Stella Adler, Actress and Drama Mentor, Dies at 91 : Theater: A devotee of the Method school, she established conservatories in New York and Hollywood. Brando and De Niro were among the famous followers who spread her influence.


Stella Adler, an icon of drama and a mentor to actors whom Marlon Brando once called “not just a teacher of acting but of life,” died early Monday.

Miss Adler was 91 and died at her home in Los Angeles about sunrise, said Irene Gilbert, director of the Stella Adler Conservatory on Hollywood Boulevard.

She had grown up a contemporary of both the American century and the American theater. Although her pace had slowed as she entered her 10th decade and she required a wheelchair to move about, she had not been ill and continued to participate in conservatory activities, Gilbert said.


“She’s just been letting go,” Gilbert said. Her funeral will be in New York where Miss Adler established her first acting conservatory in 1949. Her Hollywood theater and studios began in 1986.

Miss Adler, a devotee of Konstantin Stanislavski, father of the dramatic concept called the Method, was among the last survivors of those few but significant experimental American theater groups that will continue to influence actors and playwrights into the next century and beyond.

Although she had been on stage since she was 4, appearing in her parents’ Yiddish theater productions in New York, she did not become prominent until the 1930s as a member of the Group Theater co-founded by Lee Strasberg.

Dominated by the Russian Stanislavski’s emphasis on inspiration from within, the Depression-era experimental company attracted some of the finest dramatic talents of its day, and they in turn passed their experiences on to Brando, Robert De Niro, Lee J. Cobb, Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Geraldine Page and many more.

In the preface of Miss Adler’s book, “The Technique of Acting,” Brando wrote:

“Little did she know that through her teachings she would impact theater culture worldwide. “Almost all filmmakers everywhere in the world have felt the effects of American films, which have been in turn influenced by Stella Adler’s teachings. She is loved by many and we owe her much.”

Acting, Miss Adler said in 1968, is “the total development of a human being into the most he can be and in as many directions as he can possibly take.”

And: “The teacher has to inspire. The teacher has to agitate,” she told the New York Times in 1984. “You cannot teach acting. You can only stimulate what’s there.”

Film actor Harvey Keitel, another of her students, quoted her as telling him: “The analysis of the text is the education of the actor.” For him, Keitel told the Associated Press, “that’s what the work is about--educating myself, knowing, to know.”

Miss Adler was born in New York City. Her theatrical education began when she appeared as a toddler in “Broken Hearts,” produced by Jacob and Sara Adler, her Russian-immigrant parents, who were considered the premier tragedians of the Yiddish theater.

Her brothers, Jay and Luther, also became actors.

“In my family,” she once said, “you learned to act when you could barely walk.”

She played the Yiddish theater for the next decade, in both girls’ and boys’ roles.

In 1919 she traveled to London for another Yiddish play, “Elisha Ben Avia,” and on her return to New York began to be seen in roles in the commercial theater.

She was on stage in “The World We Live In” and joined the new American Laboratory Theatre school, founded by Richard Boleslavsky and Maria Ouspenskaya, formerly of the Moscow Art Theater. There she was introduced to the Method and learned that “the importance for the actor is to live in a specific space and play the truthfulness of that place . . . as a real situation.”

While studying, she continued her appearances in Yiddish theater, touring in Latin America and Western Europe.

She joined the Group Theater, co-founded by her brother Luther, Harold Clurman (to whom she was briefly married), Cheryl Crawford and Strasberg, where she learned improvisation. The theater’s first commercial production was “The House of Connelly,” and Miss Adler was happy for a bit part. There were no stars in the Group, only working actors. She also had roles in “Big Night” and Clifford Odets’ “Awake and Sing.”

But in the group’s second season--1932--she was the featured and much-heralded loyal secretary abandoned by an ambitious lover in “Success Story.” Fellow actors were so impressed by her poignant performance that they dropped by the theater after their own appearances to watch her emote over her dead lover’s body in the final scene.

She grew somewhat disenchanted with Strasberg’s continued emphasis on memory exercises and other techniques she considered ineffective, and left the Group in the mid-1930s for a European trip.

In Paris she met Stanislavsky, and for the next several months studied with him. He taught her, she told the London Times, that “the source of acting is imagination and the key to its problems is truth, truth in the circumstances of the play.”

Her studies led her to gradually pull away from the Group Theater and start her own acting classes. One of her first pupils was Margaret Barker, who went on to star in “An American Tragedy.”

Miss Adler, however, remained loyal to the Group and stayed on its staff until it was dissolved in 1941.

She became an associate producer for Metro Goldwyn Mayer in 1943 but then returned to Broadway to portray the crude wife in “Sons and Soldiers” and later in the revival of “He Who Gets Slapped.”

She also appeared in a few films, including “Love on Toast” in 1938 (as Stella Ardler), and “Shadow of the Thin Man” in 1941.

One of her last stage appearances before she retired to concentrate on her conservatories was as the overprotective mother in a London performance of “Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad.”

The self-assured, aristocratic actress-teacher brought to her studios an ambitious curriculum designed to provide a “practical acting technique.”

“The ultimate aim of the training,” she explained “is to create an actor who can be responsible for his artistic development and achievement.”

And though she could be a tyrant in the classroom, she maintained a sense of humor outside it.

Department store sales clerks were unfailingly impressed by her impeccable speech and grand dame manner, often asking if she were British.

“No dear,” she would say. “Just affected.”

Miss Adler was married three times, most recently to novelist and physicist Mitchell Wilson, who died in 1973. She is survived by her daughter, Ellen, from her first marriage, and two grandchildren. A memorial service is pending in Los Angeles.


Sylvie Drake writes of the end of a theatrical age. F1.