Rydell's current offering as director is "Even Money" (now playing at a theater near you), an Altman-esque tale written by first-time screenwriter Robert Tannen about nine characters whose lives are affected by gambling.
"It's really a rare adult movie for this marketplace," Rydell told me.
Although reviews have been mixed, the cast alone, which includes Forest Whitaker, Kim Basinger, Ray Liotta, Danny DeVito, Nick Cannon and Tim Roth, is testament to Rydell's reputation for being "an actor's director."
To Rydell, who met with me recently in the West Hollywood offices of the Actor's Studio, where he is the co-artistic director (with Martin Landau), being a director is "a responsibility I take seriously"; acting is "creating behavior under imaginary circumstances," and his purpose in making a film is to "expose the truth in some way." Which is refreshing and inspiring to hear as we enter the summer blockbuster movie zone.
The Bronx-born Rydell's journey as an artist began as a jazz pianist. He studied at Julliard under Teddy Wilson and as a teenager was already playing in jazz clubs in New York and Chicago. But, as he recalled recently, "I saw a lot of my friends disintegrate as a result of drugs in the jazz world."
Afraid he might suffer the same fate, he returned to college.
One day in a Greek and Latin usage class at New York University, the teacher asked the students to etymologize the word "ornithology." Rydell began humming the Charlie Parker song of the same name and was surprised to hear the young woman seated behind him, Marilyn Katz, join in.
After they became friends, she told him he should become an actor and offered to call Sanford Meisner of the Actor's Playhouse. Rydell was admitted into the summer program, at the end of which he was offered a two-year scholarship to the acting school. (Today, Marilyn Katz is better known as half of Alan and Marilyn Bergman, one of the most successful popular lyricists and composers of our times.)
Rydell graduated the playhouse and was accepted into the Actor's Studio, the famous and prestigious acting academy where actors, directors and playwrights hone their craft over a lifetime at no expense. Over the next several years, he studied with and assisted such legendary acting teachers as Bobby Lewis, Harold Clurman, Stella Adler, Elia Kazan and Lee Strasberg. His classmates at the Actor's Studio included James Dean and Martin Landau.
To Rydell, the late 1940s and early 1950s in New York were a modern-day Renaissance period. Jazz legends such as Charlie Parker, Art Tatum, Miles Davis and Fats Waller played in clubs along West 52nd Street. All television programming, including the live dramas, were in New York. Edward R. Murrow, Eric Sevareid and Walter Cronkite reported the news.
As for the Broadway theater, Marlon Brando was performing in Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire," and Lee J. Cobb was in Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman." Both performances made a lasting impression on Rydell.
Rydell's father knew Cobb and got front-row seats to "Death of a Salesman." When the performance ended, the audience was silent, and then after 15 to 20 seconds suddenly they erupted in thunderous applause.
Rydell went backstage, and Cobb gave Rydell two important pieces of advice: to stick with it, because "attrition is the cancer" of the acting profession; that people who are not committed enough will drop out. And he recommended that Rydell "keep training; train, train constantly because sooner or later you will get a shot and when the shot comes, you should be ready for it."
As for seeing Brando: "Brando revolutionized acting because you saw that it was possible to really experience the events [and even] the torture the part has built into it."
As Rydell says, the actors were no longer pretending to experience the events they were portraying -- they experienced them.
Rydell's own acting career began in live television. A very young Sydney Lumet directed him in one episode of "Danger." Rydell recalls that Lumet was so young, he didn't realize he was the director and asked him to get a cup of coffee; another time, to get a role on a western, he claimed to know how to ride a horse, only to find himself having to gallop past his old playhouse classmate Steve McQueen.
He earned recurring roles in the soap operas "As the World Turns" and "The Edge of Night." His first feature role was in Reginald Rose's juvenile delinquent drama, "Crime in the Streets," playing opposite John Cassavetes and Sal Mineo.
Nonetheless, Rydell says, "I knew early on I wanted to be a director." A director, Rydell says, is much more of a "father figure, a nurturer.": "I felt I was much more comfortable being a leader -- doesn't make it better [than being an actor]. It was just more appropriate for me."
Rydell started directing "Ben Casey," the granddaddy of medical shows, and also directed several episodes of "Gunsmoke," as well as the first episode of "I Spy," directing over the years, by his own estimate, 50-60 hours of television.
