Legendary acting teacher Jeff Corey has made a career of helping performers find the truth inside their lives.
It's been more than 20 years since I'd had the chance to sit down and talk with my first acting teacher, the extraordinary Jeff Corey. We met for lunch at one of his favorite restaurants, Musso & Frank's Grill in Hollywood, and I spent most of the afternoon caught up in the passionate life and thoughts of one of America's greatest living acting teachers.
The Brooklyn-born Corey was awarded three citations for his work as a motion picture photographer during World War II before the country turned on him; he was blacklisted during the infamous HUAC interrogations. Forced to give up acting, Corey began to teach and continued to do so even after he was able to act again in the '60s. A vital, ageless man, he has helped create and inspire many of Hollywood's most gifted actors, writers, directors, and producers. The endless list includes Jack Nicholson, Steven Spielberg, Rob Reiner, Jane Fonda, Penny Marshall, Candice Bergen, Carol Burnett, Robin Williams, Paul Reiser, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Ellen Burstyn, Shirley Knight, Ann-Margaret, and the writer Robert Towne.
Back Stage West/Drama-Logue: How did you get into teaching?
Jeff Corey: I got into teaching because I was blacklisted and unable to work as an actor. I used to go to Michael Chekhov's Monday night lectures. He'd have people like me and Anthony Quinn and Mildred Natwick demonstrate exercises he talked about. I loved him. Misha, we called him. Although I do think he was a little stuck in mysticism. Since I was unemployable, they asked if I would teach a class--although I wasn't paid for it. I had never taught, so I decided to give it a go. I was 37 years old with three kids to support, and enrolled at UCLA as a freshman under the G.I. bill. But I started to teach. I had a good class. Gary Cooper and Pat Neal came. I didn't go through a lot of theories, it was always a hands-on situation. I would say, "Let's fool around with this. We'll make some adjustments." And it worked. Cooper and Pat kept coming. Cooper was particularly supportive. He even sent his daughter, who said, "Daddy told me that if I ever wanted to learn about acting I should come to you," which touched me very much.
BSW/D-L: Just for a bit of a history lesson, tell us about the Stage Society that you worked with.
Corey: The Stage Society's purpose was to do plays in L.A. and to maintain classes. It was very prestigious and had been designed, really, to replace the Actors' Lab, which had been Red-baited out of existence. They had done the plays of Sean O'Casey and George Bernard Shaw and Anton Chekhov, and the state of mind of the country was such that those people were thought to be Communists. It was all out of ignorance. As the Stage Society became more and more prestigious it began to get rid of some of its actors who were less important. One of them came to me and asked me to start a class. So I made a go of it while I was getting an education at UCLA I never felt defeated. I hated when people would say, "Oh Jeff, you're such a survivor." Damned right. I did more than survive--I lived a life.
Word of mouth for my classes became really wonderful, and that's when kids like Jack Nicholson, Sally Kellerman, Rita Moreno, Dean Stockwell, Dick Chamberlain, and Corey Allen came. Jimmy Dean even came to sit in. It became an "in" thing for actors. In a recent book on Jack Nicholson, it said that the nature of those classes affected a whole generation of actors. When Jack was at AFI recently, he was talking about the classes and said some wonderful things about the improvisations I did and how I would tell people to only work on the implications of the plot and the thematic content. He also talked about an idea that he loved, which I actually got from Michael Chekhov, which was that when you play a part, you must use 95 percent of yourself in it and then "play" the difference. Ninety-five percent of the role is you and the other five percent is what you act. The personality of the human being doing the acting is of primary importance to a successful performance. There's a hook, something about an actor that gets you and makes you able to imagine yourself in the same circumstances. Saint Augustine said, "The artist is the man." If you see a Michelangelo fresco, you think of Michelangelo the man. When you see a Botticelli, you think of Botticelli. But if you see a run-of-the-mill painting, the artist doesn't emanate out of it.
BSW/D-L: When Jack Nicholson was in your class, did he show great potential?
Corey: I never played that prognostication game with my actors. Although once in a while when a talented actor just couldn't get started in the industry, I'd put my arm around them and say, "You'll get work." I did that with Gerald McRaney. He was driving a cab and things were not going well for him. I told him he'd get work and then I felt responsible. So when I started directing, I gave him his first three jobs!
BSW/D-L: What was James Dean like as a student?
Corey: Jimmy used to come to class to watch. He was already a star at that point. And he was very generous. There was a young kid in class who wasn't really up to par and he just couldn't get a certain improvisation exercise. Jimmy took him outside and did the improvisation exercise with him out on the handball court. I worked with him on physicality, because he didn't like what he did physically. So I demonstrated an exercise that requires the actor to do five unconnected physical tasks. You concentrate on the physical tasks and when you've got that all done then you recite something. Before we could finish the work, he had his accident and was gone.
BSW/D-L: How does an exercise like that assist an actor?
Corey: Stanislavski said working too excessively on a psychological truth is not as important as finding a physical truth. If you know where you are, if you're aware of your body in a room or in a castle or in a farmyard, and your body is alive and if you know what the body wants to do, that's a large piece of the work. If you're in charge of what your body wants, you establish a pattern of physical truths and only then can you get a psychological truth.
