Messenger photo by John Matuszak
Allan Rich performs a monologue as Gloucester from Shakespeare’s Henry VI as part of an acting workshop at the Jewish Bookfair Nov. 7. The veteran actor discussed his book "A Leap from the Method: An Organic Approach to Acting."
Veteran actor Allan Rich is not afraid to speak out and stand up for what he believes.
That willingness to stick his neck out earned him a place on the Hollywood blacklist and kept him out of work for many years.
It also led him to write his new book "A Leap from the Method: An Organic Approach to Acting," in which he challenges many of the accepted orthodoxies of the Stanislavsky approach to performing.
Rich, 81, came to Columbus Nov. 6 and 7 as part of the Jewish Bookfair and to conduct an acting workshop.
The Stanislavsky method teaches the actor to "find the truth," he explains.
Rich, who trained early in his career in the Method, came to realize that the actor’s job is to convey a writer’s fantasy.
"Acting is creative lying," asserts Rich, whose screen credits include "Serpico," "Quiz Show" and "Amistad."
His advice to actors is "look them in the eye and lie through your teeth."
And he believes they should rely more on their imaginations than dredging up emotional memories, as some Method actors attempt to do.
For Rich, the power of the imagination is demonstrated by the ability to achieve sexual arousal by creating a mental fantasy, without any other kind of stimulation.
Before performing a scene, Rich pictures it in his mind in great detail, and then he is able to enter as the character.
Simplicity and directness are "my true leap from the Method," Rich writes, and he has coached numerous stars in his own method, including Jamie Lee Curtis and Sharon Stone.
This can be applied to any endeavor that requires communication, from lawyers to sales people, Rich believes.
"Before you go before before a jury, before you apply for a job, before you make a speech, you have to do the details in your mind," Rich contends. "You have to see the movie in your head."
Rich maintains that "we all are actors."
He debunks other myths about acting, such as anxiety over having talent.
Everyone has a talent, he offered to an audience at the Jewish Community Center. "To be a human being is to be gifted."
But a talent has to be tied to desire and hard work to make it flourish, he added.
And you better have a pretty good reason for wanting to be an actor, he has learned.
If you only want to make a lot of money, try Wall Street, he warns in his book. "Making a living as an actor is a miracle."
Rich found his reason to pursue acting while growing in the Bronx. His mother remembered her son (his real name is Benjamin Schultz) running up on stage at 3 to sing along with the performers.
Later, he was entranced by a teacher’s reading of "Julius Caesar."
The other tough street kids mocked the recitation, but Benjie knew then he wanted to be an actor.
After some initial reluctance on the part of his parents (and threats to quit school) they supported his decision with elocution lessons and even cosmetic surgery.
He changed his name to Allan Rich at the suggestion of a band leader and landed his first Broadway role at 17, in a play produced by Milton Berle. The show closed after five performances, but Rich’s friendship with Berle lasted a lifetime.
After an overseas stint with the USO during World War II, he returned to New York and began reading Stanislavsky’s "An Actor Prepares."
He also began attending classes conducted by the Group Theater, where "the Method" was gospel.
But he quickly realized that devotion to such dogma can go too far.
In the role of Danny the Hat Box Killer, he disappeared into the persona so thoroughly that, following a scene where he places a pillow over another performer’s face, it took three stage hands to pry his hands away.
The actress, who did not appreciate almost being smothered to death, smacked him across the face and snarled "You phony Method actor!"
He continued to perfect his craft while sharing the stage with such luminaries as Edward G. Robinson and Claude Rains, and he performed Shakespeare and other roles at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, for three years.
He had been tapped in 1952 as a featured player on television’s "Philco Playhouse" when his career took an abrupt detour.
The casting director informed Rich that they had decided to go in another direction.
The real reason he was fired was because his name had appeared in "Red Channels," which listed suspected communists and subversives as targets for the blacklist.
He was singled out because of his participation on a committee to free a black man in Mississippi falsely accused of rape.
He wouldn’t get another television job for eight years, and it would be 20 years before he returned to any kind of prominence.
It was a year before Rich was told that it was his stance on civil rights and justice, and not his acting talent, that had short-circuited his career.
