Warren Robertson: An Adna Man’s Remarkable Life

How a local man was mistaken for an All-American football player, had a chance encounter with Marlon Brando and went on to become a legendary acting coach 


Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by The Chronicle in three parts in 2016 following weeks of interviews between legendary acting coach Warren Robertson and Chronicle Editor-in-Chief Eric Schwartz. At the time, Warren Robertson resided in Adna. He died last month at the age of 91, according to friends.  The Chronicle has republished the series here in honor of Robertson's remarkable life. 

In the 1930s, a young Texas boy had been handed a death sentence. 

With his hometown of Archer City, his family and the rest of the country still reeling from the cold, tight grip of the Great Depression, it seemed that any measure of success — or even a future — had been snatched away before the boy could even contemplate his potential. 

Warren Robertson, incapacitated by a severe case of rheumatic fever, was a child forced to grapple with the terrible realities of death at an age when he should have been still learning about the joys of life.

“It erased me,” Robertson said. “I wasn’t supposed to live.”

Warren Robertson guesses he was about 9 or 10 years old in this photograph taken in about 1939 or 1940. Robertson grew up in Archer City, Texas, long before he reached success in the form of a career as an acting coach.
Warren Robertson guesses he was about 9 or 10 years old in this photograph taken in about 1939 or 1940. Robertson grew up in Archer City, Texas, long …

He spent months all but immobile, intense pain coursing through his young frame. He wouldn’t lead a normal life, he was told. He wouldn’t be able to play football, a revered rite of passage in the Longhorn State, nor would he be able to taste other sweet fruits of adolescence.

He wondered if some childhood sin had brought the wrath of God upon him, if there was something he’d done that had placed him in the predicament. It was a mindstate created by a religious upbringing at the hands of his mother, a kind and vivacious woman who struggled with bipolar disorder, and a father who had seen his own future snatched away by the historic financial crisis. 

They wanted the best for Warren and his brother, but Warren had instead found the worst. 

Dark thoughts addled Robertson’s mind, but they never destroyed it.   

Then, something unexpected happened. 

He lived. 

Against the medical odds placed on his very being, Robertson recovered from his physical ailment without any lasting disabilities.  

Ultimately, the child of the Great Depression rode a wave of fate, serendipity and success into the world, where he would cement his legacy as a celebrated acting coach, innovator and titan of the entertainment industry. 

His adventures included a case of mistaken identity that led to a slot on the roster of a U.S. military football team in Japan, a chance encounter with film legend Marlon Brando and an eventual tenure at The Actor’s Studio, where he rubbed shoulders with Paul Newman, James Dean, Peter Falk and Marilyn Monroe.

It all culminated in a celebrated career as an acting coach during which he helped form the careers of household names such as Patrick Swayze, Dolph Lundgren and Viggo Mortensen, to name a random few. 

He owned theaters and shaped professions from New York City to Vancouver, B.C., and all points in between and abroad. 

“I don’t think I really started understanding at all what it meant to be an actor — to go down in your inside and come up with stuff that you should have a license to mess with — until later in New York when I was studying with Warren Robertson, who started getting me to understand what ‘organic’ really meant and looked like,” Swayze once told a reporter. 

The late lead man’s praise for Robertson is not isolated. 

The entertainment industry, past and present, is riddled with similar statements from stars noting his ability to get past young actors’ fears and circumnavigate the certainty and overconfidence of trained stage professionals.

Robertson became an icon in the world of method acting, studying under Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler, two names that defined the style in America. 

Before exploring that wild past, though, it’s important to understand the present. 

Today, Robertson resides on a quiet parcel along Bunker Creek Road outside Adna with his partner of 22 years, Kelle Kleingartner. 

Impossibly youthful considering his 85 years traveling the Earth, he remains fluid in his movements and active with his time, whether he’s chasing down an escaped horse or kicking field goals and playing catch with a pair of journalists stunned by his athleticism.

Of all his activity, though, you’re not likely to find him talking much about his star-studded past.

His life is a quiet one now, not unlike his early days in Archer City, before his health was temporarily snatched away.

Today, there’s another similarity to those years in East Texas. 

He’s living his golden years in the shadow of yet another ailment, a heart that was supposed to give out long ago, at least according to doctors. 

