One early avenue to the acting profession is the desire to be another person, a realization that generally occurs after watching others. It is a natural impulse and happens when you admire something so much that you want to imitate it. Through imitation, we acquire language, learn how to walk and recognize the world around us. That is why the most basic acting exercises are based on pretending to be something else--a prowling animal or a stationary clock, a growling lion or a whirring hair dryer.
Most actors born in the 20th century first learned to imitate movie stars. But for centuries before that, young people were attracted to a theatre career because they worshipped the stage idols of the day--Richard Burbage and Will Kemp in Shakespeare's time; David Garrick and Mrs. Siddons in the 18th century; Edmund Kean and Edwin Booth in the first half of the 19th century; Eleonora Duse and Sarah Bernhardt in the late 19th century; John Barrymore and the Lunts in the early 20th.
Barrymore, for example, with his aquiline profile and emphatic snort, initiated a whole cottage industry of heroic acting in the 1920s and 1930s (Fredric March, Ian Keith and John Carradine all owed him something), especially after triumphing as Hamlet on Broadway and in the West End. As a young actor, my idols were Laurence Olivier and Robert Newton, especially after I saw them respectively as Henry Plantagenet and Ancient Pistol in the 1944 English movie version of Henry V. It was the first time I realized that Shakespearean verse, rather than simply being words designed for rote memorization in high school English classes, came out of the mouths of real people. Every role I performed for a decade after would be flavored either with the clipped nasality of Olivier or the flamboyant eye-popping of Newton, until I then discovered that although imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, it is the least original form of acting.
After Marlon Brando broke into the American consciousness as Stanley Kowalski in both the stage and movie versions of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire, virtually every male wannabe actor in America was mumbling his vowels, seething with proletarian rage, glowering and walking around town, regardless of the weather, in torn T-shirts. You can see Brando's influence on Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Jack Nicholson, Robert DeNiro, James Dean and Ben Gazzara; and even on young actors such as Joaquin Phoenix, Sam Rockwell and Josh Hartnett today.
Hamlet calls actors "the abstracts and brief chronicles of the time," a phrase that perfectly captures their capacity to embody and reflect the style of an entire period. Some actors even have the potential to change the style of an entire period; this was quintessentially true not only of the young Brando, but also of the young James Dean, and today, to a lesser extent, of Tom Cruise, Sean Penn and Johnny Depp. When Christopher Walken played Caligula at Yale in the early 1970s, scores of undergraduates in New Haven began imitating his loping walk, his eccentric speech, even the clothes he wore.
While widely copied, performers have always been considered unconventional in style and moral behavior. They can mesmerize adoring audiences while scandalizing politicians and moralists, not to mention their mothers and fathers. Remember the outrage that greeted Janet Jackson when she exhibited her breast at a football game on national television? Think of it! Exposing little children to such profanation--as if an exposed female breast were not the very first object a newborn sees. But this ability to concurrently draw down admiration and dismay is central to the performer's appeal.
"Don't put your daughter on the stage, Mrs. Worthington," Noel Coward writes in a well-known musical admonition. I would guess that many of you have experienced some of the parental disapproval suggested in that satiric lyric, even though social resistance to a theatrical career has diminished somewhat during the past 50 years. …