Thursday, January 12, 2012

Ben Cooper Stevens!

" All good acting is the same in the end degree, whomever your teacher is"
-Lee Strasberg

Happy Thursday!
This is my first blog from a plane! I'm on a Delta flight with no leg room and my laptop is practically in my chin, but here goes...

Today, I am celebrating Ben Cooper Stevens. A fascinating actor and man who was lucky enough to be the personal assistant to one of the greatest acting teachers ever. As a matter of fact, the above quote was said to Ben from Lee Strasberg at a dinner table of Lee's in June of 1981.
Ben with Lee Strasberg, 1981





Ben tells me that this was truly important for him to hear at that time, because,  amongst the acting profession, it was rumored that Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, Sandy Meisner, Herbert Berghof, etc., all seemed to be competing for the top acting teacher title in NYC and LA. Lee would not lower himself to say he was a better (or worse) teacher, than anyone else.
He felt as though, if one is a really good successful professional actor, it didn't matter what method was used to get there. The point is to get there. Not, how you get there. The validity of other techniques was unimportant to him.


Ben tells me that he he has been through all kinds of serious life tramas since childhood, but he has always followed his dreams, believed in himself, and tried to stay on HIS own personal path to success and happiness. He will just keep going-until G-d (or life) tells him to "stop, relax-it's all over"!


Ben's very first live Equity Theatrical production was Hello Dolly!, with BETTY GRABLE (sorry Carol Channing). He was an usher, his very first job, at the brand new Morris Machanic Theatre in downtown Baltimore, Maryland.
He was in heaven, although his strict father was very opposed to it. He said " I don't want you hanging around those crazy show biz people". ( His biggest mistake ever! LOL) Ben was too young and really didn't know too much about Betty Grable, but he must have seen every single performance of that show ! He already knew at a very early age ( like 10 years ) that his destiny was somehow in performing. His grandfather, uncle and cousins were all Cantors. And his mom was a semi-retired nightclub singer. Even she tried to discourage him from this business. Her exact words were, "It will bring you nothing but heartache and misery". (Her biggest mistake ever! LOL)

Ben, with his Nana


How did that affect you?

It actually confirmed for me that I was going in the right direction. I was at "home" and at peace in the theatre. It was the place I felt most comfortable and complete. The only place
where I could be truly me and feel kind of special. I had no specific ideas yet how this life would come together, but it became my passion and my identity. Recently, I went back to Baltimore for my High School Reunion, and a guy from my class walked up to me and said "I remember you, I thought you were the funniest guy in the world, and I knew you would be successful"!!! I was truly flabbergasted and in shock by his comment, because I had no idea any one ever thought that of me. In high school, I just wanted everyone to like me. So, I was an "entertainer" to everyone in school. It was mostly to cover up my own private insecurity and personal rejection at home.
I had always known that I was a little "different", but I didn't know if that was a good or bad thing. My Nana (grandmother) was the only person that believed in me, and always confirmed my value and self worth.



Were you exposed to the arts growing up?

The only exposure to the arts while I was very young had to be done on my own, and it was very limited. I do remember that my mom did take us to see the movie FUNNY GIRL with Barbra Streisand, which left me in heaven for weeks.
However, I had never been to any theatre, art museum, opera, or symphony as a young child. ( My dad owned an exterminating company and was totally uninterested in any of the arts.) By senior high school, I studied piano at Peabody Conservatory, voice privately, and learned by myself to play the guitar and Bass Fiddle for the high school orchestra. I also started performing professionally in local dinner theatre productions, Bar Mitzvah's, parties, anywhere I could .
I actually remember that I started carrying sheet music around with me at all times, in my key, in case someone somewhere would suddenly ask me to sing. ( I wanted to be prepared...???} By 12th grade, I was already hopping the train to New York City for auditions, interviews and shopping trips. I even worked part-time in Baltimore to afford my own apt to live in.


Tell me about your first time on stage.

My very first time on stage was in 3rd grade. I can't remember exactly what I did, or if I had memorized any specific lines. I remember being so elated and on cloud nine for weeks in preperation. I also remember that my mom said to me "be sure and smile out" to her, Nana, and the audience, because they would be there cheering me on.
So, when the time came, I stood facing the audience with this stupid looking fake smile, center stage, not moving, straight forward [like I was a dim wit], did my lines, and left. When I saw my mom after the show, she said to me, "Why did you just stand there like a moron with that dumb grin on your face"!!!!!!(LOL) I was crushed at first, but quickly learned how to perform with a smile, and what she was talking about.