He’s lived with the diagnosis for decades, and he wasn’t expected to live as long as he has.

His continued survival, though, is less surprising within the context of a life story that defies simple narration. 

“It’s like the Odyssey,” Robertson says.

Warren Robertson poses for a portrait on Tuesday, June 21, 2016 in Centralia.
Warren Robertson poses for a portrait on Tuesday, June 21, 2016 in Centralia.

If you take the Greek epic poem attributed to Homer as the starting framework, then one leg of Robertson’s perilous journey certainly began here in Washington. 

It happened at what is now Joint Base Lewis-McChord on a dreary day in 1954 that was made all the more depressing for the fact that hundreds of young men were being herded like cattle toward military conflict — the Korean War, specifically.

“It was still a shooting war at that point,” Robertson recalls. 

One moment, Robertson was working to finish a psychology degree at the University of Texas. Suddenly, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. 

He was set to be suited up and flown out to East Asia where he would risk becoming one of more than 50,000 American casualties in the bloody affair. 

Fate had other plans. 

While being processed at the military base, he was abruptly plucked out of line by a superior officer. 

He knew better than to protest as he was quickly moved to another area of the sprawling facility. 

“My uncle told me never to question them,” Robertson said of heeding orders from his military masters.

So he didn’t. 

As he recalls, he was quiet as he was separated from other draftees and placed in a bunk with a behemoth of a man who truly fit the picture of an All-American football player, a designation that equaled royalty in the Texas town he had left behind. 

Before he knew it, he was being shipped off to the Far East. 

Eventually, he learned he had been mistaken for George Robinson, another Texan who had truly earned All-American status. The hulking presence who traveled with him was All-American Art Hunter, who would go on to play 12 seasons in the NFL. The two men never spoke on the journey.  

He wouldn't learn his traveling partner’s identity — or the reason he had been snatched out of line — until he arrived in Japan, where for 18 months he lived the life of a football player while avoiding combat in Korea.

He thought perhaps he’d been chosen for the Honor Guard. 

A military official who picked them up at an Air Force base cleared the questions. 

He remarked on Hunter’s storied college career, and then turned to Robertson. 

“I haven’t had a chance to see you play,” he said to Robertson. “But you must be fast as hell.”

Robertson was struck with panic.

“I had terrors and panics that I would be found,” he said. 

His clothes were soaked with sweat. 

“This is hell,” he recalls thinking. 

“I said, ‘What will the Army do to me?’ They’ll never say ‘this was our mistake.’”

A September 1963 issue of Sports Illustrated tells the rest of the story best. 

Written in Robertson’s own words, it details the fear and trepidation he experienced while touring the football field, seeing his teammates and being introduced to his new barracks upon arriving in Japan.

He was Warren Robertson when he looked in the mirror. 

For all others who looked upon him, though, he was All-American George Robinson. 

“The fact that I was Robertson, Warren, seemed not to make a bit of difference,” he wrote in Sports Illustrated. “I was here, so I had to be a football player, and I was ‘Robbie’ from there on in.”

Being “Robbie” meant playing an inherently violent sport with men more physically suited for the challenge. 

Being “Robbie” meant being a running back, the one position that consistently demands one hurl his body in the direction of ill-meaning athletes again and again. 

This was a man who had once been deemed physically unfit for the sport due to an illness he’d eventually conquer. 

This, too, required Robertson to overcome the odds, and he rose to the challenge. 

At practice, Robertson would occupy his time — and continue to cloak his identity — by running endless laps around the field, only stopping to pant “getting in shape” each time he passed a coach.

It was perhaps this method of preoccupation that earned him the admiration of his coaches, who soon had him donned in the green jersey indicative of a starting player. 

He found himself in the backfield, scared beyond what many can effectively fathom.

“When the ball was snapped to the quarterback, I just aimed at that target, shut my eyes and ran,” he said. “About three feet forward, I felt something slap me in the pit of my stomach. I had no choice but to grab my arms to my midsection. And to my amazement, I was locked around the football, still going forward. I must have advanced eight or ten yards before I fell headlong over a prone body on the ground. That was the longest distance I had ever run with my eyes closed.”

