A Dynasty of Theatrical Adlers

The year 2028 will mark 150 years of acting Adlers in this world. Jerry Adler (b. 1929) is arguably the best known nowadays in strict numerical terms, by virtue of his film and television work which has been seen by hundreds of millions of people. But he is somewhat peripheral to the main trunk of the family, whose most famous member is undoubtedly Stella Adler (1901-92) a great actress herself, but best known as the founder of an influential acting academy. But these are far from the only Adlers in the business, and it all starts with the founder of the dynasty, Jacob Adler (Yakev Pavlovich Adler, 1855-1926), well known to lovers of history, and widely considered one of the principal founders of Yiddish Theatre.

One could be forgiven for assuming that Yiddish Theatre has been around for centuries, since medieval times at least. While it certainly has roots and sources that old, the modern professional Yiddish Theatre is usually dated to 1876, when Abraham Goldfadden established his own troupe in Romania. This was an era when Yiddish literature and journalism were experiencing their great awakening, and improved travel and communication were permitting a border-transcending Jewish cultural consciousness to spread widely across the Western world. Adler, the son of an Odessa grain merchant, taught to love theatre by an uncle, got in on the ground floor. He and his first wife Sonya toured with Yiddish theatre companies throughout Ukraine and neighboring countries from 1878 through 1883, when all Yiddish Theatre was banned in the Russian Empire in the wake of the assassination of Tsar Nicholas II and the ensuing pogroms.

After years of performing and producing in London and other cities, Adler settled in New York around the end of the decade and founded his own company in the Yiddish Theatre District in the Lower East Side, the former Kleinedeutschland neighborhood. He presented original works by Yiddish playwrights as well as translations of classics and significant serious modern works. He was considered the principal competition to the more populist Boris Tomashefsky, though both served New York’s exploding population of recent Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Shakespeare was a favorite. Adler played Shylock on Broadway in 1903. He was also famous for his interpretation of Jacob Gordin’s Yiddish King Lear. Gordin was the Adler company’s in-house playwright, helping Adler achieve his goal of creating theatre that was weighty and momentous, in an atmosphere where a lot of the popular theatre activity, both Yiddish and English speaking, was more in the vaudeville and musical comedy vein

In 1891 Adler married his leading lady, Yiddish actress Sara Levitsky, who bore his most famous children. She was his third wife. First wife Sonya had died while giving birth to Abram Adler in 1886. Abram was to become a stage manager. He was the father of Allen Adler (1916-64), best known for writing the stories on which the science fiction films Forbidden Planet (1956) and The Giant Behemoth (1959) were based.

With mistress Jenny Kaiser, Adler fathered Charles Adler (1886-1966), who also went on the stage. As might be expected (rightly or wrongly), as the illegitimate son Charles was a bit of a black sheep in this family of heavy tragedians. Charles was a singer, comedian and entertainer. To my great delight, there almost always turns out to be a “vaudeville angle” to any theatrical story, and Charles provides that angle, for in 1931 he became a member of the popular nightclub and movie act known as The Yacht Club Boys. I’m planning a dedicated post to that act, which I’ve seen in many Vitaphone shorts, as well as features like The Singing Kid (1936) with Al Jolson, the all-star Pigskin Parade (1936), and Artists and Models (1937), starring Jack Benny (who’d gotten his own start with a not dissimilar act razzing the collegiate craze of the early 20th century). The Yacht Club Boys have been compared to the Ritz Brothers, but the fact that they were a quartet reminds me of all those “Comedy 4” acts that were so popular in vaudeville starting in the late 19th century. So this tie-in is just wonderful to learn about. At any rate, look for more on the Yacht Club Boys in the coming months.

Jacob’s second wife Dinah, also an actress, was the mother of Celia Adler (1889-1979), who became known as the First Lady of the Yiddish Theatre. Unlike her younger half siblings, Celia remained almost exclusively associated with their father’s style of theatre. Dinah divorced Jacob in 1891, and he immediately married Sara, who bore him six children, all of whom became actors.

Jay Adler (1896-1978), the oldest of Sara’s brood, was not as famous as two of his younger siblings, though you have undoubtedly seen him many a time, for he has nearly 100 screen credits between 1938 and 1976. The best remembered of his half dozen Broadway credits was the original 1942 production of Cafe Crown, directed by Elia Kazan and also featuring Sam Jaffe, Morris Carnovsky, Whit Bissell, Sam Wannamaker, Mitzi Hajos, et al. In films he was usually a bit player, but he sometimes got larger supporting roles. You can see him in such things as The Killing, The Catered Affair, and Lust for Life (all 1956), The Sweet Smell of Success (1957), Jerry Lewis’s The Family Jewels (1965), and The Yin and the Yang of Mr. Go (1970). His last credit was a 1976 episode of Baretta.

Julia Adler (1898-1995) is best known for playing Jessica to her father’s Shylock, and also for appearing in a half dozen Broadway plays, including a 1939 revival of Odets’ Awake and Sing!

