Born Israel Strasberg on November 17, 1901, in Budzanów, Poland, Austria-Hungary (now Budanov, Ukraine), Lee Strasberg went on to become one of the top acting teachers of the 20th century. Al Pacino, Sidney Poitier, Paul Newman, Maureen Stapleton and Marlon Brando were among his many students at the Actors Studio in New York City. Strasberg moved to New York with his family in 1909. He first became involved in the theater at the Chrystie Street Settlement House, acting in productions staged there.
Strasberg had a life-changing experience in 1923, when he attended a performance directed by Constantin Stanislavski. The production was part of the Moscow Art Theatre's American tour, and Stanislavski's work influenced Strasberg's entire career path. Around this time, Strasberg began working with the Theatre Guild. He started out as an assistant stage manager and then moved into acting.
After retiring from the stage in 1929, Strasberg soon created his own dramatic organization. He formed the Group Theatre in 1931 with Cheryl Crawford and Harold Clurman. While with the Group Theatre, Strasberg directed numerous plays, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Men in White by Sidney Kingsley. The organization also produced several works by Clifford Odets.
In 1948, Strasberg joined the Actors Studio as a teacher. The studio had been founded the previous year by Elia Kazan, Cheryl Crawford and Robert Lewis. Its aim was to provide theatrical professionals—actors, directors and playwrights—with the opportunity for creative exploration and growth. Strasberg became famous for his approach to acting, which drew from Stanislavski's techniques.
Strasberg asked his students to engage in what is known as "method" acting—actors call upon their own emotions and experiences and incorporate them into their performances. "The real secret to method acting—which is as old as the theater itself—is creating reality," Strasberg once said, according to theBoston Globe. "That is tremendously difficult. Some actors think behaving casually is the same thing."
In the early 1950s, Strasberg became the artistic director of the Actors Studio. He spent more than 30 years leading this creative enterprise, working with such great talents as James Dean, Julie Harris, Jane Fonda and Joanne Woodward. In 1969, Strasberg established the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute.
Strasberg returned to acting in the 1970s. In 1974, he played a Jewish crime figure in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather: Part II, and received an Academy Award nomination for his supporting role in the film. Two years later, he appeared with Sophia Loren, Richard Harris and Martin Sheen in the thriller The Cassandra Crossing.
In 1979, Strasberg had one of his few leading film roles. He co-starred with George Burns and Art Carney in the crime caper comedy Going with Style. Even with these forays into film work, Strasberg remained committed to the Actors Studio. He served as the group's artistic director until his death in 1982. Strasberg died of a heart attack on February 17 of that year. Thrice married, he was survived by his third wife Anna and his four children, Susan, John, Adam and David.
A few days after his death, Strasberg was remembered at a service at New York's Shubert Theater. Countless stars from the film and theatrical worlds filled the audience to say goodbye to the acting instructor who inspired and challenged them. Paul Newman, Dustin Hoffman, Anthony Quinn, Shelley Winters and Ben Gazzara were among the mourners.
Sources: Biography.com Editors. “Biography of Lee Strasberg,” Biography.com