Luther Adler (born Lutha Adler; May 4, 1903 – December 8, 1984) was an American actor best known for his work in theatre, but who also worked in film and television. He also directed plays on Broadway.
Early life and career
Adler was born on May 4, 1903, in New York City. He was one of the six children of Russian-Jewish actors Sara and Jacob P. Adler. His father was considered to be one of the founders of the Yiddish theatre in America. His siblings also worked in theatre; his sister Stella Adler achieved fame as an actress and drama teacher. His brother Jay also achieved some renown as an actor.
Adler’s father gave him his first acting job in the Yiddish play, Schmendrick, at the Thalia Theatre in Manhattan in 1908; Adler was then 5 years old. His first Broadway plays were The Hand of the Potter in 1921; Humoresque in 1923; Monkey Talks in 1925; Money Business and We Americans in 1926; John in 1927; Red Rust (or Rust) and Street Scene in 1929.
Years in the Group Theatre
In 1931 Adler became one of the original members of the Group Theatre (New York), a New York City theatre collective formed by Cheryl Crawford, Harold Clurman and Lee Strasberg. The founders, as well as the actors in the group, “tended to hold left-wing political views and wanted to produce plays that dealt with important social issues.” The collective lasted for ten years, had twenty productions, and served as an inspiration for many actors, directors and playwrights who came after it. During those years, the Group’s members included Luther, Luther’s sister and brother, Stella Adler and Jay Adler, Elia Kazan, John Garfield, Paul Green (playwright), Howard Da Silva, Harry Morgan (billed as Harry Bratsburg), Franchot Tone, John Randolph, Joseph Bromberg, Michael Gordon, Will Geer, Clifford Odets and Lee J. Cobb. Elia Kazan considered Adler to be the best actor working in the company.
In 1932, Adler starred in John Howard Lawson’s, Success Story and garnered rave reviews for his performance. In 1933 Adler briefly joined the Katherine Cornell Company, playing opposite Cornell in Alien Corn, but in 1934 he returned to the Group and played alongside his sister Stella in Gold Eagle Guy. Gold Eagle Guy was not popular with audiences and had a short run. Adler had suspected the play would not succeed, remarking, shortly before it opened, “Boys, I think we’re working on a stiff.” Adler went on to appear in Group Theatre (New York) productions: Awake and Sing! and Paradise Lost (both 1935), and he performed with Frances Farmer in Golden Boy (1937). He also appeared in Kurt Weill’s anti-war musical Johnny Johnson (1936) and originated the role of Captain Joshua in the 1939 Group Theater production of Thunder Rock. “By the late 1930s… the cohesiveness of the group began to crumble. The chronic financial problems and long-simmering disputes about ‘the method’ began to chip away at their solidarity… and in 1941 the group dissolved.”
After the Group Theatre
By the early 1940s, Adler began to direct, but his first production They Should Have Stood in Bed closed after only 11 performances in 1942. His next directorial venture, A Flag Is Born, ran for 120 performances in 1946 and featured newcomer Marlon Brando in one of the major roles. In 1965, when Zero Mostel left the Broadway cast of Fiddler on the Roof during a contract dispute, Adler took over the role of Tevye.
Film and television career
In 1937 Adler began to appear in films, although they were never his highest priority. His credits included Cornered (1945), Wake of the Red Witch (1948), House of Strangers (1949), D.O.A. (1949), The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel (1951) (appearing as Hitler), and M (1951). During the 1950s, Luther Adler was among the directors and actors who were blacklisted. He later appeared in Voyage of the Damned (1976) and Absence of Malice (1981).
He also acted frequently on television in such programs as the anthology series, Crossroads, General Electric Theater, Kraft Television Theater and Robert Montgomery Presents. He guest-starred in 1960 in the science fiction fantasy series, The Twilight Zone as the poor pawnbroker Arthur Castle, with Vivi Janiss as his wife Edna, in the episode entitled “The Man in the Bottle” (again appearing as Hitler). In the story line, a genie offers the couple four wishes which do not lead to happiness. He was also cast in episodes of The Untouchables, Ben Casey, 77 Sunset Strip, Mission: Impossible, Hawaii Five-O, most notably in the series’ only three-part episode “‘V’ for Vashon”, The Streets of San Francisco, Naked City and Route 66.
Adler was married to actress Sylvia Sidney from 1938 until 1946 and was the father of Sidney’s only child, her son Jacob, who predeceased her.
A lifelong Democrat, he and his siblings supported the campaign of Adlai Stevenson during the 1952 presidential election.
He died at his Kutztown, Pennsylvania home, and was buried in Mount Carmel Cemetery, Glendale, New York, next to several of his relatives, including his parents and older sister Stella.