Senior year of high school found me attending acting school in Manhattan. It all came about because I was enacting some story in my head to Jimmy Hanley who looked at me with a half smile on his face and said, “You oughta be an actor.” Now I probably thought the same thing at one time or another like every kid thinks, but never really taking it seriously because the only thing I ever wanted to do since I became enthralled by E.B. White’s Stuart Little was write. I mean, I loved reading, loved the worlds I discovered in books, loved getting lost in other people’s lives which in books I seemed to be able to do so easily, and I thought I’d kind of like to do that, too. Create worlds people could get lost in, create characters people could care about, want to get to know, have coffee with, maybe, and watch logs burn in a fireplace as they traded stories. So writing is the only thing I thought I would ever do, but then this idea of acting, getting lost in characters in real time, seemed like an interesting complement to what I thought would be my life’s calling, so I mulled it over a few nights, then told my mother I was thinking of going to an acting school to see where it could lead. She, naturally, thought it was a great idea, being supportive of us as always, and so I thumbed through a Manhattan phonebook looking for the school I thought I remembered people like Gary Cooper studied at, and quite by accident picked the wrong one, but in the end it didn’t matter.
The New York Academy of Dramatic Arts. On 57th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues. My new second home for a pivotal year in my life. The year I had the two most influencial teachers I would ever know and the year I made friends with people, though I lost contact with as the years slipped by, who would leave their imprint on my heart and mind for the rest of my life.
That year I had my senior English class every morning at 8 and was exposed to Dr. William Jaeger, called Wild Bill affectionately by his students, who opened my eyes to literature in a way no one had previously. We read over 15 novels and plays, poetry, etc., including 2 novels by Camus, J.D. Salinger (whose Catcher in the Rye was banned in the school district so he had us read Seymour: An Introduction & Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, which was his surreptitious strategy of sneaking Salinger into school), Jonathan Swift, Dostoevsky, Faulkner, Stephen Crane, Orwell, Conrad, Sophocles, selected Dialogues from Plato, Shakespeare’s King Lear, which he would act out for us, and so much more. Each morning was an adventure in his class because you never knew what he would do. He was a big man, a part-time actor (I saw him in a small role on TV once), and he pranced around the room, his tie loosened at the collar, his shirt sleeves rolled up, his eyes flashing, his arms flailing in the air. We would sit in a big circle and he was in the center, like in a circus, with him challenging us to think every second of those class periods. I loved books before but he made everything jump off the page. And the class was the strangest mixture of students: honor roll scholars, student body officers, hoods, loners, geeks, athletes. We all couldn’t figure out why we were in the same classroom but a few years later I met another alumni of his who told me because he was that rare PhD teaching high school in those days, the principle let him have the top 100 IQs for his classes, regardless of their GPAs. And his stated mission was to save us before we grew up into adults. I don’t know how many he “saved” but he certainly changed my life.
Then there was Lee Stanleigh at night: my acting teacher. He used a distilled version of The Method to tap into our inner emotional lives in order to get us to “feel” the roles he assigned us for scene study. The breakthrough role for me was Starbuck in The Rainmaker, which no one in their right mind at the time would have thought me capable of. But Lee did. And he talked me into the role, as he talked me into roles like Brick in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, with Big Ed playing Big Daddy and throwing me around the room in our version of the mendacity scene. Lee saw Tennesse Williams stamped on me and so had me also take on Tom in The Glass Menagerie and Shannon inThe Night of the Iguana, all tormented souls. And each time before I would get to go on, he’d talk me into the mood of the piece, sometimes for 10 minutes or so, and then let me loose with my emotions on my sleeve.
Between those two, my brain and my heart got a workout but I grew in ways I never imagined possible and found pain beneath my surface begging for a release.
And then there were my classmates, everyone older than me and from every possible corner of the city and social-economic class:
Big Ed, an alcoholic, from Elizabeth, New Jersey, and hung up on old Western gunfighters, telling tales he read from Western magazines right out of Zane Grey, his favorite TV show being Gunsmoke, had once worked as a runner for NJ gangsters bringing cigarettes and whiskey across state lines until his partner shot some of the competition in some bathroom in a bar and Ed got spooked enough to quit. His hands shook uncontrollably, his eyes were shot, I saw him suffer from the DT’s once, shaking on the floor, foaming at the mouth. I’d often sit in bars with him late into the evening listening to his stories and even took a bus out to NJ once to visit him in his lair. He was one third of the trio that spent time with Lee after hours, including me and my first real love: Karen Deene.
Karen’s real name was Karen Gross but she preferred her adopted stage name Deene. A NYC Jewish girl from the lower East Side, she grew up in Peter Cooper Village, one of the first middle-income housing projects built in the city. Her father was a doctor who worked for the city in a clinic somewhere, and Karen graduated from Hunter College as an Education major. She was 2 years older than me but graduated college when I graduated high school because she skipped a year in grade school and I lost a year due to contracting ringworm on my head when I was seven and had to stay out of school for 6 months, causing me to repeat third grade. Karen became the prototype of almost every woman I ever fell for: long, dark hair, deep, dark eyes, a sly sense of humor, book smart, cultured, intuitive, perfect in every way except she was in love with Lee who was married to Carol but was openly gay. The marriage happened because Carol had an hysterical pregnancy and got Lee to marry her, only to find out it was a false alarm. They stayed married for reasons I never understood but did not live together. For Lee, it was an attempt to go straight that didn’t work. It was a source of anguish for Karen which made it a source of anguish for me.
