The Importance of Robert Lewis

Of the many important American exponents of the Stanislavki Method (Lee Strasberg, Harold Clurman, Stella Adler, Elia Kazan, Sanford Meisner) one who seems never to the forefront of people’s minds is Robert “Bobby” Lewis (Robert Lewkowitz, 1909-1997) — despite his being of roughly equal importance to the others. I’m not quite sure why that is. It may be because there are many well-known Bobby Lewises, including an R & B singer (“Tossin’ and Turnin'”), a country singer, and a jazz musician. It may be because his achievements are spread across many fields and he didn’t spend decades focused solely on a single one of them, as most of those named did. But his legacy in the theatre is huge. If you were to be so crude as to make a pie graph of the significance of the Group Theatre alum, I don’t know that his slice would be smaller than the others I named.

Interestingly, like the other famous Bobby Lewises I just mentioned, this one’s first love was music. His mother had been an opera singer, and he’d had formal piano and cello training throughout his youth in Brooklyn. His transition to the theatre came through involvement with Sue Hastings Marionette Company, and a season with Eva La Gallienne’s Civic Rep at the age of 20. This is what put him on the radar of the founders of the Group Theatre, of which he was a key member throughout its existence, playing roles in nearly all of their legendary productions, and gaining his first experience as a teacher.

In 1938, Lewis directed the London production of Golden Boy, written by the Group’s Clifford Odets. While there, he had the opportunity to study with Michael Chekhov (nephew of the playwright and a favorite of Stanislavski). This elevated him to the ranks of the American teachers who were but one degree of separation from the master himself (or in the case of Adler, had gotten to do so directly).

In 1939, he directed the original production of William Saroyan’s My Heart’s in the Highlands, the first over two dozen notable Broadway productions he would helm, including the premieres of Brigadoon (1947), The Teahouse of the August Moon (1953), Witness for the Prosecution (1954), and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1965), and a 1950 revival of An Enemy of the People with Fredric March and Morris Carnovsky.

Like many of his Group Theatre cohorts, Lewis gave Hollywood a brief fling. He was there between 1943 and 1947, playing supporting roles in 8 films, including Son of Lassie (1945) and Monsieur Verdoux (1947). More notably, he directed the “Number Please” segment of Ziegfeld Follies (1945). Later, with a lot more Broadway experience under his belt he would return to directed the 1956 revival of Anything Goes with Bing Crosby and Donald O’Connor.

In 1947, Lewis became one of the three co-founders (with Elia Kazan and Cheryl Crawford) of the Actors Studio. You’ll note that this was the same year he directed Brigadoon and was in Monsieur Verdoux. He was a busy guy at that stage, but still he managed to direct weekly workshops at the Studio for a time. But not long after that he fell out with the others, to be replaced by Strasberg, who remained the principal guru at the studio for decades, which is how Strasberg’s name became the one most associated with the Method. Along with Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner, Lewis became one of the chief dissenters to Strasberg’s take on the Method, and one of his principal rivals as a teacher. In 1952 he launched the Robert Lewis Acting Workshop, which he offered annually on a limited basis for decades. He also delivered a series of eight influential public lectures in 1957, which became the basis of his 1958 book Method — Or Madness? For a time in the 1970s he was Chairman of the Yale Acting and Directing under Robert Brustein. He also wrote the subsequent books Advice to the Players (1980), and Slings and Arrows: Theater in My Life (1984),