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Goodnight, my excellent good master: Maximilian Schell, 1930-2014

Maximillian Schell in "Judgment at Nuremberg"

Maximilian Schell, one of the greatest actors of his generation, an astonishing performer of enormous power and breadth, and a man I am massively proud to call my teacher and, briefly, my colleague on stage, has died at 83.

He was of Swiss parentage, born in Austria, but raised in Switzerland after Hitler absorbed Austria into Germany. I first noticed him as Marlon Brando's tragic and bitter friend, a young German officer, in "The Young Lions." He won the Oscar for Best Actor for "Judgment at Nuremberg" as the defense attorney for the Nazi war criminals, and one might want to consider just how powerful a performance might be necessary to win an Oscar for one's first American film, a film in which one is basically an unknown, a film packed with huge Hollywood stars, and a film in which one plays the defender of Nazis, and only a scant 16 years after the war.

Schell was subsequently nominated for Oscars for an extraordinary cameo of barely a single scene in "Julia," and for his towering performance as the is-he-or-isn't-he-a-Nazi Jewish businessman in "The Man in the Glass Booth," loosely adapted from the play by actor Robert Shaw. It was this performance that cemented him in my mind as one of the great actors of my lifetime. It is a performance which thrills me, which gives me enormous pride in being part of the same profession, which makes me strive with every atom to be better at what I do. 

Many years after "The Man in the Glass Booth," Schell attended a screening of the film at the University of Southern California. He revealed that he would be teaching a master class in acting to USC students, and I wrote him a letter asking if I could audit his class. One morning, I checked my voicemail and heard one of the great theatrical voices of all time speaking in soft tones and that smooth Austrian accent, thanking me profusely for my letter and inviting me to join him in the class. It was one of the biggest thrills of my life.

I attended every class. I merely audited, aware that as a non-student of the university, I couldn't actually participate. But I was the only one in the class with any substantial acting experience, and so Max began calling on me to answer questions he posed that the other students hadn't the experience to answer. We often got into discussions of the craft while the college kids listened. He would have students perform scenes, and then he would call me down to do the scene again, with him!, to demonstrate nuances that the youngsters had missed or to make points that were more easily made by example than by commentary. It was an astounding experience for an actor, especially one who revered the teacher as did I.

Schell continued to give amazing performances, both on screen and on stage. He directed a remarkable documentary about his friend Marlene Dietrich, and he remained, on screen and off, an elegant, charismatic, divinely gifted and quietly flamboyant artist. I hoped he would never die.

Good night, my excellent good master. Rest in peace.

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