1901: Russian-inspired Guru to Hollywood's Biggest Stars Is Born

Feel the pain and then you can act it out, Lee Strasberg would explain to Marlon Brando, Robert de Niro and Marilyn Monroe and other future greats.

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Lee Strasberg, left. in a scene with Al Pacino in Godfather II.
Lee Strasberg, left. in a scene with Al Pacino in Godfather II.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

November 17, 1901, is the birthdate of Lee Strasberg, the father of “Method” acting in the United States, out of whose Actors Studio emerged such stars of stage and screen as Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, among many many others. Strasberg’s technique, which he acknowledged was based on the acting methods developed in Russia by Konstantin Stanislavski, employed intensive, often emotionally painful, exercises to enable actors to imagine the inner lives of the characters they were portraying, including connecting with childhood memories of their fictional personae.

Israel Strassberg was born in Budzanow, in the Austro-Hungarian empire (today Budaniv, Ukraine). He was the youngest of the three sons of Baruch Meyer Strassberg, an innkeeper, and the former Chaia (later Ida) Diner. In 1909, several years after Baruch traveled to New York to start a new life for the family, Chaia and the boys joined him on the Lower East Side, where Baruch worked as a presser.

Israel was an excellent student, but was so traumatized by the death of his brother Zalmon during the 1918 flu epidemic that he quit high school and began to work, first as a shipping clerk, and then as a bookkeeper at a wig shop. At the same time, at the encouragement of a relative, Israel took a small part in a Yiddish play being staged by the Progressive Drama Club. That was followed by his joining the acting workshop based at the Christie Street Settlement House, in Lower Manhattan. Around this time, he changed his name to I. Lee Strasberg, later dropping the initial.

Practice, practice, practice

In 1923, New York was visited by Stanislavski’s Moscow Art Theater company. Strasberg saw all of their productions, and was deeply affected. Believing he would never become a star actor, he began to considering teaching. He began studying with Richard Boleslavsky and Maria Ouspenskaya, two Art Theater members who had remained in New York after the company finished its engagement.

What Strasberg took away from these teachers, wrote Richard Schickel (in his 2005 biography of Strasberg colleague Elia Kazan), “was a belief that just as an actor could be prepared physically for his work with dance, movement and fencing classes, he could be mentally prepared by resort to analogous mental exercises.”

Marilyn Monroe: A 1955 portrait by fashion and celebrity photographer Milton H. Greene.Credit: AP

Strasberg decided he would codify the methods he had learned for using "affective memory," as Strasberg called the most controversial aspect of his teaching – "summoning emotions from their own lives to illuminate their stage roles.”

In 1931, Strasberg, together with friends Harold Clurman and Cheryl Crawford, founded the Group Theater in New York, a collective of writers, directors and actors, where he could put his teaching method to the test. In 1948, after a spell in Los Angeles working in the film industry, Strasberg, now back in New York, joined Clurman, Crawford, Elia Kazan and others in leading the Actors Studio, the non-profit acting workshop  they had founded a year earlier. Strasberg became president and artistic director of the school, a position he held until his death, in addition to the private instruction he offered at the Lee Strasberg Theater and Film Institute, which he and his third wife, Anna Mizrahi, opened in New York and Hollywood in 1970. (Today the Institute is associated with New York University.)

The teaching methods employed in the Actors Studio in many ways resembled psychotherapy, and have always been controversial. To maximize actors’ freedom of expression, workshops were always closed. Strasberg personally often elicited strong reactions from people, ranging from love to loathing. In particular, his relationship with the emotionally dependent Marilyn Monroe in the final years of her life have been subject to extensive scrutiny and criticism, as have his disowning of his children from his second marriage, John Strasberg and the late Susan Strasberg (who played Anne Frank on Broadway in 1950).

Toward the end of his life, Strasberg began acting again, most notably on screen in 1974, in “The Godfather II,” in which he memorably portrayed the elderly mobster Hyman Roth. Lee Strasberg died at the age of 80, on February 17, 1982.