- A History -
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 Meisner.
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 is golden.
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 started."
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 histeaching 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 Meisner Technique.
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.