who Lee Strasberg is. That is not the case. Her answer: “Yes, absolutely.”

I wanted to ask if she knew who Harold Clurman was, but I already knew that Clurman’s name has fallen into as much obscurity as Stella’s. And yet, Clurman, as much as Stella and Strasberg, influenced modern day theater and cinema, which is best illustrated through his “apprentice” Elia Kazan.

In 1932 twenty-two year old Kazan met Harold Clurman and Lee Strasberg seeking an apprenticeship in their collective, the Group Theatre, a Depression-era socially-conscious ensemble founded the previous year that would revolutionize American theater. In the interview Kazan rather boldly told Strasberg, the Group’s director, that he wanted his job. Strasberg didn’t like the joke. Still, Kazan would be accepted into the Group and turn out to be one of the most influential directors on both stage and screen of the twentieth century. However, it was Clurman whom Kazan gravitated toward. He would diligently take notes during rehearsals Clurman directed and follow Harold everywhere, studying him. Stella Adler, irked since she was used to that particular kind of adoration, flippantly asked Kazan if he were “queer.”

Kazan, Brando, Julie Harris and James Dean, 1955

Kazan, Brando, Julie Harris and James Dean, 1955

Years later, after Kazan founded the Actors Studio, after he had won an Academy Award for On the Waterfront (which established Marlon Brando as one of the greatest actors of his generation); after he had made an icon of the gifted James Dean in his film East of Eden; he wrote that Clurman’s

directorial style was essentially different from Lee’s. He encouraged actors and admired them, instead of confronting them with their inadequacies. . . . He had the culture to know that if you attempt difficult tasks you’re bound to fail as often as not. . . . Harold made me feel that artists are above all other humans, not only in our society but in all of history. I’m not impressed with any other elite, not of money, power, or fame. I got that from Harold.

One cannot write Stella Adler’s biography without also writing Harold’s. They were born the same year, they revered the Yiddish theater, they wanted to build a national theater, they married, and when that union dissolved, they remained life-long friends. And yet, I had no idea what Harold meant to me until I actually had a chance to read the biography after it was completed. This was my reaction:

The Actor’s Responsibility

J. Garfield, Stella and Brando by Al Hirschfeld

John Garfield, Stella and Morris Carnovsky by Al Hirschfeld

Recently chatting with an actor in the UK, he told me some of his actor friends actually “brag” about the fact that they don’t practice their craft. That would be akin to a painter not sketching; a musician not practicing his instrument; a ballerina not dancing in the studio when she isn’t onstage.

In my last post I wrote: “Acting, like no other profession—not doctors, athletes, and certainly not writers—have to use all three components in their work: the physical, mental, and spiritual.” You can read about my reasoning here. My caveat, however, of the thesis that acting is one of the most difficult professions is that not all actors actually put their body, mind, and spirit into their work as, Stella Adler would say, is their responsibility.

Stella used to lament the fact that American actors would study acting and then go off and audition and try to make a career, and stop studying. She thought of acting as a life-long practice wherein the actor continues to train his or her voice, honor his instrument (his body), and study (characters, scenes, playwrights) to learn more about himself and his role in the world.

Stella said, “All of us have a role in improving the world.” But she believed actors, more than others, had a responsibility through their art to enlighten. Her view of actors as aristocrats came from this belief. She lifted the actor to nobility. She instilled in her students a sense of tradition and reverence. I fear much of that has been lost on the contemporary actor. What are your views?

The Actor’s Job: Mind, Body & Spirit

Ed Clark:LIFE-The Men-1950It is easy to criticize professions with which we have no experience. We judge and critique the work of others whether it’s a waiter or an IT person over the phone. We go around with expectations of how workers are supposed to perform their jobs instead of how a person, on any given day, may be performing. Maybe that waiter’s arthritis is flaring up that day, or the IT person has worked a double shift. When it comes to the arts, no other profession is as vulnerable to criticism and judgment as the actor’s. People seem to think acting comes “naturally” without practice or ongoing work. No one holds such judgment over musicians, writers, or artists. Why would they have that assumption with acting?