To this day, Rich considers his inclusion in "Red Channels," alongside Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Miller, Pete Seeger, to be a badge of honor.
For others it became a death sentence, he acknowledged, as their lives fell apart.
But Rich had a wife and two children to support.
He kept his acting skills sharp through evening classes, and he supported his family through odd jobs such as a door-to-door Santa, eventually settling in as a stock broker and art gallery owner, with clients that included Salvador Dali.
Back in the spotlight
With his family financially secure, and the Red Scare behind him, Rich was ready to return to acting, landing the role of the district attorney in "Serpico" in 1973 with Al Pacino.
Here his sense of detail and visualization came into play. In his entrance, he suggested to director Sidney Lumet that a subordinate trail behind him to take his coat,underscoring his powerful position in contrast to Pacino’s underdog hero. It worked.
He has been an ubiquitous face on movie and television screens ever since, while never abandoning the stage or his social conscience.
His participation in a small film project led to the establishment of We Care About Kids, a foundation that funds short movies about issues that affect young people. Supporters include Cuba Gooding Jr., Edward James Olmos and Jerry Stiller.
Rich travels to schools and talks about such issues as smoking and sexual abuse with kids he considers the hope of the future.
His conversation often veers into concerns about the state of our democracy, and he continues to believe that speaking out is the only way to preserve freedom.
"The greatest act of patriotism is respect for the First Amendment," Rich concludes.
Jewish Bookfair schedule
The JCC Jewish Bookfair continues with the following events at 1125 College Ave., unless otherwise noted:
•Family PJ Party, Sunday, November 11, 4 p.m., at New Albany Public Library, JCC College Avenue, and Antrim Park. Free, but reservations are requested. Call the JCC at 231-2731. Join us for a comfy-cozy story time and bedtime snack. This family-style celebration of Jewish children’s books will help to reinforce daily family rituals related to reading and bedtime. This event is best suited for children age 6 and younger, but all family members are welcome. Each family takes home a complimentary book to continue the story at home.
•Robin Judd, "Contested Rituals: Circumcision, Kosher Butchering, and Jewish Political Life in Germany, 1843-1933," Monday, Nov. 12, 7 p.m., $6. Circumcision and kosher butchering may appear to be at the margins of Jewish history, but they are not. In relating these events and the controversies that raged during the intervening years, Judd explores the nature and escalation of the ritual debates as they transcended the boundaries of the local Jewish community to include non-Jews who sought to protect, restrict, or prohibit these rites.
•Nathan Englander, "The Ministry of Special Cases," Literature and History: A Dialogue about Nathan Englander’s "Ministry of Special Cases," featuring Nathan Englander and Professor Donna Guy, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 7:30 p.m., $20 for the lecture and dinner at 6 p.m., or $6 for lecture only. Nathan Englander, author of the novel "The Ministry of Special Cases," and Donna Guy, professor of history at Ohio State University and author of the scholarly monograph, "Sex and Danger in Buenos Aires: Prostitution, Family, and Nation in Argentina," will discuss the community of "white slaves" and Jewish prostitutes in Buenos Aires. –
•Carolivia Herron, "Always an Olivia," Wednesday, November 14, 7:30 p.m. $20 lecture and dinner at 6 p.m., $6 lecture only, and Thursday, Nov. 15, 10:30 a.m., at the Livingston Avenue branch of The Columbus Metropolitan Library. This multi-cultural tale, based on critically acclaimed Jewish African-American author Carolivia Herron’s own family history, will engage readers young and old.
•Sheldon Mike Young, "Toledoth: City of Generations," Thursday, Nov. 15, 11:30 a.m., $6. Set in a vibrant 14th century Jewish community in Spain, this historical novel tells the story of Saul Abandana and his two loves and foreshadows the Inquisition and Expulsion of the Jewish community some 150 years later.
•Alana Newhouse, "A Living Lens," Thursday, Nov. 15, 7:30 p.m., $6. This volume features classic photographs of the history one has learned to associate with the Forward-Lower East Side pushcarts, Yiddish theater, labor rallies-along with gems no one would expect.
All books are on sale at the JCC and are available for online ordering at their web site. For information, visit the JCC website at www.columbusjcc.org or call 231-2731.