Alumnus Marty Davidson’s career has spanned decades, working both behind the scenes and on screen. In light of the passing of alumnus Harry Mastrogeorge this spring, Marty Davidson was kind enough to share some memories of his friend and mentor.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Was there a specific memory of Harry you keep with you?
Harry's technique of working with actors is everything I utilize. I ask myself, how would Harry handle this moment? And my whole way of working was based on what I got from Harry in sessions with him...sometimes where he would just talk.
How did you find this directly impacting your career?
While working on my very first film, The Lords of Flatbush, I had some very interesting young actors…but these guys were too young to know what Brooklyn was like in 1957. I had two choices: I could leave them on their own, or we could rent studio space to talk and exchange stories. As we started talking, these guys became the “Lords of Flatbush.” They came up with so much just through conversing and listening. Then we’d get up on our feet and improvise and do scenes where the character would emerge.
So my life, my career…so much came from this man. From those conversations. It became a way to work. It was a way to deal with these characters that we were creating and to make them comfortable. That's all that existed. There was no Marty Davidson, there was no Sylvester Stallone. It was those guys. And I learned that from Harry.
That sounds to me like the crux of acting.
It definitely is. It was about getting deeper. Not working intellectually, but from your heart and soul. Harry would call it the “sum total of your existence.”
One day, I asked him what he meant by it, and he said it’s what builds on itself as you grow as a human being. It’s the world that builds up. You’re the sum total of everything: the pains, the joys, the celebrations, the anticipations, the disappointments…that is the sum total of your existence, and that becomes your soul.
So you don't act from your brain; you find it in your soul.
You just mentioned how important it is to work “from your soul.”…That’s why working on stage is so exciting to me. It starts in your head, and over those weeks of rehearsals, it drops into you.
I found that doing that on film can be even more joyous. I mean, look how close we are on Zoom right now. As opposed to being in the thirteenth row of the balcony...we’re right here. You only need to reach one person.
I went to a show a couple of days ago…it’s entirely different to fill a theatre as opposed to the lens of the camera. Finding that truth, that honesty, is different. When I was younger, though, I wasn’t quite ready to get working.
Being “ready”…what does that mean?
I wasn't comfortable enough to trust. I didn’t quite trust the relationship between the actor and the director. I wasn’t ready; I didn’t have enough experience or belief in myself.
I felt similar and went on a different path for a bit. But acting hasn’t left me and never will.
When I graduated from The Academy in 1961, we all gathered together at a big theater for graduation. A director spoke, Joshua Logan. He spoke very eloquently, almost British. During his speech, he said something to the students who might ask him, “Mr. Logan, do you think I should be an actor?” To this, he would answer, “If there’s any way you could find on god’s green earth not to be an actor–choose it!” [Laughs].
Some number of years later, it came into play. I realized at that time I was never going to be the actor I wanted to be. I'm never going to allow people in…I am too insecure to let them know what my soul truly is telling. I'm going to hide it away. I’m very covered up; I’m always finding ways around it…so I chose not to do it. And that's why I became a director.
It can be really challenging not to do the work and equally challenging to switch to directing.
So remember what Mr. Logan said. If you can find a way not to do it…if. You keep searching and keep exploring. Make friends with like-minded people and create. You can’t sit and wait for others to do it for you. You must find people who share the same dream as you, combine talents, and find a stage that you can afford to rent out. Sometimes there are stories about the most gorgeous person ever made who just “make it”…they get discovered. I certainly wouldn’t base my life on that.
And why was it that you’ve done this your whole life?
When I was in the sixth grade, I did a play. After we took our bows and I walked out, all the cute girls in the school said how fabulous I was…that they thought I was great. [Laughs]. But I wanted to be a ballplayer. I was a good ballplayer, but I would never have been able to make a professional career out of it. The only other thing I wanted to do with my life was to become an actor. I went to Syracuse to study law…I realized I didn’t want to be a lawyer, but wanted to play one on TV. That’s when I told my father that I didn’t want to go back to Syracuse, and he was thrilled because he couldn’t afford the $2,000 a year that it was. That was a fortune in those days.
And we’re so glad you did, too. Thank you for sharing such a valuable memory of Harry and how it stayed with you for so long, continuing to weave its way into your work.
Of course, August. My pleasure. Be in touch if there’s anything else you need in the future. Be well.
Marty Davidson has generously donated Director’s Shooting Scripts from two of his feature films, The Lords of Flatbush and Eddie and the Cruisers, to The Academy.