The New Yorker June 11, 1984
SOME three hundred trustees, supporters, friends, and alumni of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts made their way through a downpour the other evening to attend a dinner dance at the Red Parrot, on West Fifty-seventh Street, marking the opening of the Academy’s hundredth year as the oldest training school for actors in the English-speaking world. The Academy’s importance is beyond dispute: its roster of former students in eludes Cecil B. De Mille, Edward G. Robinson, Spencer Tracy, Rosalind Russell, Pat O’Brien, William Powell, Howard Lindsay, Garson Kanin, Ruth Gordon, Agnes Moorehead, Betty Field, Jason Robards, Thelma Ritter, Joseph Schildkraut, Jennifer Jones, Kirk Douglas, Colleen Dewhurst, Lauren Bacall, Grace Kelly, John Cassavetes, Anne Bancroft, and Robert Redford, to name a few; and over the years its alumni have won nominations for eighty Oscars, fifty-three Tonys, and ninety-three Emmys.
As people entered the club and headed for one of two bars or for tables near the dance floor, we spoke with George Cuttingham, a good-looking man in a blue suit, who is the Academy’s president and director. “Tonight’s event is really a sort of pre-centennial,” Mr. Cuttingham explained. “The Academy was founded on October 3, 1884, so we’ll have our real centennial opening event on October 3rd of this year-at the school, a fine old Stanford White building on Madison Avenue. We also have a West Coast branch, in Pasadena, which opened ten years ago. The Academy’s founder was a former member of the Harvard faculty named Franklin Haven Sargent, and in those days the very thought of training actors in an academic setting was frontpage news. In fact, the only such schools in the world before ours were the Paris Conservatoire and the Lunacharsky State Institute of Theatre Art, in Moscow. What the Academy sought to do from the outset was to duplicate what people got through learning by doing- joining a stock company and carrying a spear, and so forth-and to do it in a two-year program under controlled, conservatory conditions. I didn’t study at the Academy myself, as it happens. I studied with Sanford Meisner, at the Neighborhood Playhouse, and I worked for many years as an actor, director, and teacher before joining the Academy’s faculty, in 1963.”
Mr. Cuttingham hurried off to confer with some colleagues. Familiar faces were appearing in the doorway, each one causing a flurry of excitement. One familiar face was that of Conrad Bain, who stars in the television series “Diff’rent Strokes.” He looked sporty in a black blazer and white trousers, and after greeting some acquaintances he sat down with us on a long black banquette and told us that he had studied at the Academy from 1946 through 1948.
“When I was there, the director of training was the redoubtable Charles Jehlinger, who assumed that post in 1900 and kept it until his death, in 1952,” Mr. Bain said. “Most people have never heard of Jehlinger, but he spent his entire life thinking creatively about acting, and amassing a set of principles about it. He was eighty-one when I met him, and he was a very strange, tiny man, who lived like a monk and seemed to have no personality or ego. I mean he seemed to want us to know nothing about his personality and everything about his ideas. He never acted for us-that wasn’t part of his approach. His approach was to lead us to find our own way. And he was merciless in his insistence on honesty and integrity. Trickery was out. Moreover, the evolution of Jehlinger’s concepts preceded by decades any knowledge in the theatrical community here about Stanislavsky or any of that. Yet Jehlinger’s approach-I’m avoiding the word ‘method’-was actually very similar to Stanislavsky’s. I think it’s very important that what Jehlinger spent so many years coming to, and imparting to others, should not be lost.”
Mr. Bain excused himself to join some friends. More familiar faces appeared, and there were more Hurries of excitement. We did some table-hopping, and soon we stopped at a table where Lillian Gish was sitting.
Miss Gish, who is an honorary trustee of the Academy, was wearing a black dress, a red jacket, and pearls, and she looked radiant. “I never had any acting lessons, you know,” Miss Gish told us. “I don’t think you can teach people to act. You can teach them about their body, though, and about their voice-that you must learn. You must learn to speak from your diaphragm to your mouth, so that if you get laryngitis or a cold you don’t miss a performance. I never missed a performance in the theatre but one time. My sister Dorothy was to have an operation. Mother wasn’t well enough, and I had to be there. I was in a play called ‘Dear Octopus,’ and I missed the Saturday matinee and evening, and that was the only time. Lucile Watson was in the play, too, and she saved my life. She just said, ‘Don’t worry about a thing, Lillian. We’ll handle everything.’ And they did.”
Before long, Jessica Tandy (who looked stunning in a ruffled white blouse and a black skirt) and Hume Cronyn (who looked snappy in a double-breasted gray suit) came through the door. As George Cuttingham greeted them, Mr. Cronyn said, “All I’ve been doing on the way over is humming-” He began to sing, “You made me what I am today. I hope you’re satisfied!”
Both men laughed. A photographer asked Miss Tandy to pose, and while flash guns went off, Mr. Cronyn, who is also an honorary trustee of the Academy, joined us on one of the banquettes. He lit a pipe and said, “At the time that I went to the Academy-1933 and 1934-I was very fortunate in having parents who thought that I was mad. They said, ‘Well, if you’re determined to be an actor, you can do it in the right way and go to a good school and learn something about it.’ My choice was between the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, in London, and the American Academy, and I chose the A.A.D.A. There were some rather wonderful teachers there in my time, people like Charles Jehlinger and Philip Loeb and Arthur Hughes. I learned a tremendous amount. I can always tell an Academy – trained actor, incidentally-or, at least, someone who’s been properly schooled. You can tell those things, just as you can tell if a dancer has had training. Well, at the end of my first year I decided to quit. I had grown tired of all the physical exercises, the singing and dancing, the endless repetition of-you know-‘bee, bah, boh, bum.’ I wanted to act. But they talked me into staying for my second year, and I’Il be eternally grateful. They said, ‘Mr. Cronyn, if you get on in this profession it will be in spite of the Academy, not because of it. We can’t turn you into an actor, but don’t turn your back on what we have to offer.’ What they meant, of course, was that you’ve got to learn to walk before you try to run.”