Stella Adler

updated 07/17/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/17/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Materializing in the doorway, Stella Adler sees her students rise as one, applauding. She pauses, prettily agog. It's a coquette's trick—pretending this adulation catches her by surprise—which makes her look rosy and youthful. Only when Adler begins to cross the room does her age show. At 87, arguably America's greatest teacher of acting, she moves slow as a ship, with the aid of a cane.

Fluttered over by assistants, she arrives at her burgundy throne in the rehearsal room at her Conservatory of Acting in New York City. Then another Stella Adler flashes forth. She is suddenly imperial: "I appreciate the fervor of your greeting," she says. "But don't do it like this"—tapping out a little tennis applause. "Held in, you see. That's baby stuff." Extending her arms, she claps again, bravo-style. "OUT, you see. Applause is to reach?' Whereupon these 40 or so actors give her a revised, standing ovation.

It takes a rare personality to orchestrate one's own applause. But Stella Adler, grandest of grandes dames, can get away with it. For a half century she has trained legions of actors, including many of this era's finest: Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, Warren Beatty, Ellen Burstyn, Harvey Keitel, Candice Bergen. Lionized in her own field, this stage actress, director and teacher has remained unknown to most of the public, At least until now. This Monday, July 10, PBS airs as part of its American Masters series the program "Stella Adler: Awake and Dream!"—a kaleidoscope of her career.

"Everyone talks about Marlon Brando training with Lee Strasberg, but the teacher who meant most to him was Stella Adler," says Elia Kazan, who directed Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront. And Brando himself once said, "Stella has had the deepest influence on me.... She has that rare gift: producing lightning states." Occasionally, of course, a student has fled—Melanie Griffith, for one. ("She scared me to death. I didn't want to be berated.") For there's no question that working with Adler can be like a plunge into frigid water; she makes young actors gasp. Today, for example, she interrupts a pair laboring through dialogue from Arthur Miller's All My Sons.

"You're dull! You're faking!" To the younger actor: "Miller's ideas don't mean a goddamn thing to you."

"Oh, no," he says. "I love this play."

"Yes, sweetheart, But you love it like a sissy. This is"—Adler's hands extend, writhing, as she searches for the words—" This is blood, not television! Again!" He says a line. She breaks in. "You must not choke your feelings and think it's truth. You're gorgeous. Now please, let me love you." He achieves three or four words. "Get it out! Be a star!"

She wants to awaken in students her own fearless zest. So she won't permit mumbling, bleating. Instead, Adler demands size (to use a favorite word of hers) from every performer, as well as a fully engaged intellect. "The pursuit of money warps you. It kills the spiritual side. That's what Miller is saying," she cries. "Do you understand? The Coming of the Ape, that's what we've been brought to by money!"

It's a pet plaint of her own, which she often voices—how the quest for lucre has ruined America's intellectual and cultural life. That obsession with profit, with producing "hits," is what drove Adler herself out of the commercial theater. A Broadway star of the '30s and '40s, she last appeared there as a lion tamer in the Theatre Guild's revival of Leonid Andreyev's He Who Gets Slapped in 1946. She also directed several Broadway shows but chafed under yahoo producers and budget squeezes. ("Take your budget and drop dead," she said finally, and walked out.)

Hollywood was no better. Adler—who was once billed as "Ardler" to sound less ethnic—made a few films there in the early days, like Love on Toast, in 1937, and Shadow of the Thin Man, with William Powell and Myrna Loy. But grubby commercial considerations aside, most movies lacked size. Years later she turned down the role in Zorba, The Greek that won Lila Kedrova an Oscar—chiefly because Adler had become devoted to her true vocation: teaching. "I couldn't suddenly leave my students to be in a movie," she says. "If you were a surgeon, and you had the cure for heart disease, could you leave hundreds of patients and go off fishing?"

There's an extraordinary mixture of egotism and selflessness in that remark. Maybe a hint of noblesse oblige, too. For Adler is a proud daughter of theater royalty. ("I was born into a kingdom," she once said.) Early in this century, her parents, Jacob and Sarah Adler, were the Yiddish theater's greatest tragedians.

Jacob Adler in particular was a titanic star of a type now hard to imagine. More than just an illustrious performer (who introduced Ibsen and Strindberg to American audiences), this immigrant from Odessa became an idol to the multitude of other Jewish immigrants then flooding New York. Disoriented, persecuted, they were buoyed by his portraits of the proud Jew, the heroic Jew. When Adler died in 1926, the city's streets were clogged with perhaps 200,000 mourners.

One of eight children, Stella grew up in a posh Manhattan brownstone, tended by French and German governesses. She began her career in 1906, at age 4, carried onstage by her father as a wriggling prop. Sometimes young Stella, wishing her life weren't so exotic, pretended to playmates that she had an ordinary homelife—"a real mother with an apron who made cookies." But mostly she reveled in the exalted drama of her life—even her parents' marriage, which was as stormy as Zeus and Hera's. Of course, their vast public never knew that.

"Journalists didn't dare approach my parents," says Adler, "and they never gave interviews. It was not in good taste." Adler herself rarely consents to them—but when she does, she creates an occasion. At home, ensconced on a rococo settee, she is dressed in a vivid green silk pajama suit, with a splash of chartreuse on the shoulder, and ropes of beads. The living room of her Fifth Avenue apartment is a sumptuous Venetian salon, dominated by the dull gold hue of sconces, spindly metal flowers and ornate picture frames. Antique sofas and chairs, all curves and rosettes, are upholstered in beige and apricot. "Every tiny thing is thought about," she says.

