EXCLUSIVE: Outside on West 54th Street in Manhattan, passersby were doing double-takes as a not-quite incognito Robert De Niro cooled his  heels, waiting for a cue. He wasn’t making a movie. In a studio ten flights above, 100 or more students, friends, family and colleagues of legendary acting teacher and director Wynn Handman, fanning themselves in silence, awaiting his arrival for a surprise 94th birthday toast and sing-a-long.

Robert De Niro and Wynn HandmanWhen Handman finally did appear, he was soon jolted by further surprise as first De Niro (fresh off the tarmac after a moving tribute to him on Monday at Cannes) and then Tony Roberts parted the crowd and made their way to the leather chair and oak -and-ironwork desk where Handman has conducted classes for well over a half-century (only recently in this particular studio, though the chair and desk are constants).

De Niro, Handman explained, had led a workshop reading of a new play in the early 1970s, when the American Place Theatre opened in its new space at 111 West 46th Street, after nearly a decade creating new plays in a church several blocks to the west. You can hear them discussing the project in the clips above and here:

The celebrants included playwright Jonathan Reynolds, whose Yanks 3, Detroit 0, Top of the Seventh was one of the American Place’s biggest hits, ICM Partners superagent Boaty Boatwright and actress, author, Johnny Carson regular and activist Phyllis Newman.
Robert De Niro, Wynn Handman and Tony RobertsRoberts was one of the many students who passed through Handman’s classes and on his stages, including Frank Langella, Dustin Hoffman, Olympia Dukakis, Marian Seldes and Faye Dunaway. In its nearly four-decade run, the American Place produced some of the city’s most provocative plays and artists, including Sam Shepard’s first full-length drama, La Turista, the work of seminal African American and women playwrights including Amiri Baraka, Ed Bullins and Maria Irene Fornés, and groundbreaking monologues by Eric Bogosian and John Leguizamo, among others. The subterranean theater complex Handman designed is now operated by the Roundabout Theatre Company and continues to present adventurous work, including this year’s Tony Best play contender The Humans.