This Day in Jewish History / Stella Adler, Teacher to the Stars, Is Born

Adler's inspiring teaching influenced some of the 20th century's most acclaimed actors.

February 10, 1901, is the birthday of Stella Adler, possibly the 20th century's most influential acting teacher, who counted among her students Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel.

Stella Adler was born into a theatrical family: Her parents, Jacob P. Adler and the former Sara Levitzky, headed New York’s prestigious Independent Yiddish Art Company and all four of her siblings also became actors. Stella began her career at the age of four in the play “Broken Hearts” at New York’s Grand Street Theater. That same year, she played the role of a prince in a Yiddish rendering of “Richard III.” A nearly full-time acting career throughout her childhood meant that her formal schooling was limited.

During a year-long tour of her father’s company in England, the 18-year-old Adler, playing Naomi, the title character's daughter in Jacob Gordin’s play “Elisha Ben Abuya,” met her first husband, Horace Eliascheff. The marriage did not last long but it did yield Adler’s only child, a daughter.

Back in New York, Adler had her English-language acting debut on Broadway in 1922 and it was around that time that she saw the legendary Russian actor-director Constantin Stanislavski in his only U.S. tour with his Moscow Art Theater. Deeply impressed by the experience, she joined the American Laboratory Theater in 1925, the highly influential training theater whose immigrant directors had emerged from Stanislavski’s company.

In 1931, Adler joined the Group Theater, which had been founded by Harold Clurman, Lee Strasberg and Cheryl Crawford, also alumni of the Laboratory Theater. The company aspired to stage socially relevant plays, and members of the company were trained by Strasberg in “the Method,” which was based on Stanislavki’s teachings. Three years later, however, when Adler had the opportunity to study directly with Stanislavski in Paris, she learned from him that he had revised his own philosophy of acting and no longer believed that actors needed to draw principally upon their emotional memories. Instead he instructed them to rely on their imaginations, a teaching which Adler embraced. This experience, however, later led to a professional parting with Lee Strasberg (who would become director of the Actors Studio) over the importance of “affective memory,” which Strasberg claimed was essential in finding the hook for a role.

When she returned from Paris, Adler presented what she had learned from the master to her colleagues and began to train members of the Group Theater herself. But she soon was to leave the company. Two of her last major acting roles were in “Awake and Sing” and “Paradise Lost," plays by Clifford Odets the Group's primary playwright, himself also Jewish.

In 1937, Adler headed to Hollywood, and it was during this period that she appeared in three films (under the name “Stella Ardler”), including “Shadow of the Thin Man.” She also worked as an assistant producer for some time at MGM. She continued acting on stage until 1961, sometimes with the Group Theater, sometimes on Broadway. She also directed stage productions.

In the meantime, however, Adler opened her own acting studio in 1947, which eventually had branches in both New York and Los Angeles. Strongly disagreeing with Strasberg’s call upon actors to draw on their memories and personal experiences, she became known for the motto, “Your talent is in your imagination.”

She explained her reasoning at one point, saying, “Drawing on the emotions I experienced, for example, when my mother died, to create a role, is sick and schizophrenic. If that is acting, I don't want to do it."

Some other alumni of the Stella Adler Studio of Acting have included Martin Sheen, Elaine Stritch, Melanie Griffith and, more recently, Mark Ruffalo and Benicio del Toro. (Stritch once said of her teacher, “What an extraordinary combination was Stella Adler -- a goddess full of magic and mystery, a child full of innocence and vulnerability.") With her highly inspiring teaching style, Adler also had teaching appointments at Yale and New York University.

Stella Adler died on December 21, 1992, at age 91. The acting schools bearing her name are still in operation in both New York and Los Angeles.

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