Henry Munoz was a Puerto Rican from Jackson Heights, Queens, who looked 16 but was almost 30. He worked in the graphics department of Penthouse magazine and was secretly gay. He confessed this to me while we were having ice cream after watching Zorba The Greek one Sunday afternoon in Lynbrook. He was afraid I would reject his friendship but since he never propositioned me, had always treated me with kindness and respect, I saw no reason to stop being friends. He would often come out to the house on Sundays to get away from his abusive father (he still lived at home) and have dinner with my family. My mother loved him, and he always brought her a gift, spent holidays with us sometimes, and we remained friends for several years afterwards. I lost contact with him, though, after grad school in Ohio and often wonder what became of him in the decades to follow with AIDS ravaging his world.
Alvin Miller, an African American from Springfield, Massachusetts who came down to NYC to study acting. He was a year older than me and lived in Canarsie, Brooklyn with his aunt who I later found out wasn’t exactly his aunt which explained why he was sleeping with her. She was very nice to me, and I often went out there to visit him, and he came to the house, too, many times on Sunday and as explained once before, ate 3 plates of spaghetti with meatballs and sausage. He moved out to LA in my freshman year of college and though we wrote for a while, I eventually stopped getting answers to my letters. He used to joke that he would end up like Sam Cooke, shot by some woman under questionable circumstances, and I always wondered if that didn’t happen one day.
Roger, from St. Albans, Queens, who introduced me to Miles Davis and Charlie Parker and tried to get me to go out with his sister. They lived together without any parents around and I was never exactly sure what Roger did for a living since he rarely seemed to be working but always had money.
Nelson, who lived in Harlem and co-wrote songs with another guy I can’t remember the name of but can see him clearly in my mind’s eye. He was short, wore thick glasses, had a pencil thin mustache that looked painted on, and always had a hat on, a white shirt and sports jacket, no tie. Nelson was tall, athletic, handsome, with the sweetest smile, and questionable sexual preferences. There was a sailor from Haiti who lived with him sometimes and girls were constantly going in and out of his apartment. His New Year’s Eve party was held the same year that the subway strike happened at 5am on New Year’s Day and because of that, I didn’t get home until 4:30 the next afternoon. I slept, more or less, in the living room of Nelson’s apartment and sometime in the morning another friend from school, Lou something who was so in love with Barbra Streisand that he saw Funny Girl on Broadway four times, and I shared a cab downtown and I had breakfast at Karen’s apartment, meeting her parents and coming as close as I ever came to getting a real kiss. I think if I hadn’t been so shy around women then, I might have convinced her to go out with me, but I wasn’t able to read the signs right and whatever opportunity I might have had passed me by.
John Woods, Julian Richards, and Victor Stein and I used to spend two or three evenings after class at the Barney Stone a few blocks from the school on Eighth Avenue doing boiler makers, eating corned beef and cabbage or a ham and cheese sandwich while talking about acting, theatre, films. John was from Brooklyn, Julian from Jamaica (the island, not the section of Queens), and Victor was from Kew Gardens, Queens. Sometimes Big Ed would join us. Julian would sneak a pint of Canadian Club in under his coat and we’d spike the draft beer that we bought at the bar. I’d always get home late those nights, usually catching the 1:52am train on the Long Island Railroad, and get up the next day for school. And on Saturdays, I’d go into the city and meet those three guys along with Henry Munoz and sometimes Alvin at the Cornell Club where Julian worked. He’d get us an empty room and we’d drink, watch TV, talk shop until the evening, then most of us would go out to catch a movie, then go downtown to The Village to eat some more, find a bar, and stay till closing, talking about the one thing we had in common: acting.
And there were others, the names faded from my memory but not the faces, not the way they walked, danced in our modern dance classes, the way I would leap about in fencing class pretending to be Errol Flynn, the instructor shaking his head and saying, “Discipline, Len. Fencing is about discipline not jumping over chairs and slashing the air.” Of course I understood that, but would still jump over chairs anyway with John Woods playing Basil Rathbone to my Errol Flynn and Karen clapping with the others as the instructor gave up with a sigh. And the time we had to recite lyrics using our own stress and intonation patterns and I used the lyrics from the Bob Haymes/Alan Brandt song That’s All which I learned from the Sinatra and Strings album and though I could only look once Karen’s way, she understood and rested her hand on my head after I sat down in my usual spot next to her.
Later, after I drifted apart from them all when I went away to college, and performed the roles I was most proud of: the drifter in Hello Out There by William Sarayon, Leslie Bright in The Madness of Lady Bright by Lanford Wilson, and Biff in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and my formal education began, I really never learned anything those people during that year didn’t already teach me.
I remember it all. That year. The year that changed the trajectory of my life. And the people who helped put the finishing touches on the person I was and helped point me toward who I am today.