THE DAY I STUDIED WITH AN ACTING LEGEND
February 29, 2012 Anyone who knows me knows I’m a ham. In my twenty plus years working in the entertainment business, I managed on more than one occasion to insert myself into several TV shows and movies I was writing and producing. I got my SAG card doing a voice over on a Tea Leoni FOX sitcom called Flying Blind. I played a jovial sidekick on a ‘50s sci fi serial in an action comedy TV movie I co-wrote and co-produced called The Adventures of Captain Zoom in Outer Space, and I had a recurring role as a bitchy chef on a 90’s action series remake I co-created called Team Knight Rider that many fans of the original would like to forget. More recently I filmed three episodes of a Cinemax late night series called Femme Fatales playing a fastidious college professor and BFF of Dancing with the Stars actress Viveca A. Fox. And next month I begin shooting a starring role (finally!) in a 25 episode web series called Where the Bears Are about three gay “bears” mixed up in a murder plot. Yes, that’s what we call typecasting.
People often ask me if I ever trained to be an actor. Well, let me be clear. Yes. Technically. Well, it all depends on what you call training. I audited a four week acting class with legendary stage star and famed acting teacher Stella Adler in the late ‘80s. Her former students include Marlon Brando, Judy Garland, Warren Beatty and Robert DeNiro. And even after her death in 1992 at the age of 91, her schools in New York and Los Angeles continued producing impressive alumni such as Mark Ruffalo, Salma Hayek and Benicio Del Toro. In 1987, I was working as the Director of Development for a New York based television production company where I helped develop children’s shows with a wonderful TV exec named Eve Silverman (who I recently reconnected with on Facebook… gotta love Facebook sometimes). Anyway, the company was owned by a major New York advertising agency with clients like Hasbro toys and one of the CEOs was married to a former Hollywood actress by the name of Anne Newman, who had appeared in a number of classic movies like El Dorado with John Wayne and Robert Mitchum and The Thrill of it All with James Garner and Doris Day. Anne took a liking to me immediately and took me out to many, many three Margarita lunches. Afterwards I would stumble back to our afternoon development meetings and have to slur my way through updates on all our projects under the watchful eye of Eve (who was so sweet not to say anything about her second in command being out of his mind drunk… hey, I was 23 at the time).
One day, Anne suggested I join her at Stella Adler’s acting seminar she was taking every Wednesday night. I jumped at the chance. Anne was loads of fun and I thought it would lead to us having a lot of laughs. And I was sure she would pay for the drinks we would inevitably have after class.
How wrong I was. Not about the drinks. Anne came through on that one. It was the class. No laughs. None. First of all, I didn’t get the memo that when Ms. Adler entered the room you were to spring to your feet and applaud wildly. Her disapproving eye caught mine when I was still sitting in the hard back aluminum chair as she was wheeled in (she was in a wheelchair by this time), her right arm raised, slightly waving like the Queen of England. It all went downhill from there.
Every student who took to the stage to do a scene was viciously criticized, torn down, more than a few left in a puddle of tears. This woman was an absolute sadist. She was awful to everyone, but particularly relished attacking the girls. Even so, I kept thanking God I was simply auditing the class as an observer and would not be called down to perform for her. Wrong again. It was one budding actor’s turn to perform a monologue from some courtroom drama. I don’t remember which one maybe The Caine Mutiny or A Few Good Men or Compulsion. It was a long time ago. I noticed his hands were shaking when he took to the stage. Ms. Adler bellowed, “How can you make a closing argument to the jury without anyone there to play to? You MUST have a scene partner.” Her eyes scanned the room. “YOU!”
She couldn’t be pointing at me. I turned around. Anne and I were in the back row. There was no one behind me! Ms. Adler screamed, “YOU! What is your name?” “Rick Copp,” I managed to squeak out, my voice cracking. Stella nodded. “Mr. Copp, would you be so kind as to play the role of the juror so this young man has a scene partner?” I turned to Anne for help, but she looked away pretending she didn’t know me.
“I… I’m not an actor… I’m just auditing…” I said softly. Ms. Adler’s eyes blazed as she bellowed, “I expect EVERYONE in my class to participate. Mr. Copp, if you please!” Anne gave me a nudge. I stood up and walked down to the stage, nodding at the shaking young man about to perform his monologue. I sat down and he started talking. I don’t remember what he was saying. I wasn’t listening. I was doing my own internal monologue. “Omigod! She’s going to yell at me! She’s going to tell me I suck and I have no business being here and I don’t take the work seriously and I am an affront to the entire acting profession and how dare I come into this room and disrupt the real actors who are here to do their work and learn from the great master…” I kept my eyes fixed on the poor young man talking to me. He raised a finger to make a point. He was still shaking. He was blowing it. I was blowing it. This was a HUGE disaster and I was about to be ripped a new one. Ms. Adler stared at me, an angry frown fixed to her face. Finally, mercifully, she stopped the scene. She was yelling, her face flushed red and it wasn’t even the heavy rouge she was wearing. She was tearing down the poor actor playing the lawyer for something like five minutes. When she finished, she ordered him back to his seat. I was the only one left on stage. “As for you, MISTER Copp…”
Oh God, hear it comes. “EXCELLENT work! I BELIEVED you were listening intently to the attorney. I BELIEVED you as a juror. I applaud your concentration!”
You know, in hindsight, the late great Stella Adler truly was an acting legend with much wisdom, a true purveyor of untapped talent. Right? Right?