Robert Lewis, a member of the Group Theatre of the '30s, a founder of the Actors Studio, a director of Broadway shows and one of the most influential teachers of the last 50 years, died of a heart attack Sunday night in Manhattan, where he made his home. He was 88.
Bobby Lewis -- as he was known throughout the theatre community -- was born on March 16, 1909, in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. He attended Boys High School in Brooklyn, City College in Manhattan and the Juilliard School.
He began his professional career with a brief stint as an actor in Eva Le Gallienne's Civic Repertory Company. In 1931 he joined the Group Theatre as an apprentice. At first he played bit parts, then moved into the position of assistant stage manager. He successfully directed William Saroyan's first play, My Heart's in the Highlands, for the Group Theatre in 1939 (although the Theatre Guild fired him from his duties as director of Saroyan's next play, The Time of Your Life) and later directed such commercial productions as 1947's Brigadoon (which, like My Heart's in the Highlands, had a bit of the burr about it along with a magical feel: "Under Bob Lewis's direction all the arts of the theatre have been woven into a singing pattern of enchantment," wrote Brooks Atkinson of the musical in the New York Times) and The Teahouse of the August Moon in 1953.
Lewis's other directing credits include The Happy Time (1950), Grass Harp (1952), Witness for the Prosecution (1954), Jamaica (1957), Cheri (1959), Kwamina (1961), Foxy (1964), On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1965), The Club Champion's Widow (1978) and Harold and Maude (1980). He also directed Marc Blitzstein's opera Regina (1949) and the 1956 film version of Anything Goes.
After the Group Theatre disbanded, Lewis spent a few years in Hollywood as a film actor. In 1947 he helped to found the Actors Studio in New York. A year later -- in 1948 -- Lewis had a falling out with Actors Studio co-founder Elia Kazan and abruptly resigned from the studio -- a decision that he later regretted, he admitted in his critically praised 1984 memoir, Slings and Arrows: Theater in My Life. Lewis taught classes at the Yale School of Drama, at the Lincoln Center Repertory Company, at City University in New York and at his own Robert Lewis Theatre Workshop and Robert Lewis Company in New Rochelle, NY, in the late-'70s.
Over the years his students included Anne Bancroft, Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Anne Jackson, Eli Wallach, Karl Malden, Maureen Stapleton and Meryl Streep.
Lewis, who espoused the teachings of Stanislavsky but was highly critical of the American "Method" as a system of acting that emphasized emotion to the exclusion of technique, taught classes right up until the end of his life. He eschewed words and labels and advised actors that "whatever works for you, take and use it. What doesn't, throw away."
-- By Rebecca Paller