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Who was Sanford Meisner

“If you ever meet someone who calls themselves a Master Teacher run from this teacher! What arrogance and ego. I am not a Master Teacher. Even after a half century of teaching I’ve mastered nothing. I’m simply a teacher dedicated to teaching truthful acting and I will never master that.” Sanford Meisner, Los Angeles, June 1992

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Sanford Meisner is a quiet force behind the modern history of American acting – an open secret well known to generations of the most successful and admired actors, writers, and directors, many of who were his devoted students. However, most outside this world have never heard of the master teacher who influenced more careers than all of the top acting teachings in America combined. Born August 31, 1905 and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Sanford Meisner graduated form Erasmus Hall in 1923 and attended The Damrash Institute of Music (now The Juilliard), where he studied to become a concert pianist before talking his way into a job in a Theater Guild production of Sidney Howard’s They Knew What They Wanted. He realized then that acting really “dug at him” and was what he was looking to find. In 1931, a fervent group of young actors, including Meisner, Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg, and Harold Clurman, among others, joined together to establish the Group Theatre. It was the first permanent theatre company that brought “Method” acting, rooted in the methods of Konstantin Stanislavsky, to practice and prominence in America. Meisner appeared in twelve Group productions, including the first, The House of Connelly, and all of Clifford Odets’ plays, including Waiting for Lefty, which Meisner co-directed with Odets in 1935. Sanford Meisner - TeachingIn 1933, Meisner became disenchanted with pure “Method” acting. He wrote, “Actors are not guinea pigs to be manipulated, dissected, let alone in a purely negative way. Our approach was not organic, that is to say not healthy.” Meisner had ongoing discussions about technique with Adler, who worked with Stanislavsky in Paris, and Clurman, who took a deep interest in the American character. Eventually Meisner realized that if American actors were ever going to achieve the goal of “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances,” an American approach was needed. The Neighborhood Playhouse provided him with a venue to develop that approach on his own. In 1935 he headed the Drama Department at The Playhouse while still acting and directing plays produced by The Group Theatre. This continued until the Group’s demise in 1940. He also appeared on Broadway in Embezzled (1944) and Crime and Punishment (1948). He directed The Time of Your Life (1955) and acted in The Cold Wind and the Warm (1958). Meisner left The Playhouse in 1958 to become the director of the New Talent Division of Twentieth Century Fox. He moved to Los Angeles, where he was also able to cultivate his career as a film actor. He starred in Odets’ The Story on Page One (1959), Tender Is the Night (1962), and later Mikey and Nicky (1976). Sanford MeisnerMeisner received commendations from Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Reagan. He was honored by California Governor Pete Wilson and was named the “Humanitarian of the Year 1990? by The Washington Charity Awards. His final appearance as an actor was in a guest-starring role on a special episode of “ER” that aired in February of 1995. After his death on February 2, 1997, Backstage West dedicated an issue to Meisner and his world-renowned “Meisner Technique.” Arthur Miller once said of Meisner, “He has been the most principled teacher of acting in this country for decades now, and every time I am auditioning actors I can pretty well tell which ones have studied with Meisner. It is because they are the most honest and simple and don’t lay on complications that aren’t necessary.” Until his death on February 2, 1997 at the age of ninety-one, Sanford Meisner was one of the world’s most influential and respected teachers of acting. In fact, no teacher of acting in the history of theatre and film has produced a more extensive and prodigious “who’s who” of actors than Sanford Meisner, yet most people outside the professional world of theatre have never even heard of Sanford Meisner.

The following quotes from several of Sandy’s alumni only begin to capture this man’s remarkable brilliance:

"I envy all of you who may be discovering Sandy for the first time." Sydney Pollack
"I owe everything I am, and achieved as an actor to Sandy. There isn’t a day that passes where I don’t think of Sandy and what he’s meant to my career … He changed my life forever." Robert Duvall
"Sandy gave the word ‘teacher’ a whole new meaning for me … He was the single greatest influence in my creative life." Mary Steenburgen
"Sandy wasn’t teaching for the money or the reputation of it. He was really trying to bring to his students what he believed deeply to be the highest of pursuits so his students could be part of this movement – the joy of it, the greatness of it, the importance of it really. So that was a great, great gift he gave us all – a respect for the craft of acting." Jon Voight
"I would have been nothing if it weren’t for Sandy. He literally gave me my career as an actor." Steve McQueen
"I studied with Strasberg, Clurman, Stella, Bobby Lewis – none of them taught like Sandy. Sandy was the master." Mark Rydell
"Sandy was the first, true genius I and most of us had ever met in our lives. And we all knew we were in the presence of genius." David Mamet
"With Sandy you knew you were in the presence of genius and the truth of that statement is in the quality of work his students have produced over the years." John Cassavettes
"The thing I’ve always admired about Sandy – unlike so many acting teachers I’ve experienced over the years – he was never above the information, more important than the information. Sandy was a purist. A true artist with complete artistic devotion to his art and his craft." Arthur Miller
"Sandy was a most sensitive, urbane, gentle, fine man – a man of unusual and delicate sensibilities. And always an artist. He represented something very rare these days – artistic integrity. We don’t have it much anymore. Artistic devotion. He had standards and a respect for the craft of acting and that’s obvious anytime you hear his students talk about him." Elia Kazan
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