As was only fitting for the most revered acting teacher in this country, the funeral for Lee Strasberg was held at a Broadway theater this morning and it was packed, Standing Room Only.
Famous former students like Jill Clayburgh and Ben Gazzara and Paul Newman and Lee Grant moved past the police barricades, heads down; students no one had ever heard of--like David Packer, a 19-year-old who had attended Strasberg's Monday night lecture at New York University--queued up outside the theater in the cold.
Inside the Shubert Theatre, where Strasberg's plain wooden coffin lay on stage, surrounded by flowers, before a brief Jewish ceremony and burial in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., the famous passed by again. Al Pacino, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Ellen Burstyn, Marlo Thomas, producer Alexander Cohen and playwright Sidney Kingsley were among those who spoke. Some, like Fitzgerald, were composed; some, like Pacino, who was at Strasberg's side when he died on Wednesday, clearly distraught. Shelley Winters, in a five-minute tribute, wept throughout, pausing at times to catch her breath.
"I was in Dallas and somebody called me and I still feel some gigantic mistake has been made because we all need him so much," she said, standing beside the casket, addressing over 1,600 mourners. "He has been such a rock in my life . . . through Oscars and husbands and lousy pictures and children there was always Lee . . . a place where you could go and be well and cared for . . . back to the honor of being an actor . . . because actors do influence their time and the world. . . ."
She tried a quote from Shaw and, failing, started to cry..
"I keep thinking Lee is going to yell at me any minute," she said.
Ellen Burstyn read the 23rd Psalm, and said she had seen Strasberg on her "inner screen" and that he had instructed her to tell his widow, Anna, that "death is part of life, not the end of life." Anna, Strasberg's four children and his two grandchildren sat quietly through the eulogies.
Eighty years old, a legend in the American theater, Lee Strasberg died of a heart attack, stricken at his home in New York. His students included Marlon Brando, Joanne Woodward, Jane Fonda, Marilyn Monroe, all of whom had studied at his Actors Studio. At his 75th birthday, it was estimated that actors and actresses trained by Strasberg had won 24 Oscars and received 108 nominations. A one-time chorus boy himself, he had made his film acting debut in "The Godfather: Part II," and only last Sunday danced--in the chorus--in the "Night of 100 Stars" benefit at Radio City Music Hall. George Burns recalled, that evening, hearing Strasberg tell his wife Anna that he was tired. She suggested he cancel the next day's class. "I can't do that," he said.
Today, his students and former students recalled those classes. They spoke without introduction or introducing themselves; introduction being unnecessary among family. One or two, taking the stage, participated in a little in-joke from class: taking a deep breath, visibly relaxing, as others in the theater, understanding, laughed. Marlo Thomas, an actress not well known as a member of the Actors Studio, took the stage, exhaled audibly and said she had been studying with Strasberg for the past three years.
"Somehow my career had gotten in the way of my work," she said. "So I went to the one man on the planet who is known for helping artists find the way to our truth. . . . I was terrified I would be judged a fake . . . and he watched me with his caring alertness, his alert carings . . . and he became my teacher. Lee loved actors, he refused to call us students . . . he called us his colleagues. . . ."
Thomas recalled a state dinner, fancy, filled with "important people." From the receiving line, Strasberg saw a line of young, good-looking waiters.
"Actors?" he asked, and when they said yes, he left the receiving line to visit.
"He won so many awards and he once said, 'I don't want any tributes, the work is the tribute,' " said Thomas.
She worked on composure.
"Breathe, relax your face muscles, thank you," she said.