Street-wise and ring-toughened, Tommy Morrison seemed a perfect fit when the producers of “Rocky V” went searching for a young Midwestern boxer to play opposite Sylvester Stallone.
Tall and blond, the Oklahoma-born Morrison appeared to possess the poise and background necessary for a successful Hollywood debut. Indeed, his great-uncle reportedly was the late Marion Morrison, who earned some fame as John Wayne.
About the only thing missing from Tommy Morrison’s resume was acting experience.
Enter Richard and Leslie Brander, a Studio City couple who taught the boxer how to act like one.
Unlike traditional dialogue and acting coaches, who often are banished to a performer’s trailer, the Branders were allowed by director John Avildsen to work on the set with Morrison and other cast members during filming in Philadelphia and Los Angeles.
The Branders, who were hired by the film’s producers, will receive screen credit on “Rocky V” as drama coaches. They believe that their experience might encourage studios to increase the use of coaches on the set.
“Directors have a total vision for their picture, but they haven’t necessarily been trained how to work with an actor to get what they want,” Leslie Brander said. “They have to be responsible for every little thing that goes on and one person can’t possibly see everything. We’re like a third eye . . . a conduit to the actor from the director.”
The results of the Branders’ work with Morrison will be held up for public and critical scrutiny today when “Rocky V,” expected to be the final installment of the saga of boxing champion Rocky Balboa, opens nationwide.
Morrison, 21, plays Tommy Gunn, a young boxer who persuades a broke and broken-down Rocky Balboa to teach him.
“They were very patient and professional,” Morrison said of the Branders. “Without them, I would have been lost.
“Together they offer a lot of different ideas. With one person you get only one view. Working together, they bounce ideas off each other and somewhere in between you find a happy medium.”
The Branders have worked with Kevin Costner, Diana Ross, Chuck Norris, Farrah Fawcett and Teri Garr, among others. They conduct classes three times a day, four days a week at their 18-seat studio in Studio City. They also offer private lessons for $100 an hour and charge from $2,500 to $10,000 a week for on-set film work.
Richard Brander grew up on Martha’s Vineyard off Massachusetts and holds a master’s degree in education from Dartmouth College. He studied under Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York and taught there for a year before he began teaching acting in Hollywood in the late 1960s.
Leslie Brander was born in Encino and graduated from Birmingham High School in Van Nuys. A former student of Richard Brander, she began teaching five years ago while continuing to pursue her acting career. The couple met in 1971, have been married 16 years and have a daughter and a son.
The Branders say their work is similar to that of a director of photography in the sense that they help the director execute his vision of the film. Their strength, they say, is their attention to detail and ability to work with others.
“I’m talented and so is she,” Richard said. “That sounds rather smug, but it’s true.”
Like the actors they tutor, the Branders say the key to their job is timing. Knowing when to suggest something is as important as knowing when not to.
“We’re not there to step on anybody’s toes,” Leslie said. “If we think something can be done differently without ruffling someone’s feathers, we suggest. If they like it, we go with it; if not, we go with something else.”
Robert Chartoff, producer of “Rocky V,” admitted that he was uncertain whether the Branders could turn Morrison into an actor overnight.
“I was apprehensive for about a week until I saw the results,” Chartoff said. “We were only going to stay with them if they did well, and they did exceedingly well.”
Although the Branders were hired to work exclusively with Morrison for two weeks of pre-production and the first three weeks of filming, their job was extended to 16 weeks and included work with Stallone’s 14-year-old son, Sage, who plays Rocky’s son, and providing feedback for Stallone and Talia Shire.
“They were very much a part of the set. They were extremely collaborative and did not try to dominate,” said Shire, who plays Rocky’s wife.
“Drama coaches usually hold hands with the cast, that’s all,” said Mike Glick, the executive producer. “These people got in and worked.”
The Branders said they started by “spoon-feeding” Morrison and they prepared him for every scene and shot for him throughout filming.
With time, Morrison’s confidence grew--as did his trust in the Branders.
“As I became more relaxed and more aware of how things were done, I began to want to see how far I could take certain scenes,” Morrison said. “I would have questions and they always seemed to suggest the right thing.
“There were instances where one of them would say, ‘Try it this way,’ and it just didn’t seem right, it was too forced. Then the other one would offer an idea that you could tell was the furthest thing from the other’s mind. But they’d both say, ‘Try it,’ and it would work.”
In December, the Branders will begin work with Norris on a film in Vancouver, British Columbia.
They are confident that, in time, on-set drama coaches will be the rule rather than the exception in Hollywood.
“It has to be a retraining experience,” Leslie said. “A lot of people see it as a negative until they actually experience it and see that it is a complete asset and not a hindrance to anybody.
“In the long run, having a drama coach or dramatic supervisor on the set is going to be a given, but I think it’s going to be a slow process.”