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Wynn Handman, Influential Director and Teacher, Dies at 97


This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic.

Wynn Handman, a director and acting teacher who shaped the careers of Dustin Hoffman, Joel Grey, Faye Dunaway, Richard Gere and other stars in his acting classes and at the influential American Place Theater in Manhattan, which he co-founded, died on Saturday at his home in Manhattan. He was 97.

His daughter Laura Handman said the cause was pneumonia related to the coronavirus.

In addition to mentoring actors, Mr. Handman was an advocate of new American plays and those who wrote them.

He founded the American Place Theater in 1963 with Michael Tolan, an actor, and Sidney Lanier, vicar of St. Clement’s Episcopal Church on West 46th Street in Manhattan, where the theater was located in its early years. Their mission was to promote new voices, approaches and subjects, an alternative to the often constricted commercial offerings nearby in the Broadway houses.

“As a producer, Wynn brought the Greenwich Village theater revolution to spitting distance from Broadway, which, as far as he was concerned, was the enemy,” the theater journalist Jeremy Gerard, author of “Wynn Place Show: A Biased History of the Rollicking Life & Extreme Times of Wynn Handman and The American Place Theatre” (2013), said by email. The theater, he said, “shocked audiences — and many critics — with early plays by downtown anarchists (Sam Shepard), Black Power militants (Ed Bullins) and emerging feminists (María Irene Fornés).”

Mr. Handman, who served as artistic director of the theater — which was still producing plays into this century — admitted that he wasn’t chasing the kind of success most producers and directors craved.

“I was drawn to challenging plays, plays that would not succeed commercially and therefore needed a home,” he told The New York Times in 2013. “It was never in my mind to do a play that would become a hit. But that’s what most New York theaters are all about today.”

His greatest hits, it might be said, were the actors who came through his classes, which he began teaching in the 1950s. Other acting teachers, like Lee Strasberg, may have been better known, but Mr. Handman’s workshop, for years held in a cramped space near Carnegie Hall, was just as intense.

“It was a lot of technique, truth, moment-to-moment, how to listen, improv,” Burt Reynolds, a student early in his career, told The New York Times in 1981.

In the 2019 documentary “It Takes a Lunatic,” directed by Billy Lyons, the actress Marianne Leone Cooper recalled, “He worked with me for six months on nothing but stillness.”

James Caan, another of the many actors who paid tribute in the documentary, remembered serious work seriously tackled. “We didn’t spend a lot of time being trees, you know what I mean?” he said in the film.

Mr. Handman was still teaching decades later when John Leguizamo tested out “Mambo Mouth,” his breakthrough solo show, which became an Off Broadway hit in 1990, in one of his classes.

“Wynn sat there laughing and carrying on like any other audience member,” Mr. Leguizamo wrote in the foreword to Mr. Gerard’s biography, “but when I was done he cut into it like a surgeon trying to save an organ without killing the patient.”

Irwin Leo Handman (Wynn had long been his legal name, his daughter said) was born on May 19, 1922, in Manhattan. His father, Nathan, ran a printing business, and his mother, Anna (Kemler) Handman, was a saleswoman at Saks Fifth Avenue.

He grew up in the Inwood section of Manhattan, although that may conjure a different image to the reader of 2020 than it did almost a century ago.

“There was a farm across the street,” Mr. Handman said in the documentary. “A real farm. That’s true. I had such a happy childhood that I never wanted to leave Inwood.”

Mr. Handman graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx in 1938 and the City College of New York in 1943, later earning a master’s degree in speech pathology from Teachers College at Columbia University. After graduating from City College he enlisted in the Coast Guard, serving on an icebreaker that was assigned to knock out a German weather station in the Arctic. The mission was a success, and a number of Germans were taken prisoner.

“When the Germans came aboard the ship, I didn’t feel like saluting them,” Mr. Handman, who was Jewish, said in the documentary, but his commander ordered him to follow protocol and do so.

While at sea he would sometimes entertain his shipmates with skits, and the experience led him to think about acting once the war ended. He applied to the Neighborhood Playhouse, Sanford Meisner’s theater school, and studied there from 1946 to 1948.

He wanted to act, but Mr. Meisner saw him as a director and in 1949 suggested he lead a summer theater in the Adirondacks where some Neighborhood Playhouse students were in repertory. Mr. Handman was reluctant, but Barbara Ann Schlein, whom he would marry the next year, urged him to try it.

“I found myself, my calling, that summer,” Mr. Handman told Mr. Gerard in an interview for the biography.

Mr. Handman taught at the Neighborhood Playhouse from 1948 to 1955, but in 1952 he also began teaching his own acting classes, and in 1955 he broke away from Mr. Meisner. His studio across from Carnegie Hall was furnished with salvaged wooden auditorium seats.

“Its warmth and funkiness were chemical to him,” said Jonathan Slaff, a theater publicist who studied with Mr. Handman and represented the theater in the mid-1990s, “and he transported its seating and décor into a studio he established on the eighth floor of Carnegie Hall and, later, on the 10th floor of 244 West 54th Street.”

Separate from his teaching was the American Place Theater. For the first year or so it devoted itself to readings. Its first full production, in November 1964, was “The Old Glory” by Robert Lowell, the poet, his first stage production. It won an Obie Award for best American play.

The next year the theater staged “Harry, Noon and Night” by Ronald Ribman, with Mr. Grey and Mr. Hoffman in the cast. “Hogan’s Goat” by William Alfred was also done that year, with Ms. Dunaway in the cast.

In 1970 the theater moved to a custom-built space on West 46th Street.

Over the decades, the theater’s offerings were nothing if not eclectic. In 1968 there was “The Cannibals,” George Tabori’s gruesome tale of cannibalism in a Nazi death camp. In 1986 there was Eric Bogosian’s “Drinking in America.” In 1998 came Aasif Mandvi’s solo show, “Sakina’s Restaurant.”

“He helped foster idiosyncratic work,” Mr. Bogosian told The Times in 2007. “He has a great eye for what’s good, what’s honest.”

Mr. Handman’s wife, known as Bobbie, died in 2013. In addition to his daughter Laura, he is survived by another daughter, Liza Eleanor Handman; two grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

Mr. Handman was still teaching when he contracted the virus.

“As soon as the lockdown was over,” Mr. Slaff said, “he would have been back in class.”


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