Issue: Issue Summer 2001

A Family Dynasty Lives On In Hollywood

Tamara Collins

Long identified with New York theatre’s “Actors Studio,” there are few outside the acting community who might associate Lee Strasberg and Hollywood. Yet it is here that his legacy lives on.

“This is the place of our youth-- the kids and mine,” said Anna Strasberg, widow of the legendary acting coach and, perhaps to prove a point, Academy Award winner, Lee Strasberg. She looked up at the black wrought iron doors, with the big numbers “6757” on the front of them. "The people that came through these doors were unbelievable,” Mrs. Strasberg said, “there are so many people who have gone on to become legends.”

On June 8, 2001, accompanied by her son, David Lee Strasberg, and students of the Lee Strasberg Institute, Anna Strasberg returned to her late husband’s star at 6757 Hollywood Blvd., for the first time since his death in 1982. The building was the first home of the Lee Strasberg Institute, now located at 7936 Santa Monica Blvd.

“An annual tradition of the students is to visit Lee's star, on the day of his birth (November 17th), polish it and place flowers on it,” said Anna Strasberg. The students laid a white rose on Lee Strasberg’s star before gathering around it to hear Anna Strasberg reminisce about her life with Lee Strasberg.

Lee Strasberg is known for teaching three generations of actors, playwrights, and directors before his death in 1982. This year marks the 100th year celebration of Lee Strasberg’s birth on November 17, 1901. Year long festivities are already underway and will continue up through his birthday on both coasts. The year long Cenntential Celebration was kicked off in Hollywood by The Group at Strasberg, a new production company, run by David Strasberg which recently opened Possible Worlds at the Marilyn Monroe Theatre.  

“On the day the star was installed, Lee was very moved,” said the third and last Mrs. Lee Strasberg, Anna. Anna and Lee met and married in 1967. Lee’s second wife, Paula, mother of the late Susan Strasberg and John Strasberg, died of cancer in 1966.  

In 1969, three years after the West Coast branch of the Actor’s Studio was established in Los Angeles, The Lee Strasberg Institute was created in New York and then in Los Angeles. The Strasbergs had leased the building at Hollywood Blvd. with an option to buy, but somebody beat them to buying the building and instead they bought 7936 Santa Monica Blvd. in what is now West Hollywood.

The Lee Strasberg Institute’s home is a beautiful old building that includes the school, two theatres, and offices. It still has its 1920s brick walls, hardwood floors and steep and narrow staircases. The recently renovated Marilyn Monroe, a gift of Anna to her husband, is a beautiful 99-seat space with wood beams and exposed brick walls. Marilyn Monroe was a favorite student of Lee’s who is credited with giving her the legitimacy as an actress she so desperately sought. Among his other famous students are, but are not limited to, Angelina Jolie, Al Pacino, Jane Fonda, James Dean, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson, Shelly Winters, and Marlon Brando.

Following Lee’s death, Anna continued running the school although she claims she was never its artistic director. She was always Anna, Lee’s wife. She and Lee founded the Lee Strasberg Institutes in New York and Los Angeles. “As long as his name is on our buildings, Lee Strasberg is our artistic director of our schools,” said Anna Strasberg. The love of the school and the family can be attributed to her philosophy of running the schools as if her children were students. “I figured if the schools weren’t good enough for my own children then they weren’t good enough anyone else’s,” said Anna.

A little over a year ago, following a stint in the political arena as part of Mayor Richard Riodan’s staff, son David thought it time to become involved in the family business and asked Anna if she might have a job for him. She replied, “Yes, mine.” As the CEO/Executive Director of their bi-coastal schools, David is building on the legacy created by Lee and carried on by Anna. He is also the producer of their new in-house production company, The Group at Strasberg. Anna jets frequently between coasts and continues teaching at New York University.  

The Strasberg Institute’s mission is teaching acting for film and theatre. “The main difference between film and theater is that in film the moment is frozen in time and you can replay it and see it again,” said David. “In theatre you are never going to get that moment again.” Theatre provides an immediate connection with people. The audience presence is essential to its success. “I think that theater will always be here,” David said, “as it has since the beginning of time.”

What keeps this family legacy alive? Certainly the genius of its founder, Lee Strasberg, whose techniques provide exemplary training for actors, playwrights and directors, but there’s also the tradition of treating everyone like family.

David recalled one of the memories of his childhood was living in New York and his father making ice cream floats for everyone; whether starving actor or actor, they were all welcome around the Strasberg’s table. Their house was the place where all of his friends wanted to come and stay. “It wasn’t just because my mom made great chili, it was because of how welcoming our family was,” says David.

On December 11, 2000, a new generation was welcomed into the family with the birth of David’s daughter, Gwendolyn. What role will she play? Only time will tell. Her father insists that she will make her own decisions with career, just as he and his brother, Adam, now a filmmaker, were allowed to do. That’s part of the Strasberg family legacy.