What was your first professional job?

People define "professional" differently. Some people say "professional" means, the first time you get paid to perform.


Some other people may define it as working in a "professional" manner, or theatre company.
I started getting paid for performing (mostly singing and accompanying myself on piano) while I was in senior high school. I was also in a local professional dinner theatre company by 16 years old. I graduated from high school and spent the next year in London, England, studying English acting. Came home to the states to do professional Equity stock theatre, and then performed for a summer season at The Concord Hotel as part of the Social Staff, as well as The Royal Carribbean Ship Line's 'SONG OF AMERICA' out of Miami Port.

Ben, 1980

What are your thoughts on Arts in Education?

Any kind of art in childhood education is crucial to a child's primary human development. In my opinion, it is easily as important as exercise, math, history, etc. The "Arts" encompasses Music, Theatre, and all Art. I think if there was more art encouraged in the school system, there would be more interest from all children, beginning at a very early age.

Ben, 1975
What makes you cry out of the blue when you see or hear it?

The short literal answer comes first. My grandmother (Nana) practically raised me. I was her first, out of 3, grandchildren. She paid for my art classes, acting classes, phone bills , voice lessons, piano, piano lessons, graduation trip to study acting in London, and almost everything else that I ever wanted. She was devoted to me, encouraged me, and truly lit up when I was in the room with her. She was very proud of me. She was my everything. She even schlepped up to NYC { in her 80's } on the bus with a suitcase full of canned food (that she could barely lift up), to visit me and make sure that I had food to eat. When I think about her, and her incredible love and devotion, or see an elderly woman somewhere that reminds me of her, I always get very upset, because I miss her so dearly. It is thanks to Nana that I am who I am today, and now have such patience and respect for the elderly.

The longer answer about my personal "emotions", that bring about sadness or elation, is very private, but in a very different way, and must remain my secret. It is actually used as a "method acting" technique that I was taught. Every actor should develope a "treasure chest" of emotions used for acting. That is when you can instantly think of a sensory thought or feeling (smell, see, touch, hear) and bring about a personal emotional response to apply to your acting, when needed. (Like extreme happiness or extreme sadness.) An actor should have different emotional sensory responses stored in his personal "treasure chest" (his mind ), that belongs to him alone and always remain at his finger tips to use when necessary. They are so personal that they can not be shared with anyone else, and must always remain confidential.

What are your thoughts on Carol Channing? (This is an a part of all my blogs)

Carol Channing is a Broadway treasure and a Broadway Legend. How can anyone not love Carol Channing?  It is like, not liking Lucille Ball, Jerry Lewis or Carol Burnett.To see Carol Channing's sweet face, simply makes me smile and feel happy. Her performance in Hello, Dolly! is iconic. Many people have tried to play the role of Dolly Levi over the years, but absolutely none compare (or come close) to Carol Channing's interpretation. No one, not even Barbra, my idol, Carol alone IS DOLLY LEVI. Period!

I also met Carol years ago, and spoke with her while we were waiting for the Fire Island Ferry in Sayville, Long Island. She was going to visit Jerry Herman, and I was staying with some friends there. So we talked for a while, and than sat together on the ferry over. She is such a sweet, sincere and kind soul , and sooo funny and down to earth. I remember that we had a great time conversing together that day sitting in the inside birth of the ferry. At our arrival, she introduced me to Jerry Herman and also invited me to visit. Both of them were very gracious and kind.


Your thoughts on Carol Channing receiving the 2012 Kennedy Center Honor Award

That is a very 'interesting' question, and my answer would probably be......Why not? However, to honestly answer that question, I would have to know what credentials one must have to even be considered a candidate for that honor. I assume that there is a specific committee suggestion submitted to the President, or a list of all the artists that are being considered for that honor, and the President probably also gives his own personal suggestion as to whom he would like to recognize. I assume that award is also about what the candidate's own personal achievements have been, and how it has a particular effect on the American culture and arts. In any case, I have always loved Carol, and respected her as a talent, creative force, and human being.