Brecht said the decision to do something also involves the decision not to do anything else. For example, I choose to be quiet but I really feel like breaking things. But the audience will sense, in my quietude, the possibility of other things. So this underscores the importance of physical truths first more than psychological truths. It's been said that an inordinate search for psychological truths always leads to a psychological hernia. When you really understand the purpose of playing an action, it becomes habitual. You don't have to stop and say, "What's my action?" You just tend to act with purpose because that's the way you trained yourself. I wrote a whole chapter of my book
BSW/D-L: Your book?
Corey: Yeah. I just sent it off to several publishers and am getting some very good response. It's called Footnotes: An Acting Teacher's Chronicle. I wrote a chapter called "The Infernal Methodist." The point is, and I quote the American actor and painter, Joseph Jefferson, that every artist must be the head of his or her academy. Matisse said there are no laws outside of the artist so when people ask if I teach Meisner I say, "No, Sandy taught Meisner." Do you teach Stanislavski? "For better or worse, I teach Jeff Corey. And Jeff Corey says you become the head of your own academy." I don't dwell on sensory exercises. I'd rather see actors do scenes, and if they don't show a lot of sensory awareness, I've got a million devices to work with them. But I don't say you start with that and you can't do anything else unless you get beyond that. That's not the way I work.
As a student I used to go crazy because I wanted to get up and act. I didn't want to hear a whole lot of theory. That's the way I teach, too. It's a hands-on experience. And that's why my book isn't a how-to theory book. The reason I wrote the book in the first place was that my youngest daughter, Emily, took a lot of my notes and speeches I made at different seminars on film and theatre and put them on floppy disks. She said, "Daddy, there's longevity in your family. You're going to live a long time, but someday, you're going to have to come to terms with your mortality. And please don't leave these file cabinets for me!" So that's why I call it An Acting Teacher's Chronicle. I'm putting all the stuff in chronicle order.
BSW/D-L: Since you worked directly with the great teacher Michael Chekhov, can you share some of the theories you came away with?
Corey: Michael said that a good performance had to be the confluence of the right actor and the right part at the right time. There are things that you will know about a character that no one else does and you have to show them.
BSW/D-L: There are a lot of actors who put their lives on hold and say they'll start a family when things are secure for them. You've been married for 60 years and had kids and a strong family life. What is your secret?
Corey: We've been very, very fortunate. While the kids were growing up, during the 15 years I was blacklisted, we would go camping. Now our children and grandchildren go on hikes and we all go camping. We started a strong tradition all thanks to the blacklist! We endured the war and my family endured the blacklist. We always landed on our feet. We didn't go around beating our breasts and saying, "Oh God, what's happened to us? What kind of life is this?" We didn't let that happen. Practically all of my blacklisted friends showed a great deal of courage.
The funny thing is, I don't think anyone was in love with whatever the Communist Party was involved with at the time. We were not defending it. We all left political activity years before, but they wanted names of people from way back because this was the currency. Actors are what got headlines, not Communist tinsmiths. So our industry was where there was the publicity and the money. Last October 19th, on the 50th anniversary of the first Hollywood blacklist, it was really redemptive to have that wonderful occasion at the Motion Picture Academy, where the four unions admitted that they were culpable and had supported the blacklist. They profoundly apologized that evening. It was very meaningful.
BSW/D-L: What was your first acting experience in Hollywood like?
Corey: When I got here from New York, I walked up Sunset Boulevard and na•vely went from agent to agent, which you don't do in Hollywood. The first agent was interested and the third hired me. I was working a few days later. And then I was lucky enough to do The Devil and Daniel Webster, where I met Walter Huston and learned a lot about life and acting.
BSW/D-L: What are some of the things you learned from him?
Corey: There was a guy in the Group Theatre who was sort of a pill and every time he was in the audience when I did a play, I'd freeze. Walter laughed and said, "Oh kid, don't you know if you're in a 500-seat house or a 200-seat house, there's always gonna be someone who just doesn't like you? What the hell difference does it make? You just go out there, get excited about what you know about the part, and play the damned thing, and don't worry about some guy's opinion." He also told me about how, when he was in Othello in New York, he thought his career was over and then he recovered the next year. So if you're in a flop, get up, brush the dirt off your pants, and go to work.
BSW/D-L: What were some of your more memorable acting jobs?
Corey: Well, we're so happy any time we're working, it's hard to say. But after the blacklist was over, I had a great period where I did True Grit, Little Big Man, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, In Cold Blood. I've had the opportunity to do some wonderful things. I've done precisely 100 features, and I'm ready for more. But in my life, I've been on base and I've scored. I can look back with a great deal of pride.
BSW/D-L: Are you still teaching?
Corey: I teach one weekly class. Some of the books about acting classes offer a phone number to my service but, other than word of mouth, that's the only way I meet new students. I don't advertise. Frankly, I just don't feel good about inviting anyone to take on the career of acting. If people do get in touch with me, I do some work with them and if I like them and think they'll fit into the class, then I'll allow them to join. You know, I'm moderately modest about my teaching capabilities and my acting capabilities, but I'm absolutely vain about the chili I make. It's all in the ingredients. Chili is no good unless you get four or five tastes with each bite.
BSW/D-L: Sounds like what good acting should be.
Corey: Yes. It's the synthesis of ingredients and the penetration of opposites. BSW/D-L