Irene Gilbert poses in 1999 with a portrait of Stella Adler, with whom she… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )
Irene Gilbert, who persuaded her mentor, Stella Adler, to open an acting school in Los Angeles in 1985 and then served as its director for 20 years, has died. She was 76.
Gilbert died May 21 of complications related to Alzheimer's disease at her son's home in Eureka, Calif., said John Jack Rodgers, executive director of the Stella Adler Academy of Acting and Theatre-Los Angeles.
"There would be no West Coast school if not for Irene's drive and determination to keep it open," Rodgers said. "She was tenacious."
Adler was a noted acting coach with a long-established New York City conservatory when she began giving classes in Los Angeles in the 1960s and became close friends with Gilbert.
With Gilbert and actress Joanne Linville, Adler founded the academy, which started out in a tiny theater at Hollywood Boulevard and Argyle Avenue.
A 1991 fire shut down the school, and the building was facing demolition to make way for the subway when Adler died in late 1992.
The last thing Adler "said to me was, 'Are you going to rebuild the theater?' " Gilbert told The Times in 1994. "I swore to her I would. I want her teachings to go on."
Notable Los Angeles alumni include Benicio Del Toro, Mark Ruffalo and Salma Hayek.
The school reopened in 1994 at Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue in what was once the Embassy Club, a private club in the 1930s for Hollywood's elite.
As the academy's administrator, Gilbert followed Adler's tenet that "you can't tell a diamond from a rock until you polish it," according to a 1999 Times article.
"Can you tell right away if someone is talented?" Gilbert had said. "You can't. It grows. I see it all the time. They come in and they don't know anything, but then it starts to build."
Born Irene Liebert on Aug. 25, 1934, in Germany to Gaston and Lucie Liebert, she immigrated with her family to New York City just before the start of World War II.
When she was 5, her parents were killed by a drunk driver, and she was raised by an aunt and her four older brothers.
From an early age, she wanted to go into acting and changed her last name to Gilbert partly because it sounded "movie-star-esque," Rodgers said.
On television, Gilbert appeared in such 1970s fare as "Barnaby Jones," "Cannon" and "Emergency!" and continued to act into the late 1980s.
She also taught at the academy and produced and directed many plays.
Before Gilbert retired, the non-profit academy named one of its spaces the Irene Gilbert Theatre.
Gilbert, who was divorced, is survived by her son, Randall Garrett Herzon.
A memorial will be held at 7:30 p.m. June 21 at the academy, 6773 Hollywood Blvd.