Confidence would come, but not before a series of missteps and an odd style rightfully befitting a man who had never played football beyond the high school level.

None of it mattered. 

He was Robbie, after all, and despite his hidden lack of experience, he was somehow adequately portraying an athlete worthy of his position. 

“They wouldn't allow me to be less than the football player they thought I was,” he said. 

In a glorious bit of foreshadowing, Robertson was an incredibly athletic actor. 

He convinced everyone of their own assumptions, that he was an All-American star of the gridiron. He did so without speaking a falsehood. 

If the story ended there, with Robertson returning to the United States to live a quiet life in a normal occupation, it would still be incredible.

It didn’t end there, though.

Robertson’s story had just begun. 

Warren Robertson walks on the Adna High School football field as he prepares to show off his punting prowess on Feb. 9, 2016.
Warren Robertson walks on the Adna High School football field as he prepares to show off his punting prowess on Feb. 9, 2016.

Part Two: An Adna Man’s Remarkable Life — A Fateful Phone Call Leads to The Actor’s Studio

The life of a military football player in Japan during the Korean War had many benefits, among them the freedom to venture out into the city and take in the night life.

Warren Robertson, who had been mistaken as an All-American football player after being drafted into the military, and a group of fellow players were doing just that when his life took another fortuitous turn. 

One can imagine a group of hulking human specimens gathered together at a watering hole with no shortage of conversation as they found themselves a world away from home.

Robertson must’ve stood out from his teammates, if only because he was smaller. 

An American movie studio executive happened to be in the same establishment, and he was drawn like a magnet to the military men.

There was a movie to produce, and he was in search of military men to take a few small parts. Glorified extras, really. 

“He wanted military men, but not someone taller than the actor,” Robertson recalled.

It’s a fact that likely made him a prime candidate for a small speaking role in what he imagined would be a second-tier production. 

Robertson was already a big fan of film, so he understood the gaping distance between a blockbuster movie and a B-level flick. 

As a child, Robertson had been afforded the opportunity to sweep up popcorn at the diminutive theater of his dusty, off-the-beaten-path hometown of Archer City, Texas.

There, between breaks from pushing popcorn and chasing away rats with a broom, he saw the early stars of the silver screen flashing in front of his eyes, providing a window to a world infinitely larger and more vibrant than his humble beginnings. 

“It introduced me to Technicolor,” he said. “It taught me that a person didn’t have to be the same all the time.”

Robertson certainly personified that reality. 

Now, he was set to take part in it via a role in this film — he didn’t even know the title — that required the presence of a stand-in G.I.

Robertson found himself boarded in a fancy motel in a town hours away from his football barracks. 

As it turned out, this wasn’t a “B movie.”

That realization struck as suddenly as he spotted Marlon Brando shuffling about the hotel. 

To this day, Brando is a man Robertson doesn’t tire of discussing. He admires the late actor’s presence on screen as a nuanced bad-boy of sorts, a turn from the early days of film when it was simple to see exactly who was good and who was bad. 

Filmmakers made it obvious. 

Brando, on the other hand, was subtle and calculated. “A sensitive brute,” as Robertson would say. 

Brando had a way about him that made him perfect for the evolving world of Hollywood where actors were building new elements into their trade through the early introduction of method acting principals. 

Now, assured that this was a cinematic creation of greater importance than he had assumed, Robertson was all the more excited to take part in it. 

Anxious to absorb all he could from the experience, he woke up early, got dressed and made his way to the set, which was bisected by a rippling creek and illuminated by nearby street lights.

That's when he saw a familiar frame angling his way toward him in the earliest rays of the morning sun.

Closer and closer the man came, until his face was in focus.

“It was Marlon Brando!” Robertson recalls with enthusiasm.

Battling the urge to be rendered starstruck, Robertson recalls a calm, relaxed conversation with the movie star, inquiring as much of Robertson as he of Brando. 

He was particularly interested in Robertson’s newfound calling as a football player, a fact Robertson attributed to the actor’s tough-guy image, which seemed genuine but was not derived from masculine pursuits in athletics.

The film they both found themselves performing in, from vastly different circumstances, was “Sayonara,” the story of an American Air Force pilot who falls in love with a Japanese entertainer. 