Adler's passion for European culture—painting, music, literature—was first nurtured by her parents. But it came to flower in the late '20s, when she toured the world as a young star of the Yiddish stage. Often she admonishes her students that without a rich education, they will be worthless as actors.

The soulfulness of Yiddish theater lives on in her teaching too—especially when she tries to free WASPs from their emotional constipation. Loyal as she is to that tradition, though, Adler's teaching actually mingles two pools of inspiration. The other is Konstantin Stanislavsky, the Russian godhead of modern acting theory. Adler is the only American to have studied directly with the master. Before that, she had explored many of his exercises as a member of New York's renowned Group Theatre—but in those days found them repellent.

Founded in 1931, the Group was the most vital dramatic stewpot of its time. Here, young talents like Lee J. Cobb, John Garfield, Elia Kazan and Lee Strasberg fomented a new kind of theater. "I was crazy about being in the theater with a high purpose," says Adler. "To work with the best plays, the best ensemble, that was wonderful." The Group produced raw American plays rooted in the political realities of the Depression—a far cry from the inane, anyone-for-tennis comedies then dominating Broadway.

But for Adler, performing with the Group Theatre was both a triumph and a trial. "I could live in any Communist country," she once said, "providing I was the queen." So the group's dedication to alphabetical billing and equal opportunity for its actors vexed her star sensibility. A striking beauty, she was also shoe-horned into some strange roles. Her portrayal of a 50-year-old Jewish mother in Clifford Odets's Awake and Sing! 'won her great acclaim. But at the curtain call she would defiantly snatch the gray wig from her head.

What finally drove Adler out of the company, however, was her rancorous relationship with Lee Strasberg. Adler vs. Strasberg, a famous 50-year feud, started here. Essentially, Strasberg made Stanislavsky's studies in "affective memory," in which an actor must plumb his psyche for emotions and situations in his past that are analogous to the character's, the core of the "Method" he would later teach at his Actors Studio. Adler was disgusted by this mix of art and psychoanalysis. "Sick," she called it.

At first she blamed Stanislavsky. Introduced to the master in Paris in 1934, Adler recalls, "I said to his face, 'I loved the theater until you came. Now I hate it.' " Intrigued, Stanislavsky invited Adler to study with him. When she returned to the Group, she carried a diary of her six weeks of sessions as proof that the Russian had revised his thinking. "He understood that asking the actor to recall his personal life could produce hysteria," says Adler, "so he had abandoned that. He believed now that the actor must rely on his imagination."

For 55 years Adler has championed that cause: "The conscious mind will limit your acting and cripple you," she says. "Your creative imagination will not." When Strasberg died in 1982, she began class with a moment of silence for this "renowned acting teacher." Then she raised her head and announced, "It will take 50 years for the American actor to recover from the damage that man did."

Ever since the days when Florenz Ziegfeld tried to recruit her as a show girl, Adler has dazzled men: Not just her three husbands: Horace Eleas-cheff, an English aristocrat of Russian lineage (by whom she had her only child, Ellen, an artist); Harold Clurman, the Group Theatre's chief producer, whom she married in 1943 and eventually divorced; and physicist Mitchell Wilson, who died in 1973. The Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev also fell in love with her, Likewise "a gangster in liquor. Charming man," she says. "He introduced me to people who were later executed." Otherwise Adler will not discuss her amours, except to say, behind her hand, "I could name a President." To this day, she is expert at conspiratorial flirting.

Broadway star Elaine Stritch, who studied with Adler in 1944, gives an idea of that lofty sex appeal: "Once, when Stella had us each prepare a 15-minute club act, I did an impression of her. I went out and bought a hat with a big veil, very glamorous, like Empress Eugénie. And I wore a very tailored Dior suit with a plunging neckline, and marvelous medium heels with pointed toes. Terribly chic and terribly theatrical. I acted out Stella lunching at the Plaza. She was very impressed."

Along with all that style, "she was a sensational teacher," says Stritch. "Stella would create the goddamnedest situations for actors to fool around with. One morning she said, 'You are all chickens. And in your chicken coop there is a radio. Over the radio comes news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. I want you all to react as chickens.'

"All the bad actors began running around the auditorium going 'bwak buk buk'—hollering chicken noises because Pearl Harbor had been attacked. At all costs I had to be different, so I became very quiet—out of fear, you know. Across the room was an actor who was going to be a bigger star than any of us: Marlon. He laid an egg."

Though she broke a hip last year, Adler still carries a substantial teaching load. In fact, in 1986 she became bicoastal, opening a Los Angeles branch of the conservatory, where she conducts classes twice a year.

Today Adler—a "Jew broad from Odessa," as she likes to call herself—wants her New York students to be peasants. "Dig, dig in the earth! Extremely much unashamed! Scratch yourself. Wipe your face, then your bosom. Never mind that Park Avenue shit." At a whisper of laughter: "This isn't a joke. It's fundamental to every actor to come from the earth."

Next come monologues of lower-class characters. One in particular—an attempt at Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie—Adler adores. "Sweetheart, that was brilliant," she says softly. To the other students, she adds, "People hate you if what you say onstage is unimportant. That"—indicating the flushed young actress—"was important."

Class over now, Adler has begun her majestic progress toward the door. And as always, her students spring to their feet to applaud her out of the room.

But they're doing it right this time. Clapping to reach.

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