Michael Chekhov home, Los Angeles

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Folks in the western hemisphere know him as Michael Chekhov. His fame at home in Russia is still so strong that he will always be known there by his given name of Mikhail. Michael or Mikhail, this nephew of Anton Chekhov remains one of the most revered figures of Russian theater 60 years after he died in Beverly Hills, CA. To this day his book To the Actor: On the Technique of Acting remains one of the most popular how-to books among actors the world over. Many performers consider his advice to be more practical and useful than Stanislavsky’s, and Stanislavsky himself once said that Chekhov embodied all the theories and exercises that he had developed up to a certain point.
Chekhov was born in 1891 in St. Petersburg, the son of playwright Chekhov’s older brother Alexander. It was a family full of drama. Alexander never married his first wife Anna, a woman who loved vodka as much as he did and who was eight years older than he. After her death, Alexander married the governess of his two children and it was she, Natalya, who gave birth to Mikhail, named for the youngest of the Chekhov brothers.  Alexander was a talented man, a published writer, but his status as the “brother of Anton” was a burden he could not bear. By some accounts, he recognized that his youngest son Mikhail was unique, but never found great love in his heart for him. When little Misha was four years old, Alexander reportedly said of him: “His eyes sparkle with nervousness. I think he will be a talented person.” (I pull this quote and some tales from Yelena Gushanskaya’s article about Alexander in Neva magazine in 2011.)
Mikhail studied acting in St. Petersburg and in 1912 was invited to join the Moscow Art Theater. The following year he began to work with Yevgeny Vakhtangov in the famous Art Theater First Studio. He wrote his name permanently into Russian theater history in 1921 when he delivered a legendary performance of Khlestakov in Konstantin Stanislavsky’s production of Gogol’s The Inspector General. It was his first major role there after having played several small parts, including that of Yepikhodov and Waffles in his uncle’s plays The Cherry Orchard and Uncle Vanya, respectively. The success of his performance of Khlestakov led to him being named the director of the Second Moscow Art Theater, originally intended as an experimental version of the mothership. He played several memorable roles there – including Hamlet (1924) and Apollon in a famous dramatization of Andrei Bely’s novel Petersburg (1925 at the Second Moscow Art Theater).
However, as life, politics and art became increasingly difficult and dangerous activities in the Soviet Union, Chekhov followed the lead of many others in his era: He left the Soviet Union in 1928, moving through continental Europe on to England and, eventually, the United States, where he worked first on the East Coast and then achieved a certain insider’s fame in Hollywood as Michael Chekhov, the coach to the stars.

