/ August 29, 1891 – September 30, 1955
Michael Chekhov’s unique contribution to acting has been one of the best kept secrets of the theatrical world. Michael Chekhov was the nephew of the playwright Anton Chekhov and was widely recognized as one of the greatest actors of the 20th century. He was considered by Stanislavsky to be his most brilliant student. Indeed, Stanislavsky once said that if anyone wanted to know what he was teaching, they should go and see what Michael Chekhov was doing. Chekhov brought a unique technique of acting to Hollywood.
Michael Chekhov was born in St. Petersburg in 1891. His mother Natalya Golden was Jewish, and his father Alexander Chekhov was a brother of the remarkable writer Anton Chekhov, who wrote of his nephew in 1895, “I believe that he has a growing talent.” Michael Chekhov studied classical drama and comedy at the Suvorin Theater School and graduated with honors. In St. Petersburg, he met Stanislavsky, who invited him to join the Moscow Art Theater. Later Stanislavsky wrote that Michael was a genius.
Chekhov had a great talent for characterization and was a keen observer of the creative process. At the Moscow Art Theater, the collaboration between Stanislavsky, Vachtangov, Meyerhold and Michael Chekhov led to a theater that was bold, expressive and imaginative. In their work, they searched for objective principles that would lead to inspired acting. This investigation led Michael Chekhov to develop his psycho-physical acting technique, incorporating imagination and body as well as intellect.
Chekhov’s film career began in 1913 with a role in “Tercentenary of the Romanov Dynasty,” followed by five more roles in Russian silent films. During the Russian Revolution of 1917, his beloved first wife, Olga Chekhov, divorced him and he suffered from depression and alcoholism for the rest of his life. He led the second Moscow Art Theater from 1922-1928. He updated Stanislavsky’s acting method, combining it with yoga, theosophy, psychology and physiology and with his own ideas on the transformation of the actor’s consciousness, psychological gestures, and techniques of movement for entering a special state of subconscious creativity. His idea of using the actor’s own intuition and creative imagination was a departure from his teacher’s method.
Chekhov emigrated from Russia in 1928 and soon earned success in German films, co-starring with his ex-wife Olga Chekhov, who lived in Germany with her second husband. Chekhov left Russia at the height of his acting and directing career. His productions were too experimental for the Soviets and were labeled “alien and reactionary.”
Michael Chekhov spent eight years in France, Austria, Latvia, Lithuania and the UK with acting, directing, and teaching, but was greatly handicapped by the language barrier, politics and the threat of war.
In 1931, he founded the Chekhov Theater, with support from Rachmaninov, Bohner and Morgenstern. In 1935, he brought the Chekhov Theatre on tour to New York. In 1936, Beatrice Straight invited him to establish the Chekhov Theater Studio, a training program for a company of actors at Dartington Hall in England. In 1942, Chekhov was invited to Hollywood, where he became an acting coach to the greatest actors while continuing to act in many films. The list of noted artists inspired by Chekhov’s coaching is astonishing: Ingrid Bergman, Gary Cooper, Clint Eastwood, Marilyn Monroe, Paul Newman, Jack Nicholson and many others.
In 1945, he played his best film role, the psychiatrist Bryulov in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound.” He received an Oscar nomination for “Spellbound” and became a member of the American Film Academy in 1946. Michael Chekhov spent his last thirteen years, acting in films and coaching some of our greatest actors in film history. Michael Chekhov was deeply respected by his peers — Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner, Lee Strasberg, Herbert Berghof, Morris Carnovsky and Harold Clurman.
His books “On the Technique of Acting” and “Lessons for the Professional Actor” are recommended for all actors, teachers, writers and directors. Noted actors Jack Nicholson, while receiving his 1999 Golden Globe Award, and Anthony Hopkins, on “Inside the Actors Studio,” both acknowledged the power of Michael Chekhov’s Psychological Gesture. “I like to ‘physicalize.’ I like to talk about the Michael Chekhov Psychological Gesture,” Anthony Hopkins has said.
Today, the Chekhov techniques are gaining worldwide recognition in an amazing expansion of interest as artists seek to discover a consistent means to peak states of performance. Current technology can scientifically support the once considered “too mystical” means of Michael Chekhov, and humanity is now ready to embrace this inspirational, organic means to accessing one’s highest artistic aims.
Michael Chekhov died in Beverly Hills in 1955 and was buried at the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles, CA.