It would earn Brando an Academy Award nomination, and for Roberston a few on-screen lines and the rare opportunity to stand next to an icon.

It also put him firmly in Brando’s orbit.

The two eventually spent a night at a nearby geisha house where they chatted and socialized.

The famous actor and the kid from Archer City had hit it off. 

It would be Robertson's first introduction, at least by way of a mention by Brando, of something called The Actor’s Studio and an “exciting new thing” called method acting. 

After meeting a world-renowned actor in the process of acting like an All-American football player, Robertson eventually returned to the United States. 

It had been 18 months and two tours since he was plucked out of the line of soldiers at Fort Lewis and thrust onto a new path. 

That road had ended, though, as had the Korean War. 

Robertson was immediately struck with something of an identity crisis. 

He walked out of the gate at a New Jersey airport with limited money and non-existent plans for his future.

Robertson would no longer be “Robbie,” the name that came with the mistaken notion he was All-American George Robinson, but who would he become?

“That was one of the strangest moments of my life,” Robertson said. “I didn’t know who the hell I was … I didn’t have an occupation. I went to college, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I remember thinking, ‘Who am I?’

In the process of finding himself, he engaged in an extended stay with a friend in New York City. One night, while attending a party, he overheard a fellow attendee doing his best impression of Marlon Brando.

“Mine was better,” Robertson quipped.

Then, for a second time, someone mentioned The Actor’s Studio, a group of playwrights, actors and directors who worked their craft as a membership organization in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan.

Brando had discussed the studio with Robertson in Japan. 

Lee Strasberg, an innovative and now famous acting coach, plied his trade there, Robertson was told. 

What the heck, he thought.

“I picked up the phone book and there he was, Lee Strasberg,” Robertson said. 

Robertson would find work, and precious income, as a page at NBC headquarters in New York City. 

He’d find his calling with Strasberg, who despite the odds, agreed to meet with Robertson after a simple phone call. 

Warren Robertson poses for a portrait on June 21, 2016, in Centralia.
Warren Robertson poses for a portrait on June 21, 2016, in Centralia.

Robertson was too new to the scene to be shocked by the acting teacher’s willingness to meet with a man with virtually no experience.

“Naive would be derogatory,” he said. “Innocence is more correct. I didn’t know it was such an accomplishment to talk with Lee Strasberg … If I knew exactly what I was doing at the time, I wouldn’t have done it.”

On the day of the meeting, Robertson bumped into the actor Basil Rathbone in the elevator. The actor, made famous by his early portrayals of Sherlock Holmes, wasn’t as flashy and unapproachable as some perceive actors to be. If Rathbone was understated, then Strasberg was borderline boring, but intense.

“He was a little man, very contained. He’s not aloof. He’s just contained. And he perfected brevity,” Robertson said. 

Strasberg started by asking questions following a list he went through with all the actors in his studio. He asked about Texas and Archer City, specifically centering on the rural upbringing he had no personal experience with.

“He was very fascinated by that,” Robertson said. 

He was getting an early glimpse of Strasberg’s ability to really see inside of an individual.

“He did not waste words and he did not waste time,” he said. “He knew how to go inside the eyes … His real insight was the emotional side and being able to come up with creative exercises.”

The result was The Actor’s Studio, a place of glamor and mystery that had attracted the attention and attendance of the brightest stars from both Hollywood and Broadway.

“It was a little dangerous, but charged with talent,” Robertson said.

After the meeting, Robertson was added to that roster. 

He recalls, about a week later, heading up the stairs to the studio, which after a fire was being housed in an old church. 

As he walked in, he recognized faces from the silver screen, Paul Newman being among them. 

“There sat some of the most famous movie stars of the era,” he said. 

On one occasion, running about 20 minutes behind, Robertson shuffled into class to grab one of the last remaining seats. A half hour later, another tardy student walked in.

Warren Robertson, right, Grace Jones, center, and Dolph Lundgren pose for a portrait. Robertson helped Lundrgen, whose real name is Hans, break into the movie scene and form his identity through the Rocky films. Sylvester Stalone, a friend of Robertson's, had asked for suggestions, and Robertson passed along the name of his student. Lundgren would earn the part of Ivan Drago in Rocky IV.
Warren Robertson, right, Grace Jones, center, and Dolph Lundgren pose for a portrait. Robertson helped Lundrgen, whose real name is Hans, break into …

“The door opens and in walks Marilyn Monroe,” says Robertson.

