Born August 31, 1905, Sanford Meisner attended The Damrash Institute of Music (now Juilliard), where he studied to become a concert pianist before talking his way into a job in a Theater Guild production of Sidney Howard’s They Knew What They Wanted.
In 1931, a fervent group of young actors, including Meisner, Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg, and Harold Clurman, among others, joined together to establish the Group Theatre. It was the first permanent theatre company that brought “Method” acting, rooted in the methods of Konstantin Stanislavsky, to practice and prominence in America. Meisner appeared in twelve Group productions, including the first, The House of Connelly, and all of Clifford Odets’ plays, including Waiting for Lefty, which Meisner co-directed with Odets in 1935.
In 1933 Meisner became disenchanted with pure “Method” acting. He wrote, “Actors are not guinea pigs to be manipulated, dissected, let alone in a purely negative way. Our approach was not organic, that is to say not healthy.” Meisner had ongoing discussions about technique with Adler, who worked with Stanislavsky in Paris, and Clurman, who took a deep interest in the American character. Eventually Meisner realized that if American actors were ever going to achieve the goal of “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances,” an American approach was needed. The Neighborhood Playhouse provided him with a venue to develop that approach on his own.
In 1935 he headed the Drama Department at The Playhouse, while continuing to act and direct plays produced by The Group Theatre until its demise in 1940. He also appeared on Broadway in Embezzled (1944) and Crime and Punishment (1948). He directed The Time of Your Life (1955) and acted in The Cold Wind and the Warm (1958).
Meisner left The Playhouse in 1958 to become director of the New Talent Division of Twentieth Century Fox. He moved to Los Angeles, where he was also able to cultivate his career as a film actor. He starred in Odets’ The Story on Page One (1959), Tender Is the Night (1962), and later Mikey and Nicky (1976).
He returned to the Neighborhood Playhouse as head of the Drama Department from 1964-1990. In 1985 Meisner and James Carville co-founded The Meisner/Carville School of Acting on the Island of Bequia in the West Indies. They later extended the school to North Hollywood, California, where it still exists with Martin Barter as Artistic Director and head teacher. Meisner, Carville, and Barter opened The Sanford Meisner Center for the Arts in March 1995, and later the school and theatre were combined to form The Sanford Meisner Center, today the only school and theatre to operate under Meisner’s name.
Meisner died February 2, 1997.