Lee Strasberg (born Israel Lee Strassberg; November 17, 1901 – February 17, 1982) was a Polish-born American actor, director, and theatre practitioner. He co-founded, 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 nonprofit Actors Studio in New York City, considered “the nation’s most prestigious acting school,” and in 1966 he was involved in the creation of Actors Studio West in Los Angeles.
Although other highly regarded teachers also developed “the Method”, Strasberg is often 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 film.” From his base in New York, he trained several generations of theatre and film notables, including Anne Bancroft, Dustin Hoffman, Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Jane Fonda, Julie Harris, Paul Newman, Ellen Burstyn, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Geraldine Page, Eli Wallach, and directors Andreas Voutsinas, Frank Perry and Elia Kazan.
By 1970, Strasberg had become less involved with the Actors Studio and, with his third wife, Anna, opened the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute with branches in New York City and in Hollywood, to continue teaching the ‘system’ of Konstantin Stanislavski, which he had interpreted and developed, particularly in light of the ideas of Yevgeny Vakhtangov, for contemporary actors. The institute’s primary stated goal was “to reach a larger audience of eager and emerging talent” than was served by the Actors Studio’s notoriously selective admission process, and as teachers of the method introduced their own personal interpretations of the discipline, “to dispel growing confusion and misrepresentation of the method, preserving what had by now become fundamental discoveries in actor training.” The Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute has its own rigorous sets of entrance criteria required for admission into their program.
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 such as 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 … [He] was the force that held the 30-odd members of the theatre together, and made them ‘permanent’.” :61 Today, Ellen Burstyn, Al Pacino, and Harvey Keitel lead this non-profit studio dedicated to the development of actors, playwrights, and directors.
As an actor, Strasberg is probably best known for his supporting role as gangster Hyman Roth alongside his former student Al Pacino in The Godfather Part II (1974), a role he took at Pacino’s suggestion after Kazan turned down the role, and which earned him a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. He also appeared in Going in Style (1979) and … And Justice for All (1979).