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Book Review: “The Actor Uncovered: A Life in Acting” by Michael Howard

Part memoir and part technical manual, this breezy and insightful book is an inspiring testament to the prominent NYC acting teacher’s achievements.

Darryl Reilly

Darryl Reilly, Critic

…this book is about how to make a life, how to live creatively and demand some pleasure from the chaos of the American theater, how to discover an enriched sense of self, and how to develop secret pride in the unexpectedly creative moment.

This is a quote from Michael Howard in his Author’s Note to his breezy and insightful, The Actor Uncovered: A Life in Acting.  He quite successfully achieves those intentions in this concise book that is part memoir and part technical manual.

There is no one who has had a more lasting influence on my journey as a theater artist than the wise and generous Michael Howard, the author of this wise and generous book, according to theater director Michael Kahn’s introduction.

Mr. Howard is eminently qualified to hold forth on the subject, having been a prominent New York City acting teacher for over 60 years.  Concurrently with an active theatrical career, he studied with Sanford Meisner at The Neighborhood Playhouse, and with Lee Strasberg as a member of the Actor’s Studio.  In 1953, he founded The Michael Howard Studios.

The book is divided into four sections, each with numerous short chapters.  It’s primarily a collection of comprehensible, and sensible acting theories and observations about the craft.   Interwoven are episodes from Howard’s life, and these make the book truly sparkle.

He was cast in a leading role by Clifford Odets in the first production of his play, The Country Girl, in 1950, that Odets was also directing. However, the producer had reservations about the suitability of Howard’s looks.  Eventually, Odets agreed with this assessment, and Howard was replaced by a taller, less Jewish-looking actor.  Odets then offered him a much smaller role. Hurt and angry, he painfully accepts it, as he has a wife and newborn son to support.

A probable big break for his career was lost.  “The world turns.  I’ve learned.  I never again have let one job be so terribly important.”

That harsh situation exemplifies his core belief, “Actors must act. And act. And act. Find a group. Find a place. Don’t be too choosy.  Take good parts or bad.  Actors need an audience.”

He was born in 1923 in New York City, and grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with his single mother and aunt. For a time he worked at Zabar’s.  At the age of 12, at a summer camp, a drama counselor gives him and a girl an improvisation to perform.  From then on, he is set on an actor’s life.

Leaving home at the age of 18, he moves to Greenwich Village, and begins to forge a career in the theater.  As there was already a “Bob Howard” member of Actors Equity, he becomes Michael Howard.

Michael Howard

In Paris, shortly after W.W. II ends, Howard and a fellow U.S. serviceman had lunch at a lavish restaurant to celebrate.  The bill was more then the amount of money they had.  Seeing Marlene Dietrich at a neighboring table, he goes over and asks if she could help them out with the difference.  She does.

Returning to New York City, after W.W. II, he appears in a variety of roles on live television, and witnesses the industry’s anti-Communist blacklist.  His career as a stage actor continues and those of teaching and directing commence.

Being in that milieu, he encounters, many of the leading theatrical figures of that era.  Besides those mentioned, there are Elia Kazan, Joshua Logan, Sidney Lumet, Harold Clurman, Robert Lewis and Uta Hagan.

Technique is how to live truthfully on stage.  Everything the actor does is technique.  Technique is ‘how” we do what we do. 

The bulk of the book is taken up with exploring how actors do what they do.  The history of theater, auditioning, memorizing lines, rehearsing, the importance of an audience, styles of acting, the audience, and film acting versus stage acting are among the many related topics that Howard eloquently explains with simplicity.  The work of Laurence Olivier is referenced several times.

Actors who are invited into my class have completed a course of study and begun their careers.  The invitation follows an interview, after we have mutually decided that, in fact, this actor needs what I do and needs it now.  He now understands that I have no secrets, no brilliant new ways, that I do not in fact, teach acting.  It is not a “how to” class.

Since it is unlikely that many people will ever get the opportunity to study with Mr. Howard, reading The Actor Uncovered: A Life in Acting is an ideal way to experience his wisdom, practicality and most, importantly, his appealing enthusiasm.

I want young, hopeful actors to feel encouraged to pursue this theatrical life and to give this book to their parents so that they will better understand why one would want to act.

The Actor Uncovered: A Life in Acting by Michael Howard

With an Introduction by Michael Kahn

Published by Allworth Press, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing

Hardcover, $24.99 (206 pages)

For information and to purchase, visit http://www.allworth.com

Darryl Reilly
About Darryl Reilly (377 Articles)
A native New Yorker, Darryl Reilly graduated from NYU with a BFA in Cinema Studies. For the Broadway League, (formerly The League of American Theatres and Producers) he developed, and for five years conducted their Broadway Open House Tours, which took visitors through The Theatre District and into several Broadway theaters. He contributed to Broadway Musicals Show by Show: Sixth Edition (Applause Books). Since 2013, he has reviewed theater, cabaret, and concerts for Theaterscene.net.

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