Hometown Boy Makes Waves
(Originally printed in the L.A. Times Calendar
section, January 9, 1994)
After a three-year absence in New York to help TV's "Law & Order,"
producer Joe Stern has returned to his roots and his first love, the L.A.
theater scene, to work with "the greatest talent pool of actors in the
by Richard Stayton
photo by Larry Davis
Stern is back and he's mad as hell and not going to let us take it
"The actor is an endangered species." producer Stern is saying, standing
on the deck of his Pacific Palisades home. "Between the economy, the lack
of funding, and its effect on our standards, actors are not practicing
their art. They're not doing something else. They're not directing, or
writing their memoirs. They're just wailing for the next gig."
Stern lists actors who quit the profession. He mentions stars who live in
Los Angeles, yet never work on local stages. He speaks rapid-fire,
sounding more adolescent than middle-aged, despite his 53 years.
After a three-year absence while working as co-executive and executive
producer of the New York-based NBC-TV series "Law & Order," Stern has
returned lo his hometown and his first love, the theater, specifically,
his own theater, the Matrix, at 7657 Melrose Ave.. where he's currently
producing a critically acclaimed revival of George M. Cohan's 1920
melodrama "The Tavern." (The show continues through Feb. 13.)
Despite two Emmy and two Golden Globe nominations for "Law & Order," Stern
left the show feeling he had "done all I could, and I didn't feel we had
the same goals anymore." Among the very few theater producers who straddle
stage and screen. Stern continues to balance both arenas more effectively
than any other theater producer in Los Angeles. Last fall, while preparing
to mount "The Tavern" at the Matrix, Stern simultaneously produced the
controversial "Other Mothers," the "CBS Schoolbreak Special" about
lesbians parenting a high school boy.
A key mover and shaker during the phenomenal 1930s boom in Southern
California theater, Stern was at that time both a leader and a rebel.
While mounting stage productions under his Actors for Themselves banner
that earned 19 Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards, including the
prestigious Margaret Harford Award for lifetime achievement, Stern accused
Actors' Equity of not supporting Southern California theater producers,
publicly dueled with Mark Taper Forum artistic director Gordon Davidson
(claiming that the Taper was not, at the time, using enough local talent),
and demanded better working conditions for actors. Always, if there was a
panel discussion. Stem was on it; call a debate, and he led the argument
Ask for a provocative statement, and he wrote the newspaper a letter. Stem
could always be counted on to name names.
He has been missed here. "I've been told there's a tightening of the belt
[in L.A.] because of the economy," Stern says. "Colleagues date it back to
the riots, for whatever reason, and they feel the audience has seen too
much bad theater. The audience "is smaller. It's not just the economy. It
may be trust in the product. They've been burned too many times.
"But the greatest talent pool [of actors] in the world is right here in
Los Angeles," Stern declares with rising emphasis. "It certainly isn't in
New York. While living there for the last three years, I saw some 70
shows, and talked to a number of people, and auditioned some 6.000 actors.
You can't tell me the work is better there than in Los Angeles. This is
where the talent pool is... How do we get them back on stage?"
Stern's solution was to form the Matrix Theatre Company, a repertory
company of industry actors who, thanks to lucrative television and movie
salaries, can afford to work in the theater for free. His model for this
is Kenneth Branagh's Renaissance Theatre Company in London, a core
resident company that enlists movie actors for various projects. But the
problem, of course, is that in-demand performers frequently leave shows
for paying industry jobs.
Stern solved this problem by double-casting "The Tavern." That meant
finding not just 15 actors, but. 30. Each role has a minimum or two actors
in alternating performances. When one actor's agent calls with a job,
another actor steps in. But if you cast actors the level of Marian Mercer
("It's a Living") and David Dukes ("The Mommies"), their alternates must
be equal in talent. Such casting would be the envy of any theater in the
world, let alone a not-for-profit 99-seat house.
"I knew double-casting was the only hope if I was going to get a great
company of actors," Stern remembers. "That way, they're not missing a job.
During the rehearsal period, some 15 or 20 jobs came up. Half of [the
actors] were out at one point. Jim Haynie, Mitch Ryan — each had one or
two jobs where they left for a few days. Talia Balsam missed the first
week of previews. Charles Hallahan is in 'Grace Under Fire.'"
Surprisingly, this unpredictability made the rehearsal process more
cooperative and less competitive. Director Tony Giordano, who initially
proposed "The Tavern" to Stern while observing a "Law & Order" location
shoot, described the experience by phone from his New York apartment: "I
viewed it as a big gamble. Though it was frustrating to lose people for
days [to industry jobs] while I continued to progress through the
rehearsal process, I expected that. But when they were in rehearsals,
those actors were there a hundred-thousand percent of the lime. Many times
they came on their days off and observed rehearsals."
Penny Fuller, who plays the madwoman in "The Tavern," agrees with
Giordano's assessment. "It's a wonderful way to have a sense of community
without the financial or creative sacrifice," says the actress who first
worked for Stern in 1982 in an award-winning production of Harold Pinter's
"Betrayal" at the Matrix. "On my off-days, I would watch Lindsay Crouse
[Fuller's double], and then we'd talk about the part and share ideas."
