Lee Strasberg (November 17, 1901 – February 17, 1982) was an American actor, director and acting teacher. He cofounded, with directors Harold Clurman and Cheryl Crawford, the Group Theatre in 1931, which was hailed as “America’s first true theatrical collective”. In 1951, he became director of the non-profit Actors Studio, in New York City, considered “the nation’s most prestigious acting school”. In 1969, Strasberg founded the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in New York City and in Hollywood to teach the work he pioneered.
He is considered the “father of method acting in America,” according to author Mel Gussow, and from the 1920s until his death in 1982 “he revolutionized the art of acting by having a profound influence on performance in American theater and movies”. From his base in New York, he trained several generations of theatre and film’s most illustrious talents, including Anne Bancroft, Dustin Hoffman, Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Julie Harris, Paul Newman, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and director Elia Kazan.
Former student Elia Kazan directed James Dean in East of Eden (1955), for which Kazan and Dean were nominated for Academy Awards. As a student, Dean wrote that Actors Studio was “the greatest school of the theater [and] the best thing that can happen to an actor”. Playwright Tennessee Williams, writer of A Streetcar Named Desire, said of Strasberg’s actors, “They act from the inside out. They communicate emotions they really feel. They give you a sense of life.” Directors like Sidney Lumet, a former student, have intentionally used actors skilled in Strasberg’s “Method”.
Kazan, in his autobiography, wrote, “He carried with him the aura of a prophet, a magician, a witch doctor, a psychoanalyst, and a feared father of a Jewish home…. [H]e was the force that held the thirty-odd members of the theatre together, and made them ‘permanent.’”Today, Ellen Burstyn, Al Pacino, and Harvey Keitel lead this nonprofit studio dedicated to the development of actors, playwrights, and directors.
Lee Strasberg was born Israel Strassberg in Budaniv in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire (now in Ukraine) to Jewish parents, Baruch Meyer Strassberg and Ida Diner, and was the youngest of three sons. His father emigrated to New York while his family remained in their home village with an uncle, a rabbinical teacher. His father, who worked as a presser in the garment industry, sent first for his eldest son and his daughter. Finally, enough money was saved to bring over his wife and his two remaining sons. In 1909, the family was reunited on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where they lived until the early twenties. Young Strasberg took refuge in voracious reading and the companionship of his older brother, Zalmon, whose death in the influenza epidemic of 1918 was so traumatic for the young Strasberg that, despite being a straight-A student, he dropped out of high school. A relative introduced him to the theater by giving him a small part in a Yiddish-language production that was being performed by the Progressive Drama Club. He later joined the Chrystie Street Settlement House’s drama club. Philip Loeb, casting director of the Theater Guild, sensed that Strasberg could act, although he was not yet thinking of a fulltime acting career, and was still working as a shipping clerk and bookkeeper for a wig company. When he was 23 years old he enrolled in the Clare Tree Major School of the Theater.