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The house seen in these pictures is located at 1310 San Ysidro Drive in Beverly Hills. This is where Chekhov settled in to live and this is where he resided at the time of his death in 1955. It is a relatively modest, but very cozy and attractive, home. It looks across the street at one of those steep, earthen cliffs so common in the hills of Hollywood and Beverly Hills.
While living here Chekhov became Hollywood’s favorite acting coach. Together with his great friend George Shdanoff (Georgy Zhdanov) he ran his acting laboratory and staged shows at the Las Palmas Theater (expect a post about that in the near future).  The number of the great and famous who worshipped Chekhov for his guidance was enormous. It included Jack Palance, Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, Marilyn Monroe and many, many others. Chekhov himself did some acting in Hollywood, earning an Oscar nomination for his performance in Alfred Hitchckock’s Spellbound (1945). You can see the entire film on YouTube (with French subtitles, even). But if you want to know my opinion, the film to see Chekhov in is The Man from the Restaurant, a silent from 1927 by the great Russian director Yakov Protazanov. Chekhov is absolutely brilliant as the put-upon waiter in a hifalutin eatery.
It took a village for me to find the exact location of Chekhov’s last home, although once things began coming together, they did so quickly. Various roles were played by Lisa Dalton, President of the National Michael Chekhov Association, and Jessica Cerullo, a pedagogue with the Michael Chekhov Association, both of whom sent me leads. I finally nailed the address down when I happened upon an internet publication of a July 18, 1950, letter from Chekhov to the pianist Vladimir Horowitz in regards to help the actor was soliciting for his friend, the sculptor Arkady Bessmertny. It’s quite a story, actually. Let me turn the gist of it over to Chekhov himself in this excerpt from the published letter:
“…I appeal to you almost in despair. My old, good and dear friend, the sculptor Arkady Bessmertny lives in Paris. He is handicapped – his legs have been paralyzed since childhood. When Hitler entered Paris, Bessmertny, as a Jew, had to escape. He then had a three-wheeled motorized invalid chair with hand controls. When I worked and I had money I helped him, but I now am helpless myself – my health is gone, I have no work, and my friend Bessmertny is begging me for help. He needs to buy a motorized chair and it costs $300. Vladimir Semyonovich [sic: Horowitz’s patronymic was Samoilovich], I am tormentedly ashamed, but I see no other way out of this, although I’ve thought a great deal. A few days ago I awoke with the thought: perhaps Vladimir Semyonovich might want to help! Forgive me for God’s sake, but it is so hard for me to think about my friend’s inescapable plight! If you would like to help, dear Vladimir Semyonovich, then here is my address:
Mr. Michael Chekhkov
1310 San Ysidro Dr.
Beverly Hills, Calif.
Yours ever and ever,
Mikhail Chekhov

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10 thoughts on “Michael Chekhov home, Los Angeles”

  1. In the movie The 100-Year Odyssey of Chekhov and Shdanoff (2002) James Dean is mentioned that he Studied with Mr Chekhov and when he was already a Star he went to a few classes with Jeff Corey. Jeff Corey used to talk about it.

  2. Hello John, Thank you for your wonderful photographs of Chekhov’s house (1948-55) in Los Angeles. I photographed it in Dec. 1998 when it was on sale. The trees in the inner garden have grown since!
    I just want to remind the facts which can be found in my Russian book (Ph.D. dissertation, Helsinki University 2000) “Michael Chekhov in Western Theatre and Cinema” (Ademicheskii proekt, S. Petersburg 2000):
    The first four and half years Michael and Xenia Chekhov lived on their “farm” ( small house with a garden) as Chekhov called it, in Reseda, San Fernando Valley (summer 1943 – Feb. 1948). (The first months of 1943, after moving from the East Coast, Chekhov live din Culver City, Hollywood).
    The moved to Beverly Hills, the house in the photos, in the spring of 1948. The house is small, with five rooms, not far from the big and fashionable residences of (then) Hollywood stars, e.g. Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, the “Pickfer”. Chekhov died at home, September 30, 1955 (NOT Oct. 1, as erroneously given in the Russian sources). I took a photo of his and Xenia’s grave at the Forest Lawn Memorial, Los Angeles).

    Chekhov gave private classes in his house in Beverly Hills. In 1948 he was invited by the actors John Abbott and John Dehner from the Los Angeles Drama School to teach in the Los Angeles Stage Society (1948-55).
    Chekhov did not teach with George Shdanoff who had opened his studio some years earlier. (I found documents and interviewed Chekhov’s students Mala Powers, Joanna Merlin and Jack Colvin: more on Chekhov’s teaching in my book, 2000)
    Some minor remarks: Chekhov did not play Apollon in Belyi’s Peterburg but his father, Senator Ableukhov. Chekhov also directed Peterburg and Hamlet in the Second MKHAT. (See my article in English: Chekhov – Director, in: The Routledge Companion to Michael Chekhov, 2015).
    I will be happy to answer further questions. Kind regards, Liisa Byckling, Helsinki University

    1. Ms. Byckling- I teach acting in Los Angeles. I’ve heard that James Dean studied with Michael Chekhov- is this true? I’ve read a great deal about Dean and can’t authenticate that. I know Dean studied with Strasberg and James Whitmore (both biefly).


