Why am I telling you all of this? It certainly wasn’t what I intended to write when I sat down and started typing. Did I want to talk about the fact that when I remove my Yankees cap these days my hair looks like someone lost control of his weed whacker?
Oh, that’s right! My favorite coaches. The ones who inspired me most. Three peas in entirely different pods. Michael Moriarty, Mira Rostova, and Stephen Strimpell. They form a sort of triptych. What they thought, felt, believed about each other I can’t say because I don’t know. It wouldn’t matter if I did.
I knew who both Michael and Mira were long before I studied with them. I was a huge fan of Michael’s work. Bang The Drum Slowly, Holocaust, The Glass Menagerie…which won him Emmys…and I’d read about his triumphs on stage in plays like Find Your Way Home and G.R. Point. Wishing I’d been there, front row center, opening nights…to witness performances that garnered him the coveted Tony. Michael used to teach in his apartment. I want to say it was somewhere midtown but something in me says further North. But just a tad. Who cares, it was beautiful. I always felt like I was entering a sacred inner sanctum. Cocoon like. A womb. The energy was so cool. And not in the pretentious, ‘Hey look at me, Actors Studio way.’ Cool as in relaxed. Calm. Bruce Lee, in his infinite wisdom said, be like water. In Michael’s care we were. Flowing. We were there to work. Pure and simple. To live. Not perform or show off. Michael was the anti guru. A master of communication who could easily have cultivated dependency in his disciples, but who thankfully chose instead to nurture, and guide us gently toward true independence. I don’t remember ever hearing anything even remotely critical or judgmental. Never a discouraging word. He patiently focused our attention. Always smiling. Always reminding us to breathe. Eternally emphasizing the importance, the necessity, the value of breathing. I felt safe. Which was huge given my degree of insecurity. Completely relaxed. Free. There were never more than ten of us. At least when I was studying with him. Michael may spend an inordinate amount of time ranting on blogs these days about the innumerable things that stick in his increasingly paranoid craw…but as a teacher, coach, mentor…long before Law and Order…he was a saint. At the end of each session he’d humbly pass a collection basket into which we’d drop our twenty bucks, and he’d murmur thanks for the monetary gifts he would shortly receive. I have no idea what he actually thought or felt about any of us but he made me believe he loved and respected us all. And as a result we flourished.
Mira was a legend! I’d spent my entire youth obsessed with one of her more famous friends/colleagues/pupils, Montgomery Clift. My idol, ideal. To this day he remains my inspiration in acting. There may have been and continue to be myriad others who amaze me, dazzle me, render me speechless…but Monty has always been and will always be the torch bearer. A friend who’d followed me to New York and was studying with Bill Hickey at HB Studios asked me to work on a scene from Neil Simon’s, Brighton Beach Memoirs, with him for class. While awaiting our turn at bat Bill shared a story about attending a screening of Prizzi’s Honor, for which he’d received an Oscar nomination, with his mentor, Mira Rostova! It was all I could do to get through the remainder of his class and our scene so I could get the low down on Mira. OH MY GOD! She was still teaching! AND she was listed in the phone book! In the phone book?!!!! Mira Rostova?!!!! I know. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being listed in the phone book. But…Mira Rostova?! Anyway, I called! To study with Mira you had to audition. Although walking into her apartment that first time was momentous, I was surprisingly calm. As if I actually belonged. We sat on her couch and I did Iggy’s ‘I went back home’ monologue from Runaways by Elizabeth Swados. Loved that monologue. Served my purpose on numerous occasions. When I finished she sat staring at me. Didn’t say a word for the longest time. Then, ‘Why do you want to study with me?’ ‘I don’t know,’ I answered dishonestly, ‘I just know it’s important I do.’ Then, in the most intimate way imaginable, she told me about a friend of hers who’d died. Told me that when he died she was inconsolable. That she went to all of their mutual friends trying to make sense of what she considered a tragedy. Believing in her heart that something could have been done to save him. But that each and every person she approached said the same thing, ‘Let it go, Mira. There was nothing we could do.’ I smiled sadly, nodded my head, whispered, ‘Yes.’ She accepted me in her class. Years later, after I’d stopped acting and was an associate manager for actors I shared that story with one of the clients who’d also studied with Mira. He was flabbergasted. Said, ‘She never talks about Montgomery Clift to anybody!’ I have to be honest, initially I was completely put off by her tendency to give line readings. I detest that. Was it her age? Had she grown impatient over the years? Was it easier to just tell the actors how to say their lines than to help them build their characters? I’ll never know. What I do know is that in all the time I spent under her tutelage she never once gave me a line reading. She created dialogues from my monologues. Brilliantly second guessing everything in such a way that we’d have the most amazing conversations without my having to alter one word of my text. She never said she was working with me the same way she’d worked with him. She didn’t have to. It was extraordinary. The feeling. But you want to hear something funny? For the life of her she could not remember my name. Probably because my identity was equally blurry to me. I’d come to believe I was Montgomery Clift. That his spirit had somehow swapped places with mine after his passing. Insane yes, but clearly necessary to sustain me at the time. Made me feel special in ways I was desperate to. On the last night I attended Mira’s class she looked at me and smiled. This incredibly sweet, sincere, knowing smile, then turned back to whoever was working. In that moment I experienced the single most significant revelation of my life…she was smiling at me, not him…I didn’t need to be him or anyone else to be special. To be talented. To have value. I was enough. And SNAP! The obsession broke.
Stephen Strimpell. Didn’t know him from Adam. Realized after the fact that he’d been in one of my favorite films, Hester Street, with the incomparable, Carol Kane. In which he was great. He was extremely pragmatic. There was nothing intimate in his classes. Nothing at all warm or gooey. We weren’t there to be friends. He made that abundantly clear. One day when I approached him to ask for a scene suggestion he scolded, ‘I’m not your mother. Find one yourself.’ So I did. The atmosphere wasn’t so much like boot camp, as it was gym with a tough ass, motherfucking coach. He kicked your ass. At first I thought he was a bully. And in some respects he was. But he wasn’t sadistic. You can always tell when you’re in the presence of a bona fide sadist. I came to realize that he wasn’t so much a bully as just aggressive in his approach. Not so much impatient as conscious of the amount of work he had to accomplish in the limited time available. When he gave me a direction, by God, I took it! With alacrity! Not because I was terrified he’d berate me if I didn’t, but because the man was never wrong. His direction was never limiting, always liberating. He was a genius at analyzing text. Breaking it down. Laser sharp. Like the worlds greatest surgeon dissecting a body. Intricately, but with amazing speed and dexterity. Extracting the information, processing it and making exceptionally strong choices. Not acting choices, life choices. He exposed the multitude of layers that exist within the page. The pulsating life, not the acting opportunities.
The primary principal, the most essential ingredient, all three shared was the intent to create life. Clear, conscious, specific, mental, emotional, physical life. And live it.
I am forever grateful to them all.