Naturally, she found a seat near Robertson. 

Robertson and the stars might not have shared much in common, but they were all largely equal in the eyes of Strasberg when it came to allocation of his time and attention. 

They’d all be reduced to messy piles of emotion at times.

“Sooner or later, Lee finds the lock and opens the safe,” Robertson said. “Crying, screaming, rage, love and passion — all of it.”

To say it was a new scene for Robertson would be an understatement. 

The studio dripped with fresh sensations and concepts.

“The people at the studio were doing things I had never seen in my hometown.” he said.

Specifically, they were showing emotions. All of them. They did so through the method acting tactics of Strasberg, who was increasingly bringing the art of acting ahead of even psychology at the time. 

It manifested itself on the big screen through the performances of actors such as Brando and James Dean, who transformed the industry and gained hundreds of followers who craved the same learning platform, The Actors’ Studio. 

In West Texas, men inherently guarded against any display of emotions. It was a fact so cemented in the culture and landscape that Robertson can still vividly remember the first time an adult relative shed tears.

A tornado had struck the town, and his hardened uncle wept and wailed as the house lifted, rattled and shook amid the storm.

“That changed my life,” Robertson said.

At the Actor’s Studio, it was anything but odd.

Strasberg’s methods, and those of Adler, who through a personal relationship also influenced Robertson, were geared toward bringing emotions from the depth of an actor’s psyche to the surface. 

“That stunned me,” Robertson said. “In Archer City, whoever you were, that’s who you were. It didn’t change.”

The emotion-laden classes were laced with exercises that might seem mundane, but were in fact cutting edge. Students would spend hours watching a single person on stage, perhaps mimicking the movements necessary to hold and drink from an imaginary cup. 

Beyond that, the scenes acted out in front of Robertson were in direct opposition to his conservative upbringing. For one, hearing a woman curse and swear was a new sensation. Then there was the absence of rigid politeness.

There was no need, Strasberg said, for Robertson to address his teacher as Mr. Strasberg.

Taken together, it shattered Robertson’s preconceived notions of the world. 

“It was a whole new world for me,” he said. “It freed me up from my view of propriety … They knocked that out of me. They said, ‘You’re in New York now, and you need to get accustomed to saying words you’ve probably never heard before.’” 

Three nights a week, Robertson devoted himself to the studio, never missing a class. He lacked pedigree, but not dedication.

That spilled over at home, where impromptu acting classes were beginning to form. 

Warren Robertson stands in an apartment he was living at in the Sniffen Court Historic District of New York City in the mid-1970s. His residency in the up-scale neighborhood coincided with his rise as a sought-after acting coach.
Warren Robertson stands in an apartment he was living at in the Sniffen Court Historic District of New York City in the mid-1970s. His residency in …

Part Three: A Rising Star Breaks Through as Acting Teacher

Living on the west side of New York City in an area that could be described as poor, Warren Robertson befriended aspiring actors and others in his building. 

They all lived on a similar budget — which wasn’t much — and socialized together on the weekends. 

It was with this backdrop that Robertson began to morph from aspiring actor to teacher. It wasn’t really intentional. It happened organically. 

Informal classes developed. The group began to meet frequently to exchange methods, ideas and performances.

“One of those guys had some semblance of a living room, and that’s where we met,” he said. 

Robertson, by virtue of his Actor’s Studio involvement and gregarious personality, slowly became the de facto leader, providing a vein of guidance from the studio to his neighbors and acquaintances. 

“It was a group mentality of, ‘How do we all become winners in this?’” he said. “We became kind of like a family.”

That family grew steadily as word of mouth spread. The message was clear — Robertson was changing from student to teacher.

“I had the advantage to have this genius in Lee Strasberg, and they were intrigued by the people in the class. It became a Saturday night special.”

Robertson taught them some of the visualization techniques being mastered at the studio. 

“I didn’t realize how much I had learned,” he said. 

