Obituary: Robert Lewis
Monday 22 December 1997
A co-founder of the legendary Actors' Studio in New York, Robert Lewis coached such stars as Marlon Brando and Meryl Streep. His work as a theatre director included the original Broadway productions of Brigadoon and The Teahouse of the August Moon, while as an actor he is remembered as the Oriental merchant who woos Lucille Bremer in one of the film musical's crowning glories, the Limehouse Blues sequence in Ziegfeld Follies.
Born in New York City in 1909, Lewis studied cello at the Juilliard School of Music before deciding he would rather be an actor, though his short and rotund stature precluded romantic leads. He made his first appearance on stage with the Civic Repertory Theatre in 1929, and two years later joined the Group Theatre Acting Company, newly formed by Lee Strasberg, Cheryl Crawford and Harold Clurman and noted for its adherence to the acting theories of Stanislavski. Lewis played his first sizeable role as a comic intern in Sidney Kingsley's Men in White (1934).
The same year one of the group's members, Clifford Odets, wrote a play about union corruption, Waiting for Lefty, which caused a sensation and which featured Lewis as a labour spy exposed at a union meeting by his brother (Elia Kazan). Odets became the group's prime playwright, and in 1937 wrote their biggest success, Golden Boy, in which Lewis played the prizefight promoter Roxy Gottlieb. When the company performed the play in London, the critic James Agate wrote, "The acting attains a level which is something we know nothing at all about."
After making his directorial debut with the touring company of Golden Boy starring Phillips Holmes, Lewis was given a new production, William Saroyan's My Heart's in the Highlands, into which he instilled a mixture of music, colour, rhythm and movement which he felt was sometimes lacking in group productions with their emphasis on psychology.
Saroyan's account of a poet's attempts to create in a hostile world, and how people are nourished by art, remained Lewis's favourite throughout his life ("my firstborn"). The next three years though were frustrating ones - he was fired by the Theatre Guild as director of Saroyan's The Time of Your Life (the chief of the Guild told him, "After you and Orson Welles, no more geniuses!"), and directed two failures, John Garfield in Heavenly Express and Montgomery Clift (a lifelong friend) in Mexican Mural. When the Group Theatre disbanded through lack of funding in 1941 he spent a year as a professor at the Yale School of Drama, then went to Hollywood as dialogue director/actor at Fox.
He made his screen debut in John Brahm's Tonight We Raid Calais (1942) as a French collaborator, then played a Nazi colonel in Paris After Dark (1943). Moving to MGM, where he directed several screen tests including that of Cyd Charisse, he was cast as a Japanese villain ("I had an uncanny way of looking genuinely Oriental") in Dragon Seed (1944), which inspired Vincente Minnelli to use him in a framing section for the Limehouse Blues number in Ziegfeld Follies (shot in 1944 but released in 1946). In this magnificent sequence, Lewis (as a Chinese merchant who flirts with Lucille Bremer in the sidestreets of London's docklands) devised an effective bit of business in which he discarded a cigarette with one hand while with a cane in the other he viciously slashed at it.
But the studio ignored his requests to direct a feature, and after playing a German officer snarled at by the canine star of Son of Lassie (1945), he left MGM and accepted a role offered by his friend Charlie Chaplin in Monsieur Verdoux (1947). As Botello, the chemist from whom the wife- murderer Verdoux buys poison, he found Chaplin the perfect director. "He gave me one direction: `He's the kind of bore who doesn't talk. He lectures.' That was all I needed. I could start building a character inside and out from the one apt image Charlie gave me."
Lewis then returned to Broadway to direct his first smash hit, the musical Brigadoon. The librettist Alan Jay Lerner later recalled that when Lewis first asked him what the show was about he had responded with a description of the story, to which Lewis replied, "That is not what you have written at all. What you have written is the story of a romantic who is searching and a cynic who has given up. In the end cynicism is proved wrong." Lerner credits this insight with enabling him to deal with imperfections in the script and complete the final draft. (The two men were to have less harmonious relations 18 years later, when Lerner refused Lewis's pleas that he cut and re-shape the libretto for On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.)
Lewis and Elia Kazan had long dreamed of starting something similar to the defunct Group Theatre, and in 1947 created, with Cheryl Crawford as administrator, the Actors' Studio, a workshop where talented actors could get together (for no fee) and practise their craft. Kazan worked with younger actors on technique, while Lewis took those with experience and rehearsed scenes with particular emphasis on subtext. Actors in Lewis's initial classes included Brando, Montgomery Clift, Anne Bancroft, Eli Wallach, Jerome Robbins, Maureen Stapleton and Patricia Neal, who failed to find favour with her coach. "It was deadly between us," she later wrote, "real hate. According to him, everything I did was wrong", but she admits to "the prestige that went with being a founding member of the Studio".
After a year, Lewis resigned when he felt betrayed by Kazan over a theatre project. Having been offered direction of the Kurt Weill/Alan Jay Lerner musical Love Life and, having strong doubts about the project, Lewis showed the script to Kazan, who advised against doing it. Lewis turned it down and it was offered to Kazan, who accepted. Lewis instead directed Marc Blitzstein's Regina (1949), an operatic treatment of The Little Foxes, and was praised for the convincing performances he extracted from the singing cast. "For once," said Brooks Atkinson, "the operatic form in which most of the dialogue is sung does not seem artificial." It was the start of a prolific period throughout the Fifties, including his direction in 1950 of Samuel Taylor's hit comedy The Happy Time and Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, for which Lewis persuaded Arthur Miller to do a new translation.
In 1952 he directed Truman Capote's first play The Grass Harp and the following year John Patrick's successful comedy The Teahouse of the August Moon. (As with Brigadoon, Lewis staged the West End production - both shows at Her Majesty's Theatre.) After the Broadway version of Agatha Christie's Witness for the Prosecution (1954), Lewis directed his only film, the Bing Crosby musical Anything Goes (1955), distinguished by the superb dancing of Donald O'Connor, Mitzi Gaynor and Zizi Jeanmaire.
He returned to the musical theatre with Jamaica (1957) starring Lena Horne. Lewis solved the show's book problems (it had first been conceived for Harry Belafonte) by putting Horne "front and centre most of the time, which is what audiences wanted to see and hear". He directed the London version of Candide (1959), but from the mid-Sixties worked away from the mainstream, directing shows and workshops both in America and abroad, teaching at Yale (where he became Chairman of the Acting and Directing Departments and coached Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver) and running his own Robert Lewis Theatre Workshop, which started in 1952 and lasted until his retirement in 1974.
In 1957 he gave a series of lectures "Method - or Madness", an attempt to clarify the confusion surrounding the Stanislavski style, which was later published successfully in both the US and England, and in 1984 he wrote his autobiography, Slings and Arrows. The actor-turned-director Martin Ritt, who was one of his pupils, said, "With Bobby there was a joy in his work - fun, which, corisidering that the work was always on a high level, is a very significant achievement."
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