Ben, 1998
What is your most recent appearance?

I just played a doctor on GOSSIP GIRL. It seems the older I get, the more I get cast as a "professional, rich, educated, up-scale, classy" type. My most common roles are doctor, lawyer, detective, dad, talk show host, professor, politician, designer, architect, artist, actor, comic, celebrity, best friend, best man, and nice guy. I can't seem to get parts as a bad guy, thug, drug addict, convict, prisoner, bag man and garbage man. I think I just look too aristocratic or well bred (LOL). But with a good make-up job, and the right wardrobe, who knows?

What is your next appearance?

I am presently booked for a role in a National Insurance Industrial to begin rehearsals in a week or so. Things, as you know, in this business, can change daily.

  What is your biggest success in show business?
I guess, that would probably be my experience as Lee Strasberg's last personal assistant, and having actually lived in the Strasberg home with him and his family. What I learned and experienced in that position, was a gift from the heavens and universe (or G-d), that took me into a totally new and different realm of reality, life and acting. Living on a daily basis, with a famous scholar of the acting world, an iconic teacher and figure, an actor/director/teacher, known as the father of the "American Method Acting" and Director of the famed ACTORS STUDIO, actually changed my perception and reality, particularly regarding acting and the profession. It was a very interesting, but difficult, life process and experience. In most instances, it has helped me, and I have gained an incredibly keen, insightful, specific, and sensitive eye as to what "works" and seems "realistic", when I see any actors, performance on stage or film, or any talent and creative force at work. Personally, I always try to be kind, positive, sensitive and nurturing, in my observations and evaluations of all work that I see. But, I can spot fake artificial acting work almost instantaniously. It has become part of my nature. I know from my own experience as a performer how hard the creative process is. But, this has all taken me years to understand and develope as a teacher, director, coach and critic. As an actor, I try not to allow myself to judge myself, and try to stay in the moment-which is not always easy. This was not, necessarily, the way that Lee Strasberg came across to many students and colleagues that didn't know him well. He was raised in the depression era, and an Eastern european, tough, poor, but very educated Jewish heritage. He reminded me of my grandfather. He was a very serious and stern personality, that strived for truth and perfection in everything, particularly acting. He was sometimes uncompromising and tough on students, but it was necessary to a certain extent. Many people have misunderstood his character and demeanor over the years. I found this out later in my life. Anyway, after he passed on, I was granted an Observership to attend sessions at The Actors Studio by Ellen Burstyn and Al Pacino, who had become co-Directors. So, that enabled me to continue my journey as an actor/director/teacher/coach by watching other working professionals apply their skills and experience in various exercises, scenes, rehearsals and performances. That was truly an invaluable and amazing learning experience for me. By being in such close proximity to Mr. Strasberg, his classes and his teachings, meetings, the Studio, etc., and watching so many other teacher/actors (some very famous members (stars) of the Actor's Studio) approach their work in a methodical serious way, it all just rubbed off on me in very specific professional ways. I realized all of this a few years later while teaching my own class. I would love to explore more directing projects, and have recently started writing critiques on my FACEBOOK page about shows that I see. So far, my reviews have received good feedback.

Ben, 2002
What was your lowest low, and how did you surpass it? Also, what do you do to remain positive when life's hiccups get you down?

I take lots of anti-depressants and massive dosages of drugs!!! (LOL) Just kidding......really!

I honestly hate to talk about the negative, bad, and low times, because it brings me (and everyone else) down, and is very uncomfortable for me to relive and re-experience. However, all actors need to be capable of dealing with alot of negativity and disappointment, and getting through it. I do believe that the lowest of life's battles, give way to some very important life lessons. It also gives you an incredible appreciation of the good times and experiences. I don't dwell on that. I have worked before in menial jobs, and scraped by financially with only pennies to my name. However, I have also lived comfortably at times in a coop, condo and my own house. That old cliche adage comes to mind... "Every time I fall down, I alone must pick myself up, brush myself off,  and start over again". Yes, ofcourse it is very frustrating. But, there really is no alternative, particularly in this business..... Funny story, just a month or so ago, I was asked to play a very rich Park Avenue Businessman for a current TV show. The costume dept. dressed me in an Armani suit, $300 designer tie, Tom Ford sunglasses, and Gucci leather briefcase and shoes. I looked like I was easily a millionaire from a very wealthy background. And then, when I was finished my acting role, I subwayed home in my T shirt and old jeans, with barely enough money in my pocket to buy dinner. The life of an actor is so unpredictable, elusive and crazy. I played (and looked the part of a millionaire) on a TV show, and in reality, I barely had enough money in my pocket for a meal. There is such a strange parodox between reality and acting. But, I still love it. Other low times in my life was when my Nana passed away, 9/11 affected me deeply, and close friends passed from AIDS. There was also a bout with Welfare, Dissability and Unemployment that had me totally stressed out for a long period. I just repeat to myself that "this too shall pass"......and eventually it always does.