As his home acting group grew, he had another breakthrough. 

Robertson was headed for Broadway. 

Robertson’s big break came in the form of what’s known as a cattle call in the world of acting, a request for actors and actresses to turn out en masse for a role — however small — in one of the hundreds of shows lighting up Broadway.

He was happy to eventually land the role of “Ed the Drunk,” in which he would share the stage with star William Shatner in a play by director Josh Logan called “The World of Suzie Wong.”

“I was never happier to be called a drunk,” he said.

The breakthrough, however small, could come only after a dose of disappointment that would ultimately help chart his career in a new direction. 

At an earlier cattle call, Robertson had yearned so much for a role that he took drastic measures. 

Elia Kazan was the director, and Robertson — along with anyone else who had a finger on the pulse of Broadway or Hollywood — knew very well he was among the most celebrated and successful presences in the business.

Frustrated with an impossibly long line of those looking to audition, he got creative. 

“I thought, well, I’m going to try something,” he recalled. “It wasn’t obnoxious or abrasive … I just wanted to trust the feeling, but with respect … I wondered if the theater’s doors were open.”

Robertson moved to the front of the theater, away from the throngs of actors and actresses.

He was acting on what some might call desperation. He had “a feeling,” and he was going to see where it took him.  

With his first child at home, he was subsiding and supporting his family on the wage of a page at NBC and occasional appearances on the dozens of televised game shows that populated screen time during the era. 

Robertson needed to take action. His feeling, and his family, called for it. 

Olivia Newton-John reacts during a a scene with Warren Robertson in the film "Two of a Kind," which featured Robertson playing the role of himself. In addition to Newton-John, John Travolta also starred in the film.
Olivia Newton-John reacts during a a scene with Warren Robertson in the film "Two of a Kind," which featured Robertson playing the role of himself. …

He began tugging at the front doors of the theater. The first one was locked. So was the second. And the third. 

Finally, a door gave way to his pull. Robertson stood in amazement before entering the threshold. 

“I wasn’t frightened. I wasn’t scared. It’s just, the feeling was so strong,” he said. “I can’t tell you what it was.”

These days, he’d call it trust, so long as the definition is simply “the absence of fear.” It was the same trait — learned from an early brush with death — that had already propelled him to so many notable experiences in the past. If death hasn’t defeated him, what was there to truly fear in life? The tenure as a military football player. The winning of Bob Hope’s Campus Casanova competition. A stint as an award-winning dancer in another military competition. Too many experiences, for such a young age, for Robertson to shy away from an open door.

He decided to move closer to the stage, where Kazan and others were hosting auditions. 

“His assistant says, ‘We only have one more,’” Robertson recalled. 

Robertson climbed into the first balcony, and then the second. He was startled by the realization his opportunity to audition was quickly evaporating. 

“I panicked … I tried to think of something to say, then,” Robertson pauses and stands from his chair to replicate the volume of his next words, “I just yelled out ‘MR. KAZAN.’”

The iconic director dropped to his knees and hid behind a chair, beyond scared by the words coming from the darkness above.

“Who is that?” the director demanded.

“Warren Robertson,” he replied.

“Who the hell is Warren Robertson?”

“I just want to get a reading,” Robertson replied.

With additional prompting, Robertson descended from his perch and met a director he already idolized. Trembling with fear and adrenaline, he related that he had no agent and simply wanted a chance to be in the production. 

“Don’t you ever, ever, ever do this to someone else,” he recalls Kazan saying. “But I’m gonna have you come in.”

Robertson almost cried.

“I was so desperate,” he said. 

From there, the story is less of a fairy tale. He interviewed for the part. Days later, Kazan’s assistant called notifying him that he had earned the role and he would be in the production. Robertson was ecstatic. He shared the news with his wife at the time, and the two celebrated all weekend. 

It was short-lived.

The very next week, Robertson learned the part had been taken away, given to the relative of an industry star who likely didn’t even have to audition to get the part, much less climb balconies and scare the bejeezus out of a director who happened to be a personal hero.

Robertson was crushed.  

It wasn’t just that the promise of meaningful income had been snatched away — though it had — but the rejection tarnished the pedestal on which he had placed many of his heroes, Kazan among them. 

