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A Front Row Seat to Teacher of The Stars

The montage of Carol Burnett’s accomplishments just moments before she received the first ever Carol Burnett Award at this year’s Golden Globe Awards, was awesome. Her humor was punctuated by her charm and then, out of the blue, the boldly asked question, “Did you ever study acting?” Without missing a beat, Burnett answered, “Yes, with Jeff Corey.”

I nearly fell out of my chair. Unlike a lot of people in the audience, I knew exactly who Jeff Corey was and how incredible it was that Burnett had been lucky enough to study with him. A year and a half ago, I helped bring Corey’s memoir, “Improvising Out Loud: My Life Teaching Hollywood How to Act” to publication at the University Press of Kentucky. Written with his daughter Emily Corey with a Foreword by Leonard Nimoy (also one of Corey’s former students), the book details the life and art of this remarkable actor and survivor of the McCarthy blacklist and how he became the acting teacher to the most famous stars in Hollywood. (Along with Nimoy and Burnett, Corey taught Jack Nicholson, James Dean, Cher, Jane Fonda, and hundreds of other luminaries, as Jack Nicholson put it, “How to live life as an artist.”)

Corey’s life story is a tale of integrity held fast under a true witch hunt and pressures from a Republican led House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) (sounding a little familiar in present day politics?). The book is equal parts memoir of a hero and an in-depth acting class. But it is not just for actors. The book offers incredible insights into how anyone who wants to act can give the most impressionable performances whether a huge star or an accountant. As Corey puts it, “So much of what the actor does has to do with life itself. We all playact throughout the day and take on various roles within our private and public personas. The études [Jeff’s word for his acting exercises] in this book, while designed for the actor, can also be used by the layperson to explore the events, relationships, and actions that fill his days. As we peel away the levels of our personal creative onion, we can learn much about ourselves and discover unexpected actions and solutions we might not have realized existed.”

While Jeff is known for teaching Hollywood’s brightest luminaries, he loved the craft more than anything. As he tells it, “I have worked with lawyers who were preparing oral arguments before the Supreme Court. I have worked with doctors who were struggling with ways to communicate with their patients. I have worked with politicians eager to convince the public to hand over their votes.” Corey’s teaching easily translates to anyone who wants, “To discover solutions to challenges in your personal or business life. Regardless of your occupation, the études can help you uncover the rich fabric of your inner self that has been waiting for you all along.”

As familiar as I am with this remarkable book, the list of luminaries that Jeff coached is so extensive that frankly, I had forgotten that Carol Burnett was one of them and it was a delight to be reminded. Part of what I adore about his book is the thrilling opportunity to feel what it must have been like to sit alongside Burnett or Rob Reiner or Stephen Spielberg (yes, they, too, were Corey’s students) and learn what they learned from him in order to become the hugely successful stars they became.

Jeff’s legacy knows no bounds and shows up in the most unexpected places (you can see him for yourself in his many roles including as Sheriff Bledsoe in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” Wild Bill Hickok in “Little Big Man” and Tom Chaney in the original “True Grit.”) And speaking of “True Grit,” ironically, on the same night Burnett accept her award at the Golden Globes, Jeff Bridges accepted his Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award. Bridges, too, was affected by this powerful man from his first breath on the planet. His mother and father, Lloyd and Dottie Bridges, named their son after none other than their best friend - Jeff Corey! Corey was and remains the gift that keeps on giving…

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