To "surpass" the negativity in life is not always easy, but it is necessary to get through it all, as best you can. I try to always keep a solid positive attitude, and tell myself that I have already been through worse (and harder) times. I always try to see the light at the end of the tunnel, no matter how long the tunnel, or how small the light is. I pray to the universe and my Nana, who I know is watching over me. And furthermore, I truly believe that " doom and gloom" stuff gets very old and boring so fast, and it's so over- dramatic and tiresome for everyone around you.

What change would you like to see happen in today's industry?

That is such a loaded question, and I couldn't possibly list all the changes that I feel need to happen within our industry. Remember, the Entertainment industry is mega-huge, and encompasses theatre, film, music, video, recording, TV, radio, VCR's, DVD's, etc, etc. It is probably the biggest money making industry in the world, and certainly one of the most complex. It probably nets many billions of $$$ yearly. Many young naiive actors do not understand that acting and performing is part of this MEGA- BIG BUSINESS, and not just an art, run by poor struggling dedicated artists. Broadway, unfortunately, has to produce mega-hit productions in order to stay solvent and pay it's bills. That's the reality today.

I will pick one particular change that I would like to see happen, hopefully within my life time.......Why are producers and casting people using mostly straight actors to play obvious 'gay' roles? There was a time when no straight actor would even consider playing a 'gay' role because they thought it would " type them" and destroy their career. Today, gay roles are in everything, including film, TV , commercials and theatre. However, practically no 'gay' actors are ever cast for those parts.Nathan Lane is an exception, of  course. Is our industry still so homophobic that they don't want to recognize this? Does our industry honestly still think that middle America is not able to deal with this subject, and that the ratings will suffer? It is time for the powers that be to cast roles to the best available actors, regardless of sexual orientation. Who knows, maybe those gay "affectations" will create a more truthful and realistic picture of the present American 'gay' landscape. Just a thought I had.

Who are your top favorite models and influences as an actor?

These are only some of my present favorite actors, in no special order. I stopped at 15, but there are many other actors, particularly from The Actors Studio, who have been a great influence for me as an actor.

1. Ellen Burstyn
2. Sean Penn
3. Robert Downey Jr.
5. Robert Duvall
6. Al Pacino
7. Merle Streep
8. Peter O'Toole
9. Hillary Swank
10. Marlon Brando
11. Sally Field
12. Jeff Bridges
13. Eli Wallach
14. Paul Newman
15. Maggie Smith

Who is your favorite all time performer?

Barbra Streisand, I would have to say. She is a great singer, actress, director, song writer, film writer and incredible creative force. I also love her work ethic and her constant drive for knowledge, perfection and achievement. She is a true American Entertainment success story.

What do you think ultimately made you become a performer?

Massive stupidity and ignorance!!!!! LOL................No, just kidding. Kharma maybe? It really was always my destiny and part of my DNA to become a performer. For me, there was really never a question of what business I would be in. It was only a question of how my life would develope along the path within this industry? They say, "it's all about enjoying life's journey, and not about the final destination" , but I may disagree with that idea a little. My real concentration is on my future. New doors for me are always opening. I could turn out to be a very successful actor, director, singer, comic, teacher/coach, Host, or even Critic. Maybe I will be successful at all the above, or possibly, none of the above. The possibilities are endless, and not totally up to me. "Fate" has something to do with it, and so does good health. Who really knows what life will bring? I am kind of like the "ever-ready" bunny, I just keep going and going.