His trust in his heroes had been damaged, through no real fault of their own, but damaged nonetheless. 

“It was kind of an innocence of sorts. I always tended to give people the benefit of really trusting them,” he said. “I was disappointed in what I had projected on him.”

One person, though, had maintained full respect and admiration. Lee Strasberg, the method acting icon, “gave every-thing to everybody,” Robertson said. He was generous with his time and teaching talents whether he was dealing with Marilyn Monroe or some kid from Archer City who had also gained entry to the hallowed halls of The Actors Studio.

An idea struck Robertson that would go on to shape his life.

“That was the first time I thought of teaching,” he said. 

He still didn’t have connections. He still didn’t have much money. But he had trust, and that was something worth building on. 

And then there was the Broadway show he did get into, playing “Ed the Drunk.” He had a few lines, placement in the playbill and, best of all, a paycheck.

Through the play and cast, he’d also find additional motivation to pursue a career that would eventually reach incredible heights.

One night, after a performance, he went out for drinks with Frances Nuyen, the play’s female lead. He was relating something he had learned at the studio, in his own words, when she interjected with a compliment. 

“She said, ‘you should be a teacher. That’s very good,’” Robertson recalled.

That thought, along with the growing popularity of his impromptu acting classes back at the apartments, found traction in his mind. 

He was developing his own style, original from the remote, tense and largely silent approach of Strasberg. 

Robertson was more gregarious. More emotional. 

The class had reached 25 people when Robertson decided to seek a larger space. 

One day, they all pitched in for rent. Once they all arrived, Robertson was placed at the head of the class. 

“It was new stuff at that point,” he said of his teaching. “They couldn’t get it anywhere else.”

It became more formal from there.

Eventually, he began charging about $8 per session. No one batted an eye. In fact, the numbers only grew. 

He never solicited or advertised for students. He didn’t need to. As any marketing manager knows, word of mouth can bring the greatest return. And so it did. 

“Little things started to happen, and then little by little it kept growing and growing,” he said. “To get word of mouth, you have to earn it.”

In essence, Robertson merged the styles of Strasberg and Adler into a cohesive curriculum, adding his own keen ability to sense people’s base emotions and drag them to the surface. 

“I could read them. I could read their bodies. I didn’t know I could do it. I wasn’t trained for that … It was their body talking to me. Within a few months, if I hadn’t hit the jackpot, it was a disappointment,” Robertson said. 

That didn’t happen often.

He found within himself all the tools to surge to the forefront of method acting. 

“I found a faster way … I could get to the switchboard faster,” he said. 

No one enjoyed the classes more than Robertson.

“I give everything and I’m going to try to receive everything from you,” he said. 

Stars began appearing as Robertson moved into a bigger space, though it was still occupied by a stage that sat just 4 inches off the ground. They returned for each class, all while Robertson continued to gain experience on Broadway stages. 

Many names of those who would later attend Robertson’s classes remain recognizable today. Diane Keaton. Jessica Lang. Ben Stiller. Jodie Foster. 

In the early days, the attendance of the stars fueled the effort. 

“That’s the payoff,” he said. “That’s when it started to take off … Everyone started showing up.”

It wasn’t just actors. There were mobsters, psychiatrists and everything in between.

“I had the keys to the kingdom when it came to emotions,” he said. “I just had no fear. Nothing frightened me on stage.”

On one occasion, a priest attended the class. His problem was that he was unable to show emotion, a trait that would render him all but worthless as a prospective actor. It took time, but as he almost always did, Robertson broke the emotional wall through his own brand of teaching, perception and psychology. 

First he was angry. Then he began to cry. That’s when he bolted for the door. 

Robertson gave chase, tackling him before he reached the exit.

“I couldn’t let him escape class,” Robertson said. “And that was not unusual.”

If every life has a montage — a time when the years pass as successes mount at a rate faster than can be well-documented — this was Robertson’s.

Robertson would go on to own and operate two establishments in New York City, the Actor’s Repertory Theater and Warren Robertson’s Theater Workshop. 

He worked without pause. 

There was no time for vacations or weekend breaks, not when he was so in demand and his talent was blossoming rapidly. 

His students soon became some of the best and brightest talents in the industry. 

