May 31, 2007
Mark Rydell—a Hollywood quintessential passionate professional
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.