Harold Guskin, a revered acting coach who encouraged students like Kevin Kline, Glenn Close and James Gandolfini to emphasize the words of the script over any analysis of their characters’ motivation, died on May 10 in Park Ridge, N.J. He was 76.
His wife, Sandra Jennings, said the cause was probably a pulmonary embolism. He learned a decade ago that he had primary progressive aphasia, a rare form of dementia, she said, and had been living in a care facility in Park Ridge.
“Actors are about feelings, imagination and improvisation,” Mr. Guskin wrote in “How to Stop Acting” (2003), a book that laid out his principles and techniques. “They are good at becoming other people. Their instinct is their talent. The more they trust their instinct, the more inspired and inspiring their performances become.”
Mr. Guskin, who occasionally also acted and directed, worked out of his brownstone apartment in the West Village, guiding, cajoling and pushing actors as they prepared for auditions, rehearsals or performances. His goal was to free them to bring their own personalities to their roles and trust that they would find their characters in the text before them.
“It all started with the words,” Ms. Close said in a telephone interview. “You say them once and you say them again and again, and each time you say them, more is revealed.”
Rachel Weisz, who first sought Mr. Guskin’s help in 2005 before filming “The Constant Gardener,” said he had prized spontaneity. “I can hear him saying: ‘Don’t think! Don’t think! Just do it!’ ” she said. She added: “He’d laugh his head off at the notion of motivation. You’d be motivated by your instinct in that moment.”
Mr. Guskin was familiar with various schools of acting but felt beholden to none. He wrote that any acting theory “puts the actor in his mind, not his instinct.”
“Once the actor feels an obligation to fulfill and justify a choice,” he continued, “he is not free to go anywhere else. He can no longer explore.”
In a profile in The New Yorker in 1995, John Lahr described Mr. Guskin working with the actress Kate Skinner before rehearsals were to begin for “Uncle Vanya,” which was opening at the Circle in the Square Theater in Manhattan. As they discussed the point in the play where her character, Sonya, talks about her plainness, Mr. Guskin suggested that she cry.
“Don’t make me do this, Harold,” Ms. Skinner said.
“Just be irrational, idiotic, moronic,” he told her. “Do it. Do it. Come on.”
After Ms. Skinner read Sonya’s lines — about how she was not pretty — tears ran down her face.
“That’s what you want to find,” Mr. Guskin said. “How crazy is she? It just gets you in a place where you have control over your rage.”
Harold Saul Guskin was born on May 25, 1941, in Brooklyn, and moved with his family to Asbury Park, N.J., as a teenager. His father, David, sold restaurant supplies, and his mother, Frances (Midler) Guskin, was a homemaker.
Mr. Guskin began playing the trombone in high school and played professionally while attending the Manhattan School of Music. But his passion for music faded, replaced by a fascination with theater. He attended Broadway and Off Broadway plays. He began attending acting classes. He studied drama at Rutgers University, where he received a bachelor’s degree, then earned a master’s from Indiana University, where he was an artist in residence at the Indiana Theater Company, a touring theater group affiliated with the school’s graduate drama studies program.
Mr. Kline was an undergraduate at Indiana, acting with the Vest Pocket Players, a coffeehouse troupe, which the group asked Mr. Guskin to join.
“After an hour, it was obvious he had to be our leader,” Mr. Kline said in a telephone interview. “It was obvious that he knew more than we did. And he had this innate wisdom.”
Feeling comfortable with Mr. Guskin’s guidance, Mr. Kline asked him how he should deliver a line from Maxwell Anderson’s play “The Wingless Victory,” which he was performing at the campus theater.
“And he said, ‘How do you want to say it?,’” Mr. Kline said, recalling the conversation. “I said, ‘I know how Brando would say it or Olivier would say it.’ And he said: ‘No, no, no. What does it mean to you, what does it mean to you to be a man?’”
While at Indiana, Mr. Guskin also gave acting direction to Richard Jenkins, then a graduate student.
“For me, he was the light bulb that went on over my head,” said Mr. Jenkins, an Emmy Award-winning character actor best known for his role in the HBO series “Six Feet Under.” “I wasn’t good, but Harold made sense to me.”
Mr. Guskin went on to teach acting in the early 1970s at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, and then at the New York University School of the Arts. Unhappy in the academic world, he began coaching independently. In the late 1980s he joined the Public Theater, where for three years he ran workshops that introduced some actors to Shakespeare and others to Shakespearean roles they had not played.
“It was quite an experience to watch Sally Field attacking the role of Hermione in ‘The Winter’s Tale,’” he wrote in “How To Stop Acting,” and to watch Joel Grey as a “charming, scary Richard III seducing a weeping young woman whose husband he has killed” and Cicely Tyson “as Gertrude describing the death of Ophelia in ‘Hamlet.’”
In 1989, he directed “Twelfth Night” for the Public at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park with Michelle Pfeiffer, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Jeff Goldblum. New York magazine described Mr. Guskin’s rehearsals as “free-form and exciting — with each day bringing a new meaning to the play the actors have come to perform.”
Nearly two decades later, Mr. Guskin directed his only film, “Down the Shore,” starring Mr. Gandolfini and Famke Janssen. Written by Ms. Jennings and shot in Keansburg, N.J., it told the story of three longtime friends living on the Jersey Shore whose secrets unravel with the arrival of a stranger. The film was not released until 2013 because, Ms. Jennings said, it had been “hijacked” by its producer and re-edited against her and her husband’s wishes.
Reviewing it for NPR, Ella Taylor wrote that Mr. Gandolfini and Ms. Janssen, another student of Mr. Guskin’s, “dance a delicate minuet around one another, pacing out a slow, quiet revelation of the shared past that has paralyzed their wills to happiness and change.”
In addition to Ms. Jennings, Mr. Guskin is survived by his brothers, Sam, Alan and Jack.
As primary progressive aphasia gradually took away Mr. Guskin’s ability to speak and communicate, Ms. Jennings helped coach his students, filling in words he could no longer conjure and explaining his intentions.
Ms. Weisz said: “Even when he was down to about 20 words, I knew what he meant to say. We had a shorthand by then, and he would say, `No, no, no,’ when I wasn’t hitting the truth.”
His worsening dementia led Ms. Jennings to place him in a care facility in New Rochelle, N.Y., where an accidental physical encounter with another resident led to his arrest and two months’ confinement in the infirmary of the Westchester Correctional Facility in Valhalla, N.Y. The case was dismissed because, a judge found, he lacked the capacity to help in his own defense, Ms. Jennings said. He moved to the Park Ridge facility in February.
Mr. Kline visited Mr. Guskin for the last time several weeks ago.
“I tried to get him to be responsive or to recognize me,” he said. “I ended up doing some Shakespeare for him, and Sandy said that he perked up. He seemed to recognize me or Shakespeare. She said it struck some nerve in him.”
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