So revered is she as a teacher (discoverer and mentor of Marlon Brando, among countless others), it is rarely remarked upon that Stella Adler (1901-1992) had previously been a great actress, and also a great beauty (what a fortunate thing that she didn’t didn’t resemble her brothers). Naturally, she started out with her parents’ Yiddish theatre. Billed as “Lola Adler” she made her Broadway debut at age 21, in William Brady’s production of Karel Capek’s The World We Live In. That same year of 1922 she actually toured vaudeville, another vaudeville connection! Strongly influenced by the 1922 American tour of the Moscow Art Theatre, in 1925 she joined the American Laboratory Theatre where she learned from Stanislawski disciples like Maria Ouspenskaya. Lee Strasberg also studied there. When he co-founded the Group Theatre, Stella was one of its first members (she would later mater co-founder Harold Clurman). Stella was one of the stars of the company. Later she would study directly with Stanislawski, precipitating her break with Strasberg. Strasberg went on to assume leadership of the Actor’s Studio. The rival Stella Adler Studio of Acting was founded in 1949. From that point, she taught more than she acted. You can count her screen appearances on one hand. As Stella Ardler she starred in a movie called Love on Toast (1937) opposite John Payne. She also had supporting parts in Shadow of the Thin Man (1941) and My Girl Tisa (1948). Today, Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel are among her foremost living pupils. Her school continues, three decades after her passing.

Luther Adler (1903-84) is undoubtedly the child of Jacob’s with the greatest mainstream success, with over three dozen Broadway credits and 66 screen appearances (in larger roles than Jay’s). His first role, at the age of five, was in the Yiddish classic Schmendrick at his father’s theatre. He made his first appearance on Broadway in 1921, culminating with the Theatre Guild’s Red Rust (1929), with a cast that included Lee Strasberg, Franchot Tone, Lionel Stander, Gale Sondergaard, et al. When Strasberg (and Clurman, from the Guild) went on to co-found the Group Theatre immediately after that, Adler and Tone were among its founding members. Adler would star or play major parts in most of their productions, including the world premieres of most of the plays of Clifford Odets. For a brief interlude, he was also in Katharine Cornell’s company. From 1938 through 1946 he was married to Hollywood actress Sylvia Sidney. His own screen career included turns in such movies as Wake of the Red Witch (1948), D.O.A. (1949), the 1951 remake of M (1951), The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel (1951, in which he played Hitler), The Tall Texan (1953), The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955), The Last Angry Man (1959, with Paul Muni, M‘s David Wayne, as well as his brother Jay in a smaller role), The Three Sisters (1966), Voyage of the Damned (1976) and Absence of Malice (1982).

There were two other Adler siblings in this generation, sisters Frances and Florence, neither of whom were fated to be as well known as the others, although they did act on the stage.

But wait! There’s more!

Jacob Adler’s sister Sarah had a daughter named Francine Larrimore (Francine La Remee, 1898-1975). Born in France, Larrimore was one of the most successful members of the family, with nearly two dozen Broadway credits from 1910 through 1934, including the American premiere of Parlor, Bedroom and Bath (1917), which was later turned into a Buster Keaton vehicle; and the part of Roxie Hart in the original (non-musical) production of Chicago (1926). She’s only in a half dozen movies, but two of them are silent Max Linder comedies from 1917. Her last screen appearance was as a crowd extra in the low-budget horror film The Devil’s Daughter (1939). For a time she was married to tin pan alley songwriter Con Conrad.

Francine’s younger sister Stella (1905-1960), was married to prolific Broadway and Hollywood actor Robert Warwick.

And still more:

Jerry Adler (b. 1929) is the grandson of a brother of Jacob Adler’s, whose first name I have not learned yet, though I do know that he moved to the LES along with the rest of the family because Jerry has mentioned memories of him reading the Forward! Jerry’s father Philip worked with his cousins as a company manager with the Group Theatre. Jerry started out as a Broadway stage manager circa 1950, and went on to become a producer and director on Broadway over the decades. It wasn’t until the 1990s, when Adler was in his 60s, that he became a popular screen star. He played the plum role of the killer in Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), and went on to even higher visibility as a regular on The Sopranos (1999-2007), Rescue Me (2007-2011), The Good Wife (2011-2016, with two later appearances on The Good Fight through 2018), and Transparent (2017-2019). As I write this he is 93, the same age that other great Yiddish theatre veteran Fyvush Finkel was when I interviewed him in 2016!

Now, Adler is a VERY common surname. There are many other notables who have it — I’ve written about the numerous Felix Adlers for example, as well as Fay Adler, and of course there is there bordello madam Polly Adler (played by Shelley Winters in the 1964 movie A House is Not a Home). None of these are related to the theatrical dynasty, though its a surety that there are numerous other members of the family working on stage and screen today.

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For more on the history of vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous and for more on silent film please read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.