Susan Sontag, who I consider one of the great minds of the 20th century, once asked something to the effect of why do actors study? Aren’t they just memorizing lines and acting them out? Her questions reflect the common misunderstanding of the actor’s job, or at least what the actor’s job should be. I suppose it’s to the actors credit that they make it look easy, not unlike an ice skater gliding through and alighting from a triple axel jump.

Some years ago I was a high school teacher. I quit after a year. It wasn’t that my heart wasn’t in it. I loved having a captive audience and creating ways to get my students to buy into the literature we were reading. I actually quit because the job was too difficult. If I wanted to do it right, which I thought I owed these budding minds, I had to devote a lot more time (much of it after the work day) to create new ways to engage kids who went home to an empty house and refrigerator.

Otherwise these students, with their headphones under their hoodies and their single-mom homes and their drug-ridden neighborhoods and their hungry tummies weren’t going to give a rat’s ass about Shakespeare or Toni Morrison. In addition to teaching, I had to be a mother, therapist, and performer. Teaching, I thought, was the most physically, mentally, and spiritually demanding job in the world.

Then I covered the Hollywood Fringe Festival last year.

The Group Theatre circa 1931

The Group Theatre circa 1931

Acting, like no other profession—not doctors, athletes, and certainly not writers—have to use all three components in their work: the physical, mental, and spiritual. It’s very much like teaching. At the fringe I saw actors unload and mount their sets, center themselves, inhabit the character that they had studied, created and rehearsed. I watched them put out their best act only to do it again the following night.

I’m not saying all actors invest as much mental or spiritual practice in their work as they should (which will be the topic of my next post). But those who do, those who practice their craft through life-long study and find venues to stay working (whether it’s performing for the sick at hospital, booking a television series,  or taking scene study classes in between gigs) are the hardest working people I know. Perhaps an athlete performs at a higher physical level, but after his or her prime, athletes retire at an early age. Not actors. A scientist may expend more mental faculties, but she or he does not have to do so while also expending physical energy. A yogi reaches a higher spiritual plane, but not while also using his or her creative imagination.

Stella Adler would say, “The play is not in the words, it’s in you.” The modern actor must plow deep into his or her own humanity to understand the character, must exhaustively research that character’s circumstances, including his environment, must act (Greek for “to do”) with his body and voice repeatedly in rehearsal, on stage or on set.

Maybe I’m wrong. Illuminate me: Is there any other profession (besides teaching) that requires so much?

Help! What Should I Title Stella’s Biography?

I was thinking. People who don’t know who Stella Adler is might wonder who this book is about if it’s titled: “Stella! A Life in Art”

And did anyone get the allusion to Stanislavski’s “My Life in Art”?

Ahhh, there’s the rub. I need a catchy title that clearly identifies WHO the book is about, but “Stella Adler: A Biography” is so boring!

I want to use Stella! to evoke Brando’s bellow in “A Streetcar Named Desire” since he is Stella Adler’s most famous student. 

With your help, I’m taking a poll:

If you have any ideas, please share in the comments below.

Actors: Our Modern Day Philosophers?

Rodin's "The Thinker" via www.musee-rodin.fr

Rodin’s “The Thinker” via http://www.musee-rodin.fr

Without knowing Stella Adler, having only heard of her fame as an American acting teacher who taught Marlon Brando, an image of a woman arises that has nothing to do with the person who was Stella Adler. Those still alive who knew her can tell you a little about the person, but much more about how she influenced their lives.  This is the pattern I’ve noticed: the constant iteration of how much Stella changed someone’s life, opened it up to avenues they had never seen prior to knowing her.

Stella once admitted that she would have known nothing if she hadn’t had to study character.  It was through wanting to understand Nora (in A Doll’s House) that she learned about the ice in Norway, through Blanche (in A Streetcar Named Desire) that she came to understand the American South. In her pursuit of acting, she became a scholar of history, art, architecture, music, politics, geography, poetry.

