Born in Budzanow, Poland, Strasberg immigrated to the United States in 1909 at the age of eight; he became a U.S. citizen in 1936. While working as a wigmaker, he began studying improvisational acting at the American Laboratory Theatre, making his professional debut in a 1925 production of Processional by the Theatre Guild. He also worked as a stage manager. In 1931, Strasberg co-founded the Group Theater with some Guild colleagues; he would go on to direct such future stars as Harry Adler and John Garfield in experimental plays like the Pulitzer Prize-winning Men In White (1934).
After spending most of the 1940s in Hollywood, Strasberg returned to New York in 1948 and joined the fledgling Actors Studio, which had been formed by his former Group Theatre associates Elia Kazan, Cheryl Crawford and Robert Lewis. As the organization’s artistic director, he counseled hundreds of students in “the Method,” a system begun in Russia by Konstantin Stanislavsky of the Moscow Art Theatre. The technique required actors to draw on their own intense memories of emotion in order to generate the feelings necessary to portray their characters on stage and screen. Method acting’s most famous adherent was Marlon Brando, who burst into prominence with his charismatic portrayal of Stanley Kowalski in a 1947 Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Kazan. Strasberg’s other famous students included Paul Newman, Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Sidney Poitier, Anne Bancroft, Geraldine Page and Rod Steiger.
In addition to his work with actors, Strasberg developed such acclaimed plays as A Hatful of Rain, Any Wednesday and The Night of the Iguana. Though he had retired from acting himself in 1926 (except for a brief stage appearance in 1936), he was known for acting in class, and in 1974 he was convinced by Pacino and Francis Ford Coppola to make his movie debut, in The Godfather: Part II. As the gangster Hyman Roth, Strasberg earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
During his final years, Strasberg divided his time between teaching and acting in films, including 1977’s The Cassandra Crossing and 1979’s …And Justice for All, Boardwalk and Going in Style. After his death in 1982, his wife, Anna, and son David Lee continued to carry out his work through the Lee Strasberg Creative Center in West Hollywood and the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute in Manhattan.