In the decades that followed, Robertson lived, worked and taught along with the people who largely defined cinema of the era.

Warren Robertson poses for a portrait on Tuesday, June 21, 2016 in Centralia.
Warren Robertson poses for a portrait on Tuesday, June 21, 2016 in Centralia.

He taught more than 100,000 students in all, though some names are more familiar than others. 

Beyond that, his position as a trusted acting teacher put him in the orbit of some of Hollywood’s biggest names. 

Patrick Swayze? A close friend. Viggo Mortensen? A prized pupil. 

“He was like a son to me,” Robertson says of Swayze as tears appear in the corner of his eyes. “I loved that boy.”

The feeling, apparently, was mutual. 

A simple internet search will reveal dozens of famed actors and actresses singing the praises of Robertson’s methods, but few were as frequent in highlighting Robertson’s unique style as Swayze. 

In a cover spread for GQ, the actor credited Robertson for his very career.

Swayze described Robertson’s uncanny ability to pull genuine emotions from his students seemingly without much effort. 

Robertson chalks it up to his innate ability to understand people. Without bragging, he tells stories of getting past the fear of young actors, or the certainty and confidence of trained staged presences.

Swayze described it best.

“That’s when my act was broken,” he said of his time in Robertson’s workshops. “People would lose it, being on that stage in the fetal position, screaming and sobbing. (Robertson’s) objective was to break the picture you had of yourself.”

Beyond delivering emotions, Robertson also possesses a keen eye for subtleties. When he looks at an individual, he seems to see more than what’s presented on the outside. 

“My idea of a keen actor was Al Pacino,” Actor Ken Olin said in an interview with US. “I remember Warren Robertson asking me why I always wore a torn T-shirt and jeans. He said, ‘It’s so obvious that’s not where you’re from.’ I was not a disaffected kid from the Bronx. I mean, I was educated.”

One doesn’t have to look far to find more praise for Robertson. 

“Studying with Warren Robertson opened up a world of possibilities for me,” Jessica Lange once said. “His support, his criticism and his unique way of making me listen to my feelings and encouraging this emotional freedom in my work has helped me tremendously. His influence has been immeasurable.”

“I entrusted into his hands a special friend,” said Burt Young. “Then watched the man’s creative and spiritual life soar.”

There are more stories, more actors and actresses who saw their names become known worldwide at least partially because they found themselves taught by Robertson.

Christie Brinkley, Christo-pher Walken, and on and on. 

ROBERTSON IS QUICK to compare his home outside Adna, which he purchased 30 or 35 years ago, with the dry, barren landscape that incubated him in West Texas. The 20 acres of trees and prime farmland couldn’t be any more different than Archer City where, growing up, there wasn’t enough water for Warren and his brother to grow even a small gar-den. 

“It was paradise,” he says of his spread along Bunker Creek Road. 

It acted as a sort of a launch-ing point for years.

Robertson would travel to Vancouver, British Columbia, where he plied his trade for about 15 years before officially retiring four or five years ago. He traveled by plane to teach in Montreal for about 25 years. 

“It was kind of the best of both worlds,” he said. 

Now, aside from an occasional trip to see old friends and family, Robertson’s roots are firmly planted here in Lewis County. 

He’s content with his rural surroundings and enjoys sharing it all with his partner, Kelle Kleingartner. 

Robertson spends his time managing the property and thinking of a life long lived. He contemplates life’s biggest questions, practices yoga and welcomes every opportunity thrown his direction.  

He doesn’t know any other way. 

He says he’s not worried about his health, despite the dire diagnosis handed down by doctors again and again over the years.

Trust, after all, is the absence of fear.

Robertson is as trusting as ever. 

In his mind, he’s home, but his Odyssey is far from over. 

“I just love living,” he said. “I know the value of it. I still eat it up. I absolutely love being alive. Miracles have happened to me and that’s only because I’ve been open to them. I’ve lived.”

Warren Robertson poses for a portrait on Tuesday, June 21, 2016 in Centralia.
Warren Robertson poses for a portrait on Tuesday, June 21, 2016 in Centralia.

Chronicle Editor-in-Chief Eric Schwartz can be reached at eschwartz@chronline.com