Times Arts Editor

Acting is the most mysterious and contradictory art of them all. If you can see it, it’s not working. If it’s working, it looks “real,” and even the most familiar star performer becomes totally immersed in a fictional being who exists only in the author’s and the actor’s mind. Amazing.

By extension, the teaching of acting has always seemed to me almost as mysterious as the art itself. Over the years I have talked with any number of young men and women who were taking acting classes and who spoke of doing scenes, improvs and cold readings.

At an introductory level, at least, it sounded to an outsider like a blend of freshman mixer, instant psychoanalysis, voluntary embarrassment and at least some fleeting attention to such rudiments as how to get from one side of the stage to the other without tripping and falling.

The Dutch-born actress Nina Foch, whose film credits include “A Song to Remember,” “An American in Paris,” “Executive Suite” and “The Ten Commandments,” has been a private acting coach in Hollywood for 15 years.


The accent is on private because many of her established clients would as soon not have it known they were brushing up. What is particularly aggrieving to some of her star students is that they are boning up on cold readings because they are having to audition for a generation of young executives whose memories don’t reach back much beyond “Sesame Street.”

For Foch, preparation is all. The performance comes from inside, from a thorough understanding of the character and of the character’s relationship to the whole shape of the drama.

“As an actor, you’re servicing the writer, the playwright--which is our business, of course,” Foch says.

“The actor has to know the story absolutely and decide what the movement of the piece is, how the character changes from beginning to end and in each scene. You’re preparing to play a grandmother; not that many lines, perhaps. As homework you have to discover where she is at that moment, where she may have been. You have to prepare a context in your head for your movements and your postures.


“I never tell people what to do. But I ask them every possible question, and I get them to ask themselves every possible question. When they leave me, it’s unlikely they’ll be asked any questions they’re not prepared to answer. They’re prepared .”

Producers and directors, Foch says, especially those working at television’s breakneck pace (get it right the first time, or else), welcome that intensity of preparation and sometimes send performers to her because there isn’t time for talk on the set.

She occasionally inherits a Brat Packer. “Some of them haven’t had any training,” she says. “But they’re very bright, and it’s possible to know a lot more at a younger age than it used to be.”

Foch continues to act as well as teach, and is playing the Comtesse de Chambrun in Herman Wouk’s “War and Remembrance,” the 30-hour miniseries (or maxiseries) sequel to “The Winds of War.” The Comtesse, a real historical figure, was head of the American Hospital in Paris during the German Occupation. Her son married the daughter of Pierre Laval.


It’s interesting casting. “I’ve always been an outsider,” Foch says. “In America, I’ve been a European. In Europe, I’m an American. On Broadway, I was from Hollywood; in Hollywood, I was from Broadway.”

Foch was born in Leyden, Holland, the daughter of a Dutch symphony conductor and an American actress model, Consuelo Flowerton, who had been one of Howard Chandler Christie’s war-bond poster girls in World War I. She was extraordinarily beautiful (Foch remembers that George Cukor always told her, “You ought to have seen your mother,” as if she hadn’t).

The marriage was chronicled in the gossip columns of the day; Foch as a very young child was the subject of a rancorous international custody battle between her parents. “Once it had been decided, they both lost interest in me,” she says.

She resettled in New York at age 8. Her mother sent her to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, presumably for grooming, but Foch found a home in acting and came to Hollywood with a Columbia contract in 1943. Her career survived such early gems as “The Return of the Vampire” and “Cry of the Werewolf.” But from 1947 she arranged her studio contract so she could appear on Broadway, and she worked frequently with John Houseman.


“I hate being 61,” she says, “because film is just beginning to be what it can be. People say they don’t make them like they used to. That’s such. . . . " She uses a strong word.

On the other hand, she says, “I take advantage of being 61. It’s delightful to be able to tell the truth.”

She has the occasional piece of very specific advice for actors. “Lillian Gish once told me, ‘When you go back for a second interview, always wear the same hat. Don’t confuse them.’ ”