After a 3-year stint in the Marines, graduating from Sacramento
City College, and attending Sacramento State College for 1 year,
I decided I'd had enough college and came to Los Angeles to start
"my career" as an actor. It took me almost 3 years to realize I
had made a mistake. I slowly found out that Hollywood didn't want
me. In the three years in LA, some good things did occur: I appeared
in a low budget film and acted in several plays. But the really
good thing that happened was that I met my wife Idalee and Sanford
I first saw Sandy sitting at a table in a coffee house/bar/restaurant
where I was working as the coffeman and bartender. He was talking
very animatedly and listening very intently to the gentleman sitting
across from him. The coffee house/bar/restaurant was called Cyrano's
on Sunset Strip, an icon in Hollywood at the time where everyone
who was anyone eventually showed up. Steve McQueen got in my face
once while I worked there, and Marlon Brando stared me down.
Sandy was head of talent at 20th Century Fox and seeing actors
for possible contracts and future use by the studio. I don't remember
how I got the appointment - I guess through my agent, whom I don't
even remember (I've had about 10). I should add that while observing
Sandy at that table in Cyrano's, I honestly felt there was some
kind of strange destiny there for me, and as it turns out there
was. But when I went to see him at his office at 20th Century Fox,
it was obvious that he had no such feeling about me. He was cold
and distant and hardly spoke during the interview. I remember both
of us sitting there amid this deathly silence. I was wondering what
the hell I should say or do. Maybe, I thought it was his job to
draw me out. It wasn't, though, and we sat for what seemed like
an eternity, not knowing what to say. I finally said, "Is it true
that Steve McQueen studied with you?"; He said, "Yes, it's true."
After a pause I said, "Did he do good work for you?" And Sandy said,
"When he wanted to." I don't remember how we ended the interview,
but I would imagine his report was something like this: "No personality,
not talkative, introspective, not good-looking enough for a leading
man, and possibly starstruck."
I mention the good-looking thing because I had an agent see me
in a play and bring me into MCA, the biggest agency in the world
at the time, only to be voted on by about 40 agents as "not good
looking enough to be a leading man."
These two events in my life were the guiding forces in my going
to New York and studying with Sandy. Sandy could have been having
a bad day. I later found out how much he disliked being at 20th
Century Fox and how much he disliked the people associated with
the movie business. But I think my shyness and insecurity worked
against me that first meeting. However, as I said, these two events
instilled in me the impulse to go to NY and study with Sandy. The
impulse having something to do with "I may not look like a movie
star but I can learn to act better than they can."
In January 1962, I left LA with an acquaintance in a 1941 Cadillac
convertible. The temperature was 85 degrees. That night, we arrived
in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the temperature was in the low
30's and snow was on the ground. The car had no heater and the convertible
top was slowly being torn off by the wind - a lesson in how we sometimes
take the wonderful weather of Southern California for granted. When
we arrived in NY after 3 days and 3 nights of steady driving, the
temperature was in the 30's. I thought I had made yet another mistake.
I had no money, no place to live and knew no one. I found a cheap
room in a hotel on 14th Street occupied mostly by merchant marines.
Now I was ready for studying with the Man.
When I went for my interview, I was told to wait, that Meisner
would be right back. He had stepped out for a pastrami on rye. He
received me much differently this time. As he came in all bundled
up in an overcoat, scarf, gloves, and with lunch in hand, he looked
at me very friendly and said, "Oh, yes, I know you. I've seen your
work." Well, it was possible he had seen me in a play in LA. I had
done several. Not wanting to revert to the cold interview of our
first meeting, I didn't press my luck and inquire but let it go
at that. We were off to a good start. I knew he didn't take everyone
he interviewed, and I wanted to be in his class. Sometimes silence
He and his assistant sat down and, while eating his sandwich
and drinking his coffee, he began to interview me. I started talking
immediately, asking him questions about his technique, and also
spouting off what little I knew about acting, which was really nothing.
One thing I remember saying was, "I just finished a book called
To the Actor." His assistant chimed in with "Oh yes, Stanislavski."
I said, "No, Michael Chekhov." Sandy gave his assistant a dirty
look. Then I said, "Do you teach along those lines?" He smiled and
replied, "We may have different values." I said, "Good because I
didn't get him and his psychological gesture." Sandy liked my response.
I later found out that he didn't think much of Michael Chekhov as
a teacher but had been highly influenced by him as an actor. When
he first saw him act, he said he was taken by Chekhov's acting because
it had a "theatricality with inner content," and he wanted that,
too. I was accepted and our journey began.
After 5 months with Sandy, he went on summer vacation. So I went
to summer stock. At the time I didn't realize how 5 months of study
could be ruined by 12 weeks of bad acting. I came back to class
and after my first exercise, Sandy sadly shook his head and said,
"Summer stock has hurt you." I made it a point not to let anything
break into my training for the next 2 years.