By examining characters – an actor’s paints and brushes – Stella’s students had to examine human nature. The common person does not go around dissecting the very visceral and ethereal nature of man. This is the job of the philosopher. Stella made philosophers out of actors, which is how she changed so many lives. She instilled in those she touched a consciousness of their role in society, their obligations to themselves as artists, as well as an obligation to serve the world by sharing that which they discovered in themselves. She woke people up. This was her genius: the ability to shake people from the rote, minutia of life that deadens their response to the world around them.

You did not yawn in Stella’s class.  Not because she was a diva and you had to coddle her ego, but because as an actor you were not allowed to let life tire you. You did not chew gum in class.  Not because Stella was a despot, but because “anything you do automatically deadens your mind.”

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All Mothers Are Not Created Equal: Part II on Stella’s Mother with a Word from Arthur Miller

Brando in "Truckline Cafe," the performance that prompted Sara Adler to tell Brando he could "change his name to Adler."

Brando in “Truckline Cafe,” the performance that prompted Sara Adler to tell Brando he could “change his name to Adler.”

As Mother’s Day approaches it seems appropriate to continue where my last post left off paying tribute to Stella Adler’s mother. In previous posts, it is clear that Stella came from an acting dynasty. Jacob and Sara put their children on stage as soon as they could walk and Stella was no exception.  They performed as the troupe, The Acting Adlers. Early in the 20th century legend had it that no curtain went up in New York without an Adler being on stage.

After first seeing Marlon Brando play in Elia Kazan’s production of Truckline Café, Madame Adler went up to the young actor and announced, “If you want, you can change your name to Adler.”

The quintessential actress, Sara was not one to reveal her age.  A famous story has been retold time again, but instead of writing about it here, I’d like my readers to hear it the way I originally heard it in my interview with the late Arthur Miller who was actually “on the scene” when the story took place.  Listen to Mr. Miller here. Continue reading

De Niro Interview on his Craft, Coach, and Current Role

Since his first major film roles in “Mean Streets” (1973) and “The Godfather Part II” (1974) Robert De Niro has built an enviable career and become one of the greatest living actors of our times.  He is also one of the few celebrities who can be in the public spotlight and still maintain an almost tabloid-free personal life.  I can think of at least three pop songs that evoke his name, crossing over into each generation as relevantly as the latest technology. In a recent interview, De Niro and I discuss his acting training in New York City and his current film where De Niro returns to a role of gravitas and pathos as a failing writer and father in “Being Flynn,” based on Nick Flynn’s memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. Continue reading

“Stella Stories”: The Day I Studied with an Acting Legend

By Rick Copp, special to SALIA

Anyone who knows me knows I’m a ham. In my twenty plus years working in the entertainment business, I managed on more than one occasion to insert myself into several TV shows and movies I was writing and producing. I got my SAG card doing a voice over on a Tea Leoni FOX sitcom called “Flying Blind.” I played a jovial sidekick on a ‘50s sci fi serial in an action comedy TV movie I co-wrote and co-produced called “The Adventures of Captain Zoom in Outer Space,” and I had a recurring role as a bitchy chef on a 90’s action series remake I co-created called “Team Knight Rider.”

People often ask me if I ever trained to be an actor. Well, let me be clear. Yes. Technically. Well, it all depends on what you call training. I audited a four week acting class with legendary stage star and famed acting teacher Stella Adler in the late ‘80s. Her former students include Marlon Brando,  Warren Beatty and Robert De Niro.

In 1987, I was working as the Director of Development for a New York based television production company where I helped develop children’s shows. The company was owned by a major New York advertising agency with clients like Hasbro toys and one of the CEOs was married to a former Hollywood actress by the name of Anne Newman, who had appeared in a number of classic movies like “El Dorado” with John Wayne and Robert Mitchum and “The Thrill of it All” with James Garner and Doris Day. Anne took a liking to me and one day suggested I join her at Stella Adler’s acting seminar she was taking every Wednesday night. I jumped at the chance. Anne was loads of fun and I thought it would lead to us having a lot of laughs. And I was sure she would pay for the drinks we would inevitably have after class.