      Michael Bershad

      1. Dear Mr Bershad,
        Thank you for your letter and interest in M Chekhov. I have no information of James Dean¨s studies with Chekhov in Los Angeles 1949-55. But I have not seen the complete list of the participants of his classes – and there probably is no such thing. Dean may have dropped in once or twice, as some young actors did, and left soon – Chekhov did not appeal to everybody. I don’t know.
        Where do teach in Los Angeles? How did you find the Chekhov technique?
        Liisa Byckling
        P.S. Where is the statue of Ilya Repin? He lived in Finland after the October Revolution and was friendly with Finish artists.

      2. Ms. Byckling-
        I teach acting at New York Film Academy in Burbank. One of the assigned texts for my BFA class is “The Training of the American Actor”, by Bartow. Eash student must present to the class (via Zoom) an assigned chapter, and Michael Chekhov is one of the chapters. In the presentation, the student mentioned that James Dean studied with him; I googled this and found similar references, but with no attributions. But in all of my books on Dean-more than 30- there is no such mention.
        I’ve also had the opportunity to speak with several people who knew and studied with Dean, and Michael Chekhov has never been mentioned.
        As you say, perhaps Dean dropped in once or twice. I did the same thing when I was studying.
        Thanks for your response.

        Michael Bershad

      3. Dear Mr. Bershad,
        Thank you for your letter. I hope you had a peaceful Christmas. It is interesting to know about your teaching in New York. What is the full name of the author of the book? In my (Russian) book and the English translation (manuscript) I mention several of Chekhov’ students. Some of them (at the Los Angeles Drama Studio) taught his technique much later: Mala Powers, Joanna Merlin (see her book: Audition), Jack Colvin.
        And his students from the end of 1930s-beginning of 1940s taught the Chekhov technique: Beatrice Straight, Blair Cutting, Felicit Mason. Many of them I was lucky to meet and interview.
        I wish you a very Good New Year.
        kind regards

        Liisa Byckling

      4. Ms. Byckling,
        I teach at New York Film Academy in Los Angeles, not New York. I know, it’s confusing, but NYFA has campuses around the world, including New York, where it was founded, as far as I know. It’s a for-profit school, fully accredited with short term through MFA programs.
        The book I reference is called “Training of the American Actor”, edited by Arthur Bartow, published by Theatre Communications Group (TCG) in 2006. The chapter in question, “Beyond Michael Chekhov Technique: Continuing The Exploration Through the Mask”, was written by Per Brahe. It’s 30 pages of a 281 page book. The text, which we assign to beginning acting students (Scene Study & Technique I & II), is an overview of acting techniques that have been popularized in America.
        Here’s to a healthy, better New Year.

        Michael Bershad

      5. Dear Mr Bershad,

        thank you for your letter and the information. Per Brahe has been working with the Chekhov Technique for many years, first in Denmark, then in Bali, with the masks. I will try to find his article. Probably the mask give a new freedom to the actor to improvise? I read about it just now in the memoirs of a well-known Finnish actor – quite irrespective of the Chekhov technique, but when working with an Italian director here in Finland.
        I don’t remember did i tell you that I translated Chekhov’s On the Technique of Acting (from the original Russian book) into Finnish. Nothing about the mask, but it doesn’t matter. Chekhov was a fan of clowns, perhaps for the same reason.

        Happy New Year!

        Liisa Byckling

      6. Interesting stuff. In the past we had an instructor at NYFA who worked with masks, and he most definitely got his students to open up and improvise their performances in ways that they never did in my Scene Study classes. I don’t know if he specifically mentioned Chekhov’s methods.
        Now that I’m teaching on zoom there are a whole other set of challenges.


      7. Hello,
        Perhaps the Chekhov Technique opens doors to different directions, also universal, in acting? In my recent Finnish article I refer to Eugenio Barba, who writes about him, and Yoshi Oida, the Japanese actor in Peter Brook´s theatre.
        Good luck with your teaching!


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