"And there's no billing problem," Stern says of the traditional backstage
vanity battles producers generally must endure. "An environment of such
generosity has been created. We've proved that if you can eliminate
the ego and the competitiveness — we've done about 80% of that — you can
achieve the most amazing things. The biggest problem was finding younger
actors... The great majority just didn't get it. If they read the play,
they didn't get the play. There's just a lack of skilled young people. It
This realization saddened Stern. "When I was a young actor. I worked under
major actors. That was another purpose [of the company], to pass on
tradition. Basically, there's just more and more actors over 40 quitting
the business. The quality of television and movies is so awful because
it's now come down to producers saying. 'Get me a [guild minimum] scale
actor.' They tell great character actors. 'If you don't work for
scale, buddy, we'll get the next guy.'
"We're talking about artists here! We're talking about 30 years of skill,
of life! But the television and film producers don't give a [expletive]!
I'll go on record! They just say, 'If you won't do it, someone else will.'
"What always turned me on in the theater was great actors," Stern says
with a sad sigh. "That's what got me. Always. That is what changed my
Stern was born in Los Angeles in 1940 and was
raised two blocks from the Matrix Theatre. Throughout his education at
Fairfax High. Los Angeles City College and UCLA, Stern repeatedly
performed in school plays and emceed public events.
After being released from the Army reserves in 1964, he flew to New York
and auditioned at Joseph Papp's Public Theatre. His ambition was to become
a professional Shakespearean actor. Papp obliged. Three weeks after
getting his first paid acting job. Stern married his college girlfriend.
Peppy. (This year the Sterns will celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary
with their two sons.)
At the New York Shakespeare Festival, while carrying spears in crowd
scenes, Stern became close friends with another unknown actor, William
Devane. Soon Stern and Devane formed a nonprofit production company called
Actors for Themselves. In the early 1970s, Stern was cast in a network
series starring Karen Valentine and moved back to Los Angeles. He was
subsequently fired from the show, and in the process realized that acting
wasn't his primary calling.
"I was just a working actor," Stern says. "I never wanted it bad enough. I
was always very precocious at school, but in the real world I knew I could
never be great at it. I thought I had an instinct for conducting, for
putting everybody together, and had a real instinct for behavior. I always
felt I knew who had talent. I was never afraid to make decisions. And I
was never afraid of failing. I'd always been a gambler."
In 1975. actor-writer Allan Miller asked Stern to help produce a play in
Los Angeles, "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been ... ?" Stern brought his
friend Devane west to direct, and their production ran for a
record-breaking 14 months before moving to Washington, D.C.
In 1976. Stern discovered the Matrix, and learned that the ensemble that
was playing there was struggling to survive. He and Devane borrowed money
from Stern's salesman father and bought the theater and allowed the
company to continue. Meanwhile, Stern was also head of development and
production for Dan Curtis Productions, a television production company,
from 1977 to 1982, participating in the making of the hit miniseries "The
Winds of War," and receiving an Emmy nomination for producing the first
season of "Cagney & Lacey" for Orion.
In 1980, Devane traded his half of the Matrix
to a dentist for an Arabian racehorse. Stern soon after bought out the
dentist and became sole owner of the Matrix. The ensemble company left and
his professional double-life debuted, with Stern juggling pilots for
Curtis Productions with plays such as David Mamet's "A Life in the
Theatre" for the Matrix. Throughout the '80s, his Actors for Themselves
productions at the Matrix — notably the world premiere of Lyle Kessler's
"Orphans" and Simon Gray's "The Common Pursuit" — garnered
numerous rewards and international attention. He produced the feature film
"Dad" for Steven Spielberg's Amblin Productions, and the television movie
"Into Thin Air," starring Ellen Burstyn. The decade ended with Stern's ABC
special "The Perfect Date" winning two Emmys.
Stern, who throughout this time was living in L.A., was careful never to
allow the Matrix to become an industry showcase. But feedback and
cross-pollination often occurred. For example, Stem hired Lee Shallat to
direct the West Coast premiere of Larry Shue's "Wenceslas Square" at the
Matrix (1989) as well as last year's after-school special, "Other
Now a director for "Murphy Brown," Shallat says of Stern: "Joe is really
responsible for getting me my first break in television. He's amazingly
generous and almost vociferous in his desire to get people to work
together. Joe makes people better by his passion and by his demand for
quality and his unrelenting tenacity."
But Stem's tenacity has also made him more than a few enemies. Some actors
and directors he has worked with have claimed that his obsessive
perfectionism is destructive. Others say his "hands on" style is
"I'm there to force you to be better," Stern retorts to such accusations,
"not to make you better. I've never given anybody their talent. But I try
to make you go to your capacity. I'm like a coach that way. I don't allow
you to quit."
In 1994, while producing his three-play season (the two works to follow
"The Tavern" are still in the process of being confirmed), Stern will also
pursue his own television series. "If I want to keep this house," he says,
gesturing at his family's recently purchased Pacific Palisades home, "then
I'd better work in television. I have enough money to get me through a
couple of years. I never owned a house before, purposely, because I didn't
want to have to take that bad job."
Playwright Mayo Simon recalls a party at Stem's rented apartment in the
1980s. Simon marveled that a successful television producer would not own
a home. "Joe doesn't buy homes," said his wife. Peppy. "Joe buys
Now Stern is tenaciously pushing forward his Matrix Theatre Company. His
all-star company is currently involved in meetings to decide how to
proceed in a quasi-democratic process that fits Stern's style.
"In another six months, I'll probably shoulder my satchel and hold out my
hand and figure out how to get some money to run the Matrix," says Stem,
who this time around has relied only on his own savings and ticket sales
to operate. "I don't know what the answer is, but I feel for the American
actor. I really do. And I do believe they're an endangered species."
Richard Stayton is a frequent contributor to Calendar.