Are you happy at the point you are right now in your career?

Truthfully, the answer would be 'NO', I am not "happy" or "satisfied" at this point of my career. However, I am content with the fact that I may never be totally happy and satisfied. That is, mostly, because I am a perfectionist, and try not to dwell on past merits and accomplishments. Yes, I acknowledge and appreciate my past , but I pay much more attention to my present and future. I want to experience more success , more knowledge, consistantly improve and refine my artistic abilities, and work within this industry. I have a great and powerful need to keep growing and learning and experiencing more artistic creativity. It is my life's journey for sure. I realize that only I can really change my destiny, and I will always continue working toward this lifetime journey. Who really knows what I can accomplish until I try? I think I could actually be a very fine theatre/film director, (ie.Hal Prince, Mike Nichols), if given the right opportunity. After all, I am an actors director, and have studied with many of the greatest teachers of this time, but also understand the playwright/screenplay and the text. My ability to see a "total picture" , and also be "specific" is a truly special gift that I learned from Mr. Strasberg. And, I am also working on a possible book idea about my experience living with this iconic figure.Do you feel that you have achieved what you set out to do?

That answer would be yes, and no. Yes, because I merely set out to be a performer and a working member of the entertainment business. And no, because I am still unsure of what my ultimate achievements in this business will be.


If you had all the money in the world that you needed, would you continue working in this business?
Absolutely. This business is my love and destiny.


A genie pops out of a lamp, and grants you three wishes. What are those wishes?

A) Long healthy life of body, mind, and spirit
B) Profound happiness
C) Abounding Love

If you could travel anywhere in the world and spend some time there, where would you choose and what would you do?

I would explore Italy again, and maybe live in Florence, Capri or Sicily for a period of time. I really love everything about this country. The people, the art, the culture, the architecture, and of course, the food. I would also like to see Hawaii, and particularly the island of Kauii. I have heard that the island's natural beauty is amazing. And, last, but certainly, not least important, I might want to visit a Concentration Camp like Auschweitz or Buchkenwald to pray for the many people that were killed and violently murdered. I believe strongly that their innocent lives, as well as the 9/11 victims here in NYC, must always mean something to the world we inhabit.


What would you ask God if you could right now?

Will I somehow get to be reunited with my Nana, friends and relatives that have already passed on when my life is over?

Will my life mean anything to anyone after I am gone?

Was there any particular purpose to my life? If so, did I accomplish that purpose?
How much more time do I have to live in this life?
Does my Nana know how deeply she has affected my life, and how much her love and guidance has meant to me?

Thank you, Ben, for the gifts you give to the world! Your Nana DOES know how you have affected her life!
NO COPY WRITE INFRINGEMENT INTENDED.  FOR ENTERTAINMENT PURPOSES ONLY!
Please do what YOU can to be more aware that words and actions DO HURT...but they can also heal and help!
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                              Tomorrow's blog will be...CELEBRATING BOBBIE HOROWITZ!

Thank you, to all the mentioned in this blog!


  Here's to an INCREDIBLE tomorrow for ALL...with NO challenges!


Now, GO OUT AND DO SOMETHING FOR SOMEONE ELSE TOMORROW!

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Please contribute to the DR. CAROL CHANNING  and HARRY KULLIJIAN FOUNDATION FOR THE ARTS


TILL TOMORROW...HERE'S TO AN ARTS DAY
Richard Skipper, Richard@RichardSkipper.com


In Loving memory of ALL of the Nana's in ALL of Our Lives who believed in us when no one else did!

4 comments:

  1. Thanks so much for this great Blog about me. Nana would be wery proud too.

    Ben Cooper Stevens

    ReplyDelete
  2. Sorry that I mispelled "very".... and I also left out 4 contempory actors whom I greatly admire; Leonardo DiCaprio, Morgan Freeman, Colin Firth, and ofcourse, Sidney Portier.

    Ben Cooper Stevens

    ReplyDelete
  3. ooops! and Christopher Plummer too!

    B.C.S.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thanks Richard for this great blog post about Ben, who I knew from high school, and just reconnected with on Fb today! I learned a lot about his life and I am so greatful! I am also a good friend of Bobbie Horowitz and that is how we connected! Many blessings, Princess WOW!

    ReplyDelete