While I was in summer stock, whenever a problem came up, I would
quote Sandy. It would come out of me as, "Well, Sandy says..." I
did this for many years in summer stock and regional theatre. Little
did I realize how my enthusiastic giving of Sandy's acting advice
to actors who hadn't studied with him was so resented. One day,
years later, as I walked past some actors discussing the play we
were doing and its problems, I heard one of them say in a mocking
voice "Well, Sandy says..." I got the message and stopped with the
secondhand advice. But I think unconsciously it was the teacher
in me holding up its head that made me do it in the first place.
Hindsight is 20/20.
In my second year, I began to be a little more confident in acting
class. From time to time, I would say things and I noticed Sandy
looking at me in a way I hadn't seen before. One day in class I
said something and Sandy said, "Bill, I want to see you after class."
I meekly approached the table he used as his desk in his studio
and said, "Sandy, did you want to talk to me?" He said, "Oh Bill,
yes. Bill, you should teach!"
This totally caught me off guard. I was shocked. I thought he
was going to say something to the effect of "stop giving so many
of your opinions in class." I told him I wasn't interested, but
he remained persistent about it for years after. One day, he called
me from NY (I was back in LA) and told me he had an opening at the
Neighborhood Playhouse and I should take it. I told him that I wanted
to act. His reply was simply "Why not do both? That's the way I
So in September of 1967 I began teaching at the Neighborhood
Playhouse Professional School of the Theatre. I stayed on and taught
there for 20 years. As long as Sandy was there, I loved it.
In 1975, when Sandy started having his first of many bouts with
cancer, I was promoted to associate director and head teacher of
the acting department. Sandy didn't fully return for almost 10 years.
There were problems. Sandy had asked me to be a tough teacher and
run the Playhouse as a tight ship. "You gotta be tough Bill, you
have to be hard on the students." This was against my true nature
which few people realized at the time. But due to my intense loyalty
to Sandy I sort of ended up doing a bad imitation of him when his
teaching was very harsh. Even Jeff Goldblum has been known to say
"Bill's a tough teacher." I am sure that there were students who
didn't deserve my harsh criticism. Acting is an emotional occupation
and so is the teaching of it. In the heat of passion we say and
do things that later in life we may live to regret. It is all part
of that strange thing known as being a human being. The front office
was of no help. There was no dealing with a student who was a problem
even if it was just sleeping in and missing his first two classes.
Nothing was said, except by me but there was no follow up by the
front office. I argued with the Director Harold Baldridge about
this and also about the kind of acting that was taught there. I
believe he leaned toward the acting of the teacher who was there
when Sandy was in Hollywood at 20th Century Fox and I leaned toward
Sandy. I wasn't doing my best work and was unhappy, the Director
was unhappy and yes, some of the students were unhappy. Staying
on meant fighting or giving up what I believed at the time to be
something of a kind of oath I had given to Sandy. In retrospect
I can see how wrong it all was. How it was making me into a monster.
I wish I had realized how with new people things had to change and
just have gone with the flow. I probably wouldn't have stayed on
anyway but it might have been a better parting. Most of the old
administration had slowly died off, and the new people and I didn't
see things the same way. I was fighting a losing battle with the
new administration trying to keep the character of the Playhouse
as it was when Sandy was there. Sandy was finally able to return
fully in the mid 80's. He was well into his 80's, and I was no longer
happy at the Playhouse.
I decided to venture out on my own. In 1986, I left and taught
out of my own studio until 1993, at which time, after 31 years,
I left the harshness of the cold winters and harder living of a
place I loved, New York City. I moved to Los Angeles, where I presently
live with my wife of over 40 years, Idalee.
Sandy was the biggest influence in my life. Through his teaching,
he opened life up to me in the same way he opened acting up to me.
He was an educator of life and how to live it. He was a tough man
to work for, as he had his artistic values and integrity and wanted
you to live up to them. Many teachers could not, and, as a result,
the Neighborhood Playhouse saw many come and go. The most important
thing to Sandy was that the teacher was teaching the Meisner technique
to the student. If a teacher wasn't doing the work of Sandy, he
was gone. The teachers who were staid and true to Meisner's technique
of teaching were only a handful over the years, maybe 5 or 6. There
was only one Sanford Meisner but I try to stay as close to his work
as I possibly can. I feel I succeed.
I love teaching and I love teaching the Meisner Technique. I
teach it the only way I know how - the way Sandy taught it to me.
It is a rock-solid technique and doesn't need being improved upon
or extended into some other teacher's personality so they feel comfortable.
Sandy was the only teacher who took from two of Stanislavski's disciples,
Sudakov and Rappaport, and organized a structured step-by-step approach
to acting that is totally practical with all the nonsense thrown
out. It really works. Sandy's organizational skills are seldom reflected
upon, but it was those sharply honed skills that allowed him to
merge these two schools of training into what is now known as the
I recently saw an old movie of Sandy's, called "Tender is the
Night." He looked the way he did when I first studied with him.
I was flooded with memories, some of which I have written about
here. I realized what a wonderful teacher he was, what a wonderful
actor he was, and what a wonderful friend he was. I owe him a lot,
and I miss him very much. And so, with apologies to Shakespeare,
sleep well, my prince, may flights of angels continue to sing thee
to thy rest. I love you, Sandy.