I don’t know what to say. I mean, what can you say when someone so spectacularly special departs?
All I can do is recall his story, told through my own (rambling) recollections…
Robert Xavier Modica (83) has been a master acting teacher for over 50 years. But he taught so much more than acting. For those of us fortunate enough to study with him in room 809 at Carnegie Hall (and later, elsewhere), we learned lessons in humanity and in living truthfully and fully. In that room, surrounded by plays, peers, and peeling, crackling, magical paint, we spent nights reading the greatest playwrights and listening to Mr. Modica’s stories.
And what stories they were. I wish I could remember them better. I wish I had written them all down. Many of them were vivid recollections from the years he spent in the Marines, as part of Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division on the Eastern and western Front. Except it was anything but “easy” — and the memories both haunted him and provided him with a deep sense of compassion, humility, and understanding of human nature.
“My mother was so relieved and happy to hear I was in an easy company,” he recalled, “This same mother would later make many phone calls to grieving mothers of men who were killed in that Easy Company.”
Prior to becoming an acting teacher, he enlisted in the United States Marine Corp and was a veteran of the Korean War – an experience that deeply affected him and became a source of incredible stories and lessons on life that he brought into the classroom. Modica also studied Speech and Drama at Adelphi University where he excelled in sports as an All American Football and Lacrosse player and Class President of 1957.
Although he’d worked as an actor, with roles in Francis Ford Coppola’s first film “The Rain People,” as well as “Love Story,” “Men of Respect,” “Fast Food Fast Women,” it was ultimately teaching that Modica had dedicated his life to.
He started as a strict, but deeply caring and inspiring Speech & Drama teacher at Grover Cleveland High School. Soon he was co-teaching alongside Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse and AMDA. He stayed there for 25 years. Somehow, in between teaching, he even had a hand in building the World Trade Centre as an excavation laborer — because he was keen to work with his hands. He recalled with amusement how famous actors would show up during his lunch breaks for some one-on-one coaching – to the stunned reaction of his co-workers.
Modica went on to open a private studio in 1966 at Carnegie Hall Artist Studios where he taught for nearly 50 years in the infamous room 809 – rigorously guiding his students towards the pursuit of truth. Doing the “work,” he called it. Some of his students include John Turturro, Tyne Daly, Louise Lasser, David Duchovney, Marian Seldes, Bill D’Elia, John Doman, Scott Cohen, Ali MacGraw, Jennifer O’Neil, Jennifer Beals, Michael Badalucco, Aida Turturro, Nick Turturro, and Rachel Ward.
It was around 2004 that I first set foot there myself. As custom goes, Mr. Modica would meet with each potential student. When I arrived, a piece of paint fell from the ceiling, and I looked around the well-worn space, brimming with plays by the most creative and sensitive souls, piled in disorderly fashion on shelves around the room.
Somewhere, on found wall space, there would be framed quotes like Einstein’s “Great spirits have always found violent opposition from mediocre minds,” hanging deliberately. Then there were American flags and other assorted memorabilia displaying great affection for the USA. Beneath a cloud of smoke, imparted by a cigarette that stubbornly refused to leave his mouth, I saw Mr. Modica. I knew right away that I’ve found the right class.
“So, what’s your deal, Dolly?” he said to me. And I explained.
I started the next week.
We did repetition exercises, and other Meisner-y activities — and I admit, I didn’t understand them at all. But I was so captivated by Mr. Modica and his stories, that I was willing to overlook this. For the first little while I just set there, transfixed, with a notebook, making notes of all the gems that would impart his lips.
Gradually, I began to understand what those exercises were all about and how they related to living truthfully under imaginary circumstances. One day, I had one of those “Aha” moments. Words cannot describe the thrill I had felt when I was finally called upon to do a cold read. Like a pitcher coming up to bat for the first time.
Time froze in that room, offset by the noise of New York City and impatient taxi horns. We’d start around 6 or 7pm, and students would come and go depending on their schedules the next day. Despite my plans otherwise, I could never leave before it was over — which was usually somewhere around 3AM (sometimes as late as 4:30AM). Each time, without fail, Mr. Modica, upon being notified of the time, would feign surprise. He never could believe it was so late.
You see, he was living so in the moment that time did not exist for him. He was engrossed in the present.
Mr. Modica, we called him, rather than his first name (though a chosen few did refer to him as “Bobby”), out of respect. He didn’t behave like the typical “guru” coach, nor did he write books and hold cult-like workshops. He didn’t have catch phrases and he never threw out a false word of flattery. He just taught. Honestly. He was incapable of doing it any other way.
He continued to do that even after having been forced, after nearly 50 years, out of Carnegie Hall along with the other artists in the changing landscape of New York City. He may have lost his home, but not his aim. He was born to teach. But more than anything, he had a relentless pursuit of the truth and humanity both within the work and within his students. Nothing less would do, and there’s nothing could escape his intense gaze. He forced us to confront not only our own feelings, but also the feelings of those around us.
In a new studio space, he could not smoke as freely, so he’d often spray it with a deodorizer. He was sneaky like that. I’ve often wondered what people thought of the studio smelling like peaches and cream after each class? (I don’t think he was fooling anyone).
There were so many of us who have walked through his doors. People from all walks of life, nationalities, and countries of residence. We’d come and go, but all of us would be changed somehow. We’d discover we’d become more truthful to who we were, more open to other ideas and feelings, more aware of history — and acutely present. Mr. Modica gave us that gift.
And now he’s gone. A master. A legend to our little circle.
But the tremendous sadness I feel right now cannot be allowed to negate the joy I’ve felt having been fortunate enough to walk through his doors and share the precious moments that I have. To be able to easily say: “I love you” to another human being, without expecting it in return – though he did love us too, his students, his extended family. We are all better for it. Thank you for showing us how to live “truthfully” by example.
You mattered. You mattered so much.
I leave you with some of his “classic” quotes:
“When in doubt, repeat. But when not in doubt, don’t repeat, don’t shut up, DO.”
“It’s in the doing that you find out what things mean to you.”
“The Time is in the Now, until it changes into another Now.”
“Don’t do dumber than you are.”
“It’s in the doing that you find out what things really mean to you.”
“Anger is not a true emotion, it’s what you do to cover up the bullshit that’s really going on.”
“I live in a cultural desert!”
“I’m surrounded by foreigners!”
“Don’t wait for the other guy- go GIVE it, give YOU!”
“Take nothing for granted.”
“You must be willing to make the other guy more important than yourself.”
“No one should walk out onto the stage/life unless they’re willing to WALK THE HIGH WIRE of the stage/life.”
“It is GENEROUS to be 100% HONEST; it’s not rude or unladylike. Do not be afraid to give of your deepest TRUTH. Take the RISK and spit it out; this is not a popularity contest.”
“You must LISTEN!!!!”
“Acting is listening and responding truthfully.”
Acting is the art of self betrayal. DON’T FEAR your highest truth even if you risk betraying your pride, secrets, self- That’s the GIFT you give.”
“Better to be a first rate version of yourself than a second rate version of someone else.”