'I knew I was never going to be John Barrymore." So, as a young actor, Bobby Lewis learned the art of hanging around. For instance, he had been told at the door, that day in 1929, that Eva LeGallienne's Civic Repertory Company wasn't hiring any more actors that season. But nobody said he couldn't go in and watch LeGallienne rehearse "Romeo and Juliet."

Inside the auditorium, the theater's staff photographer was taking rehearsal shots from under the hood of a big tripod camera. Lewis tiptoed over and started handing her plates. Then LeGallienne called for a volunteer in a crowd scene. Lewis went up. At lunchtime, some flunky gave him a card to fill out. "I was in five plays that season."

It was a lesson in the wisdom of making yourself useful. Lewis has followed the principle ever since, to the benefit of the American theater and, especially, to the benefit of the American actor.

Since the 1940s he has been one of the great acting teachers, not a guru in the Lee Strasberg sense, but equally respected in the profession. Robert Lewis is the man who co-founded the Actors Studio with Elia Kazan; who wrote the best American book on the Stanislavsky approach, "Method--or Madness" (1957); whose students at the Yale Drama School included Meryl Streep.

He knows acting because he's done it. Indeed, in the 1940s, he had quite a vogue in Hollywood war films, usually made up as some sly Axis national. He has even played against Lassie. (See his just-published memoirs, "Slings and Arrows.")

He also directs. For instance, he staged the original production of "Brigadoon." His other hits include "Witness for the Prosecution" and "Teahouse of the August Moon." As for flops, how about the most-trashed show of the 1980-81 Broadway season, "Harold and Maude"?

That was his farewell to the commercial theater. But--in answer to your question--Lewis didn't feel at all out of shape when he began rehearsals for "Twelve Angry Men," opening Feb. 26 at the new Henry Fonda Theatre.

One reason was that he knew Jack Klugman and the other actors from New York. "Nobody was a foreigner" to the Lewis rehearsal method. The other reason was that Lewis feels that he's directing all the time in his master classes, which he moved to Los Angeles two years ago because this was where the actors were.

"I don't consider myself a teacher. I'm a director working with actors in my workshop," he was saying the other day. "People say to me, 'Do you do private moments?' I say, 'No, I do public moments.' 'Do you do cold readings?' 'No, I do hot readings.' "

In other words, there isn't a Robert Lewis mystique, such as gathered around Strasberg when he took over the Actors Studio. For Lewis, the Stanislavsky approach, correctly understood, is a balance of internal truth and external style. The tragedy is that Strasberg's "Method" threw off that balance, stressing self-discovery over the need to measure up to the otherness of a character.

"Lee was my teacher and, more important, my friend. I'll always be grateful to him. But I think he ghetto-ized the American actor. That goes all the way back to our days at the Group Theatre, where we made no attempt to conquer the world repertory."

The result of an overdose of Method, says Lewis, is "the kind of American actor who is good within five minutes of his daily behavior pattern, but who can't transform himself into another person or into the life of another time. That's fine, if that's the kind of actor you want to be. But it's not enough to give us your personal truth to yourself when you're playing Shakespeare or Chekhov. What about being true to Shakespeare and Chekhov?"

From his years of working with young American actors, Lewis hazards a generalization. "Every time a young American actor gets up to tackle a classic, one of two things happens. Either he succeeds in getting the inner line right, but he mangles the verse, and Hamlet comes out sounding like Bobby instead of like Hamlet . . . or, he starts singing and posturing away in what he thinks is the style of the period, and comes out looking like some bad British actor. That's equally bad.

"Now how do you solve this? By training. Otherwise you have to wait until you have geniuses, and you can't have a theater with geniuses. You need working actors."

The Lewis method of training is to "work at it from both ends." The vernacular actor learns to scan Hamlet's "to be or not to be" speech and to notice that the accent falls on "that is the question," indicating that Hamlet has thought about suicide before. The starchy actress learns that it's not enough to flip your fan in a Restoration comedy: You have to have a reason for flipping your fan.

Lewis calls it "the polemic of form and content," a battle he's been fighting all his life.

"It is possible to accomplish the verse and movement of a scene without losing the truth of it. That's the lesson of the great British actors. Gielgud doesn't just sing. Olivier not only finds the complete physical expression of a character, he fills it with what I call the inner justification.

"But you have to work at it, as the British do. I think American actors could be the best actors in the world. But they tend to be lazy. They get successful and they quit studying."

But not the actors in Lewis' workshops--some 100 of them last term, including people like Karl Malden and Betty Garrett. "They want to work. They're hungry for it. Karl did a Shylock. The look of him! And real attention to the language! I gotta get these people up on stage."

That's the dream. "What I want to do now is plays. You shouldn't stay in the workshop forever. You've got to get up in the arena and show what you've got.

"And I don't mean in some storefront. I'm tired of walking into places where everything is an excuse for not doing theater right. If you're going to do it, do it. I don't want the Ahmanson, but. . . . "

Lewis is not much of a fund-raiser ("My approach is always, 'You don't want to put money into this, do you?' ") but plans seem to be afoot for some kind of a season under his aegis at the Westwood Playhouse, titles, dates and casts still to be announced. "I won't tell you the plays, but there are some plays that have been done here that haven't been fully done."

Meanwhile there's "Twelve Angry Men" to get up, certainly a play written in the populist tradition of Lewis' beloved (for all his arguments with it) Group Theatre. "I'm trying to make it have some--here comes that word again-- relevance. The plot attracts me, that whole idea of prejudice destroying a person's ability to reason. We're all like that a little."

In the 1940s, Lewis vowed not to let Hollywood destroy him as a theater person, but that's not a fear now. "Luther Adler used to say that no matter how hot it got in Los Angeles during the day, there was no place to go at night. But now there's theater all over the place. I'll stay as long as the work is here."

"So you've got a whole season planned."

"I've got a whole career planned. I'm only 75."

Making yourself useful gets to be a habit.

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