Rydell's first feature film was an adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's "The Fox," with Sandy Dennis and Keir Dullea (as a side note: Dennis was discovered by William Gymes, a friend of my family, a Hungarian director who ran the Jan Hus theater in New York). Rydell describes it today as "the first candid sexual picture," which helped it become a runaway success. Rydell's career was launched.
At one point in our conversation Rydell confides, "I've worked with my share of major stars" -- which is some understatement. Rydell's career over the last 40 years includes "The Reivers" with McQueen (1967) based on the William Faulkner novel -- McQueen, Rydell says, was "troubled but you couldn't take your eyes off him"; "The Cowboys" with John Wayne (1972), which Wayne told Rydell was his favorite performance; "The Rose" with Bette Midler (1979) -- "one of my favorites" says Rydell; and "On Golden Pond" with Henry Fonda, Katherine Hepburn and Jane Fonda (1981), which won an Oscar nomination for Rydell and Oscar wins for the senior Fonda, Hepburn and screenwriter Ernest Thompson.Rydell recalls that on the first day after the first scene of "On Golden Pond," [Fonda and Hepburn] looked at me as soon as they finished." He realized that "these giants are still actors. They needed me for a mirror for the events that had occurred."
On occasion, Rydell has played roles in movies, most notably the role of Meyer Lansky in "Havana" and memorably the Jewish gangster in Robert Altman's "The Long Goodbye."
More recently, Rydell made the HBO film, "Crime of the Century" (1996), about the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, and in 2001, "James Dean" for TNT, which launched the film career of James Franco, who won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of the troubled actor.
When Rydell was first sent Israel Horovitz's "James Dean" script, he was struck by the fact that he had known almost all the characters in it. What he most wanted to convey in the film, he says, was Dean's desperate hunger for the approval of his father.
Rydell recalls that he had met Dean in the 1950s at the Actor's Studio, where they competed for roles in readings and for roles on Broadway.
"Sometimes he beat me out; sometimes I beat him out." Landau and Rydell were his friends "and he [Dean] didn't have a lot friends."
"He was incredible remarkable character -- very disturbed." Rydell recalls that Dean attached himself to all of his directors who were father figures -- evil ones, as well as good ones. According to Rydell, Dean hated George Stevens, who directed him in "Giant." He loved Kazan, who directed him in "East of Eden," but Kazan, by contrast, was impatient with Dean, and used Dean's feelings about his father to fuel the conflict in the movie.
Brando, Rydell says, suffered from the same conflict with his own father.
In truth, Rydell admits, he had his own difficulties with his father, whom he described as "a cold man" who "felt threatened" by him. Rydell left home at 17, joining the Army to escape his "prosaic" home. Without paging Dr. Freud, it's clear that Rydell's success at nurturing his fellow actors and leading them as a director stands in marked contrast to his experience with his own father and that through acting and the Actor's Studio he found a family.
I asked Rydell whether he felt acting had changed since the days of James Dean.
"Really good acting does not change," Rydell says. However, he says, "Craft and skills are not respected as it used to be."
In the '50s, "people studied, really studied. They worked. They went to all the teachers who were at the peak of their talent." In those days, people went to the movies to see a performance. Today, he said, "they go to see a personality."
Which is not to say that there are not talented actors. Rydell sees them in action most Fridays at the Actor's Class at the Actor's Studio. "I see great acting here of successful and unsuccessful actors." Together with Landau, Rydell feels the Actor's Studio continues to "recognize and encourage a deeper examination [in acting] than people are inclined to pursue."
Rydell says that it was his start as a musician that made him appreciate craft. "You can't pretend to be a musician, like you can pretend to be an actor -- if someone says 'you're a violinist, play something'; you can't fool anybody. There are a lot of actors without training -- actors who can read a script intelligently but cannot act. The difference between reading and acting is monumental."
As Rydell explains, "acting is creating behavior under imaginary circumstances; doing things -- really doing things -- under imaginary circumstances, and that requires a technique that you have to learn."
Rydell remains passionate about his profession. "I feel as enthusiastically as I did in my 20s," he says. He has maintained his integrity throughout his career. He has never taken on a project that "I wasn't desperate to make because of its humanity or other qualities."
The commitment to being an artist, Rydell says, is a "higher calling than being an actor or director." He has taken his role as artist and as director seriously and passionately. "What other profession," he asks, "allows you to sit people in the dark and tell them what you think is the truth for a couple of hours?"
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.