How wrong I was. Not about the drinks. Anne came through on that one. It was the class. No laughs. None. First of all, I didn’t get the memo that when Ms. Adler entered the room you were to spring to your feet and applaud wildly. Her disapproving eye caught mine when I was still sitting in the hard back aluminum chair as she was wheeled in (she was in a wheelchair by this time), her right arm raised, slightly waving like the Queen of England. It all went downhill from there.

Every student who took to the stage to do a scene was viciously criticized, torn down, more than a few left in a puddle of tears. She was awful to everyone, but particularly relished attacking the girls. Even so, I kept thanking God I was simply auditing the class as an observer and would not be called down to perform for her. Wrong again.

It was one budding actor’s turn to perform a monologue from some courtroom drama. I noticed his hands were shaking when he took to the stage. Ms. Adler bellowed, “How can you make a closing argument to the jury without anyone there to play to? You MUST have a scene partner.” Her eyes scanned the room. “YOU!”

She couldn’t be pointing at me. I turned around. Anne and I were in the back row. There was no one behind me! Ms. Adler screamed, “YOU! What is your name?” “Rick Copp,” I managed to squeak out, my voice cracking. Stella nodded. “Mr. Copp, would you be so kind as to play the role of the juror so this young man has a scene partner?” I turned to Anne for help, but she looked away pretending she didn’t know me.

“I… I’m not an actor… I’m just auditing…” I said softly. Ms. Adler’s eyes blazed as she bellowed, “I expect EVERYONE in my class to participate. Mr. Copp, if you please!” Anne gave me a nudge. I stood up and walked down to the stage, nodding at the shaking young man about to perform his monologue. I sat down and he started talking. I don’t remember what he was saying. I wasn’t listening. I was doing my own internal monologue. “Omigod! She’s going to yell at me! She’s going to tell me I suck and I have no business being here and I don’t take the work seriously and I am an affront to the entire acting profession and how dare I come into this room and disrupt the real actors who are here to do their work and learn from the great master…” I kept my eyes fixed on the poor young man talking to me. He raised a finger to make a point. He was still shaking. He was blowing it. I was blowing it. This was a HUGE disaster and I was about to be ripped a new one.

Ms. Adler stared at me, an angry frown fixed to her face. Finally, mercifully, she stopped the scene. She was yelling, her face flushed red and it wasn’t even the heavy rouge she was wearing. She was tearing down the poor actor playing the lawyer for something like five minutes. When she finished, she ordered him back to his seat. I was the only one left on stage. “As for you, MISTER Copp…” Oh God, hear it comes. “EXCELLENT work! I BELIEVED you were listening intently to the attorney. I BELIEVED you as a juror. I applaud your concentration!”

You know, in hindsight, the late great Stella Adler truly was an acting legend with much wisdom, a true purveyor of untapped talent. Right? Right?




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Stella for Star: The Story of Stella’s Star on Hollywood Boulevard

Cropped screenshot of Marlon Brando from the t...

Blanche gasps “Stella, Stella for Star” upon seeing her sister in “A Streetcar Named Desire”

“Everyone thinks I don’t know that Stella means star,” Stella Adler once told her class.  Who was she kidding?  After starring on Broadway, being a pioneer of the legendary Group Theatre, making films in Hollywood and becoming one of the preeminent American acting teachers who taught past and present generations from Marlon Brando to Benicio del Toro, no one would doubt Stella’s awareness of her appellation.  That same name Brando made famous with his STELLA! yowl in “A Streetcar Named Desire” has been buried in a business where celebrity shines, and just as quickly fades to black –  as starless as the Los Angeles night sky.  Continue reading