Six Inspiring Biographies or Memoirs Every Actor Should Read

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The staff of New York City's Drama Book Shop assembled this list of inspiring biographies and memoirs of theater and film people. From the legendary Eleonora Duse to the wild-living Jack Nicholson, the subjects of these books offer diverse views of a life in the performing arts.

"Tennessee Williams in Provincetown" by David Kaplan (Hansen Publishing Group)

No matter how much drinking and carousing he indulged in the night before, Tennessee Williams would get up the next morning at the crack of dawn, sit down at his trusty typewriter, and go right to work again. That's how gifted young playwrights become icons, of course, and how titles like "The Glass Menagerie," "A Streetcar Named Desire," and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" become part of the American cultural vernacular. And that's just one of the many inspiring things I learned about Williams from this concise, fast-moving, and eminently readable book. Well worth your time.

—Stuart Brynien

"The Bright Lights: A Theatre Life" by Marian Seldes (Limelight Editions)

This is a wonderful book by a bright and accomplished performer. Seldes speaks directly to the actor with useful tips on how to audition and how to act once you get the part. It's a must-read, especially for beginning actors. It gives you a sense of the real world of theater, including how to deal with the hard realities of the business. Seldes' stories about her long runs with actors such as Richard Burton, John Gielgud, and Katharine Cornell are compelling and instructive. The author is equally perceptive when she speaks about her years teaching at Juilliard. A readable and useful book.

—Nancy Reardon

"Five Easy Decades: How Jack Nicholson Became the Biggest Movie Star
in Modern Times" by Dennis McDougal (Wiley)

Dennis McDougal's biography of the most-nominated man in Academy Awards history tells us there was only one easy thing for Jack Nicholson: flashing that devilishly cool smile while sporting those iconic Ray-Bans. Nicholson's life off the screen was filled with notorious partying, celebrated womanizing, and smooth playing of the Hollywood game. Onscreen is where we found out who the real Jack Nicholson is.

—Matthew Alspaugh

"Year of the King: An Actor's Diary and Sketchbook" by Antony Sher
(Limelight Editions)

This invaluable look at a year in an actor's life and process is a must-read. Sher's dedication to his craft is an inspiration and a kick in the pants for any aspiring actor.

—Ben Gougeon

"Exit Pursued by a Badger" by Nick Asbury (Oberon Books)

When the Royal Shakespeare Company staged eight of Shakespeare's history plays using one company of actors, Nick Asbury started a blog about the experience on the RSC's website. What followed was a fascinating, intricate look at what it's like to be an actor in production. This book comprises the entire two years of blogging, as well as extra notes and a forward by Asbury written as he prepared everything for the print version. A favorite read, and one of the few books I have actually bought.

—Adam Kern

"The Mystic in the Theatre: Eleonora Duse" by Eva Le Gallienne (Southern Illinois University Press)

This is the remarkable story of one woman's will and dedication to the theater. Eleonora Duse was acclaimed for the truth she brought to each role. She was the pioneer of "living in the moment," but her life and technique were far more complicated and intricately woven than that. "The Mystic in the Theatre" explores the woman as well as the great actor who pushed her art to the highest level. It filled me with understanding, determination, passion, and respect for a life in the theater. This is the most inspiring theater book I have ever read. Hands down, a must-read for any aspiring actor.

—Abigail Hardin