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Michael Shurtleff, 86; Broadway casting director wrote bestseller `Audition'

February 15, 2007|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Michael Shurtleff, a top Broadway casting director in the 1960s and 1970s who wrote "Audition," a best-selling book for actors, has died. He was 86.

Shurtleff, who also was a playwright and acting teacher, died Jan. 28 at his home in Los Angeles after suffering from lung cancer and other health problems, said Vance Walker, a longtime friend.

After working his way up to become an assistant for different Broadway producers, Shurtleff became casting director for producer David Merrick in 1959.

Throughout the 1960s, Shurtleff cast nearly a dozen of Merrick's Broadway productions, including "A Taste of Honey," "Do Re Mi," "Carnival!," "Irma La Douce," "I Can Get It for You Wholesale" and "Oliver!"

Shurtleff, who launched an independent casting service in the early 1960s -- Casting Consultants -- also cast the Broadway productions of "1776," "Jesus Christ Superstar," "Pippin" and "Chicago," as well as casting various television and film productions, including uncredited work on "The Graduate" and "The Sound of Music."

As a casting director for the New York stage, Shurtleff was involved in the early careers of Barbra Streisand (whom he reportedly discovered singing in a seedy Greenwich Village bar), Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, Elliott Gould, Bette Midler and Ben Vereen.

It was Shurtleff's experience casting for the 1966 Broadway production of "The Lion in Winter" that spurred him to branch out as a teacher.

After three weeks of auditions, he told Dramatics magazine in 1981, "the English director, Noel Willman, turned to me and asked, 'Don't American actors have any sense of humor at all?' And I decided that I ought to begin teaching actors how to audition."

Shurtleff's classes, in turn, led to his 1978 book "Audition: Everything an Actor Needs to Know to Get the Part." It has been translated into Spanish, German and Japanese and is widely used at colleges.

Director-choreographer Bob Fosse wrote in his foreword to the book: "I would like to go on record as saying that I consider this book to be absolutely indispensable to any aspiring, or even mildly ambitious, actor. There is no book of which I am aware that gives an actor such first-rate, clear-cut, no-nonsense advice."

Along with his casting work, Shurtleff also wrote plays, including "Call Me by My Rightful Name," a 1961 production with Joan Hackett, Robert Duvall and Alvin Ailey. Newsday called it "the best off-Broadway play of the year."

By 1980, Shurtleff had written eight off-Broadway productions and six evenings of one-act plays in New York. His comedy "Sailing" was selected for publication in "The Best Short Plays of 1979."

Shurtleff taught acting classes around the world.

Asked in 1980 if there was a difference between his New York and West Coast students, he told The Times that "the main difference is that here people are less interested in good acting than they are in making it.

The basic quality is just as good in L.A., but the presumption is that the work is in television. One of my major jobs is convincing students that they can do TV and still be good actors."

Born Charles Gordon Shurtleff in Oak Park, Ill., on July 3, 1920, he earned a bachelor's degree from Lawrence College in Appleton, Wis., served in the Army during World War II and earned a master's degree in playwriting from the Yale School of Drama in 1952. He moved to Los Angeles in 1978.

He is survived by two brothers, John and Roger.

An informal gathering of Shurtleff's friends and students in Los Angeles is pending.


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