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Obituary

Susan Strasberg; Stage, Film Actress, Daughter of Famed Acting Teacher

January 23, 1999|ROBERT W. WELKOS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Susan Strasberg, the daughter of legendary acting teacher Lee Strasberg and an accomplished actress in her own right, has died of cancer in New York. She was 60.

At 17, Strasberg electrified Broadway audiences with her performance in the title role of "The Diary of Anne Frank" in 1955. That year, she appeared in two hit Hollywood films, "The Cobweb," directed by Vincente Minnelli, and "Picnic," starring William Holden and Kim Novak.

The slender, petite brunet grew up around such acting icons as Marilyn Monroe and Marlon Brando, who had attended her father's famous Method acting school in New York, the Actors Studio.

In a career spanning more than four decades, she appeared in more than 30 feature films, including "Stage Struck," the 1957 remake of "Morning Glory," "The Trip" and "The Brotherhood," and nearly two dozen television programs, as well as a variety of plays, including a tour of the Broadway hit drama, "Agnes of God."

Her death Thursday stunned family members.

"She was diagnosed with [breast] cancer a few years ago but it was in remission totally," said her stepmother, Anna Strasberg. "We really have no answers here. I think Susan truly believed she was OK. She didn't make any plans for dying. She just made plans for living."

She had talked to the actress only a few days ago and thought she sounded "great" and was making plans to attend a friend's wedding.

"It's such a shock that this has happened," the stepmother added. "This beautiful spirit, this extraordinary light not only on the stage but in movies and in life. It's just too hard. We're all devastated."

Strasberg, who also lived in Los Angeles and San Francisco, died in her apartment in New York City.

Born on May 22, 1938, in New York City, she was the daughter of Lee and Paula Strasberg. Her father had taught and directed at the Actors Studio, whose members included Brando, Julie Harris, Maureen Stapleton and Walter Matthau. Her mother had her own stage career, taught acting and hosted parties surrounded by the cream of the artistic world.

Strasberg once wrote that she crawled around in diapers "in and out of a lot of famous or soon-to-be-famous legs" of guests like Elia Kazan, John Garfield, Clifford Odets, Franchot Tone and Tallulah Bankhead.

Her world took a turbulent turn around 1954, when her parents "adopted" a 28-year-old shapely blond named Marilyn Monroe, who had come to the Actors Studio desperately wanting to be considered a serious actress.

Strasberg recounted their close friendship and rivalry in a 1992 book titled "Marilyn and Me: Sisters, Rivals, Friends."

No one could deny that Strasberg had natural acting talent.

When she read for the part of Anne Frank as a teenager, she recalled how she clutched the script to stop her hands from trembling and then started to weep as she read the lines. No one in the room said a word when she finished her audition until Joseph Schildkraut, who had been cast as Anne's father, said, "Hello, Anne."

She would go on to appear in the Broadway play "Time Remembered" in 1957 with Richard Burton and Helen Hayes.

Despite her early acting success, Strasberg had a sometimes troubled personal life. In her 1980 memoir, "Bittersweet," she frankly chronicled her ill-fated affair with actor Burton as well as her violence-marred, short-lived marriage to actor Christopher Jones, with whom she had a daughter.

She was 19 when she met Burton and later wrote that she had secretly admired him from the start, but tried to keep her distance at first because he was married. Eventually, the barriers eroded.

"I threw myself into my affair with Richard with total abandon and passion," she wrote. "I did not care about the consequences. Richard didn't seem to, either."

As for Jones, whom she married in 1965, Strasberg wrote that their relationship was idyllic at first but deteriorated into divorce after they fought acrimoniously.

Besides her daughter, Jennifer, she is survived by a brother, her stepmother and two half-brothers.

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