Summoning Sanford Meisner

August 31 was the DOB of actor, director, and teacher Sanford “Sandy” Meisner (1905-1997). Today Meisner is best remembered for the latter reputation, for he was doing that at Neighborhood Playhouse as recently as 1990. And of course there is the 1987 book pictured above Sanford Meisner On Acting, which you will find (along with a few dozen other similar classics by his contemporaries) on the shelves of most serious actors. When I first moved to NYC, there was also a brick and mortar theatre which bore his name. It was located at 164 11th Avenue (practically in the Hudson River). It just so happens to have been where my first plays in New York were produced, circa 1989. I went over there a few months ago on a nostalgic walk — it’s been torn down. It was still standing in 2006 when photographer Michael Minn took these photos.

Oddly, the Wikipedia entry on Meisner mentions neither the book, the theatre, nor most of his extensive stage credits as actor and director (though it does his mention his tiny presence in movies). So we will provide some specifics that are lacking in that less than perfect resource.

The son of Hungarian Jews, Meisner grew up on the Lower East Side, where he met and first worked in theatre as a young person with Lee Strasberg at Chrystie Street Settlement House. (Unlike the still thriving Henry Street Settlement, the Chrystie Street one is long gone. Most references to it you’ll find nowadays are in connection to Strasberg). Not long afterward both young men were reunited at the Theater Guild and thus it was that at age 19 Meisner got his first job as a supernumerary in the original production of Sidney Howard’s They Knew What They Wanted. Other plays he appeared in through 1930 included the original productions of John Howard Lawson’s Processional (1925),The Garrick Gaieties (1925), Franz Werfel’s Juarez and Maximilian (1925), and Eugene O’Neill’s Marco Millions (1928), along with revivals of Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma and Ben Jonson’s Volpone.

Along with Strasberg, at the Guild he also met and worked with Harold Clurman and Cheryl Crawford and thus it was that he became one of the original members of the Group Theatre when they founded it in 1931. (Much more about that here). As an actor Meisner was in nearly every one of the Group’s productions over the next decade, including the premiers of every single Clifford Odets play during those years, as well as other notable works like Sidney Kingsley’s Men in White (1933), and Case of Clyde Griffiths (Piscator’s adaptation of Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, 1936).

After the Group broke up in 1940, Meisner returned to Broadway nine more times over the next two decades, acting in They Should Have Stood in Bed (1942, directed by Luther Adler), Embezzled Heaven (1943, with Ethel Barrymore), The Whole World Over (1947, directed by Clurman), Crime and Punishment (1947 with Gielgud as Raskolnikov), Arthur Laurents’ The Bird Cage (1950, starring Melvyn Douglas), and S.N. Behrman’s The Cold Wind and the Warm (1958-59). He also directed I’ll Take the High Road (1943, with Jeanne Cagney), Listen, Professor (1943), and a revival of The Time of Your Life (1955, with Franchot Tone, John Carradine, Gloria Vanderbilt, Doris Roberts and John Randolph!) (Hey, Saroyan’s birthday is the same day as Meisner’s!)

Meisner’s first screen acting had been in live television dramas during the 1950s. On the big screen, he had roles in just three movies, all of them notable. They were Clifford OdetsThe Story on Page One (1959, the second and last time the great writer directed a film), the 1962 screen adaptation of Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, and Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky (1976), surely inspired by Strasberg’s then recent turn in The Godfather, Part II. In 1995, quite close to the end of his life, he gave a moving performance on the tv show ER.

Nu, in light of that experience, perhaps he had something to say as a teacher. Meisner began teaching his classes at the Neighborhood Playhouse in 1935. 55 years of teaching! Though he briefly taught at the Actor’s Studio in its early days, his take on the Stanislavski system diverged from both that of Strasberg and Strasberg’s nemesis Stella Adler. “Meisner Technique” is its own thing, and most of us who’ve studied acting have had at least a smattering of exercises he devised. The Sanford Meisner Center in Los Angeles keeps the torch lit, as does his old home, the Neighborhood Playhouse. And if I listed all of the famous movie stars who studied with him, I would break my fingers on the keyboard. (Though I have mentioned him many times in that connection. You can browse through entries on many of his pupils here).

Here’s an interesting tidbit: Meisner was bisexual. Following two marriages to women, he was in a serious long term relationship with a man named James Carville, who obviously was a different man from the Ragin’ Cajun who helped Bill Clinton get elected in 1992. Carville penned a book (with Scott Trost) about their time establishing an acting center in the Caribbean and their adopted son Boolu. Called De Tree a We, it’s available here.