Wynn Handman, Revered New York Acting Teacher and Theater Producer, Dies at 97

Wynn Handman - Publicity_H 2020
Courtesy of Estate of Wynn Handman

He launched the American Place Theatre in 1964 and taught the craft to Raul Julia, Frank Langella, Christopher Walken, Denzel Washington and Joanne Woodward.

Wynn Handman, the longtime New York acting teacher and artistic director of the American Place Theatre, has died. He was 97.

Handman died Saturday at his New York home of pneumonia related to COVID-19, his family announced. 

He was instrumental in bringing to the stage the early work of many of America’s finest playwrights, including William Alfred, Ed Bullins, Maria Irene Fornés, Jonathan Reynolds, Ronald Ribman, Sam Shepard and Steve Tesich.

Handman also introduced plays by writers such as Robert Lowell, Joyce Carol Oates and Sylvia Plath and presented many noted writer-performers early in their careers including Bill Irwin, Eric Bogosian, John Leguizamo and Aasif Mandvi.

A revered New York acting teacher for more than 65 years, he trained the likes of Alec Baldwin, Kathleen Chalfant, Michael Douglas, Richard Gere, Raul Julia, Frank Langella, Christopher Walken, Denzel Washington and Joanne Woodward.

Handman trained his acting students in a deep sense of reality and to approach their work in stages of rehearsal. He continued teaching four classes a week until March 9, when many such gatherings were suspended in New York due to the pandemic.

His life and career has been documented in Jeremy Gerard's 2014 book, Wynn Place Show: A Biased History of the Rollicking Life & Extreme Times of Wynn Handman and The American Place Theatre, and in the 2019 Netflix documentary It Takes a Lunatic.

Born on May 19, 1922, Handman was raised in the Inwood section of Manhattan. He graduated from CCNY in 1943 after majoring in English and performed as a saxophonist in jazz ensembles that played the Catskill resorts.

During World War II, he served in the Coast Guard as a junior officer aboard the USCG Storis, an icebreaker that escorted freighters in the North Atlantic, patrolled the east coast of Greenland and captured the crew of a German weather station.

After the war, he joined the Neighborhood Playhouse as a protege of Sanford Meisner's and studied with the legendary acting teacher from 1946-48 before teaching there from 1948-55.

Handman met his wife-to-be, Barbara Ann Schlein, in 1948 and earned a degree in speech therapy at Columbia and taught speech at Adelphi College to prove to her parents that he could support her. 

Bobbie Handman became an arts activist known for her role in preserving historic Broadway theaters and executive vice president and NYC office director of People for the American Way from 1981-2003. She was awarded the first National Medal of Arts for Advocacy.

Wynn said that his process for selecting plays for the American Place Theater involved reading them aloud to Bobbie late in the evening. She died in 2013.

Handman began teaching his own professional acting classes in 1952 and broke with Meisner in 1955. He established the American Place Theatre in 1964 but never taught there, preferring to operate in small, unconventional studio settings. In the early '50s, these were initially located on Sutton Place South, in the Hotel Diplomat on 43rd Street and in a carriage house on West 56th Street facing Carnegie Hall.

From 1955-82, Handman operated out of the studio (sharing it with Bob McAndrew and Fred Kareman) on the second floor of the carriage house. It was painted in tile red and furnished with a creaky wooden school desk (where he sat) and salvaged wooden auditorium seats. In 1983, he transported its seating and decor into a studio he established on the eighth floor of Carnegie Hall and in 2008 on the 10th floor of 244 W. 54th St.

In his late thirties, Handman had an idea for a noncommercial theater with a subscription audience to provide a platform for works that would not otherwise see the stage. He mapped out his vision in diary notes on Fire Island in 1961, then founded the American Place Theatre with Sidney Lanier and Michael Tolan.

The company debuted with productions at St. Clement's Church at 423 W. 46th St., where Lanier was pastor. Its first offering, The Old Glory, a trilogy of one-acts by the poet Lowell, won five Obie Awards, including best American play. In 1970, the American Place moved to a custom-built basement complex at 111 W. 46th St., where it operated until 2002.  

The theater produced plays by writers noted for other literary forms including Oates, Plath, Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, Paul Goodman, H.L. Mencken, S.J. Perelman, Anne Sexton, May Swenson and Robert Penn Warren.

It also nurtured such playwrights as Shepard, Tesich, Ribman, Alfred, Reynolds, Fornés, Bullins, Phillip Hayes Dean, William Hauptman, Emily Mann, Richard Nelson and Frank Chin and brought attention to such unconventional contemporary actor-writers as Bogosian, Irwin, Leguizamo and Dael Orlandersmith. 

The American Place Theatre also produced the first productions of plays by many African-American writers, including Michael Bradford, Ed Bullins, Kia Corthron, James de Jongh, Joseph Edward, Lonne Elder III, Phillip Hayes Dean, Elaine Jackson, Alonzo D. Lamont Jr., Ron Milner, Matt Robinson, Charlie L. Russell and Vincent Smith.

Its American Humorists Series presented live performances of works by George Ade, Robert Benchley, Roy Blount Jr., A. Whitney Brown, Jules Feiffer, Bruce Jay Friedman, Cynthia Heimel, Dorothy Parker, Roger Rosenblatt, Damon Runyon, Jean Shepherd, James Thurber and Calvin Trillin. 

Handman's theater was also, beginning in 1978, home to The Women's Project, directed by Julia Miles. It produced there for nine years before it grew into a separate entity, The Women's Project Theater.

Productions of The American Place Theatre were a launching pad for actors including Julia, Washington, Douglas, Chalfant, Gere, Langella, Mary Alice, Ellen Barkin, Roscoe Lee Browne, Faye Dunaway, Sandy Duncan, Morgan Freeman, Connie Britton, Kim Raver, Mira Sorvino, Jou Jou Papailler, Anna Deavere Smith, Joel Grey, Dustin Hoffman, Mary McDonnell, Lauren Graham, Zakes Mokae, Howard Rollins, John Spencer, Ralph Waite, Sam Waterston and Sigourney Weaver.

In 1994, The American Place Theatre added its Literature to Life program, which created verbatim adaptations of works of American literature to excite literacy in young minds. Its productions were offered to middle schools and high schools.

It created a stage version of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye and went on to develop productions based on Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees, Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner and more. Most of the projects were directed by Handman; many were directed by Elise Thoron, who now heads the program.

Project 451, a funding initiative of Literature to Life, was started during the 2008-09 season to ensure that reading, writing and the arts remain a primary component of the education of young Americans.

Handman's honors included CCNY's Townsend Harris Medal (its highest honor), the Lucille Lortel Lifetime Achievement Award and a New Federal Theatre Lifetime Achievement Award.

Survivors include his daughters, Laura and Liza; his grandchildren, Charlotte and Wyatt; and his great-granddaughter, Rose.

Handman's family said it expects to have a large celebration of his life "when we can all assemble again." In lieu of flowers, contributions are encouraged to three nonprofits: The Film Forum for its production of It Takes a Lunatic; the American Place Theatre and its Literature to Life program; and The Actors Fund.