What do Will Smith, Salma Hayek and Brad Pitt have in common? They’re all famous performers, of course. But they have also all trained with Howard Fine, a revered acting coach based in Los Angeles.
There are more names, as well: Lindsay Lohan, Bradley Cooper and Val Kilmer. Kerry Washington, Amy Smart and Diana Ross.
Reading the list of alumni, you start to wonder what famous actor didn’t study at the Howard Fine Acting Studio.
But before Fine opened his studio, in the middle of Hollywood, where he has spent more than three decades training the movie stars of tomorrow, he grew up in a Jewish family in Cranston.
“I loved growing up in Cranston,” remembers Fine, 65, whose childhood home was in Garden City.
Fine became a Bar Mitzvah at Temple Sinai, and fondly remembers his twice-weekly Hebrew lessons, the sukkah that was erected each Sukkot, and the warmth of his family’s friends.
“Cranston had the best of suburbia,” Fine said during a recent phone interview. “The neighbors would all watch out for each others’ kids. That gave us a lot of community.”
Fine was also exposed early to the darker chapters of Jewish history. Members of his mother’s family narrowly escaped the Buchenwald concentration camp, and fled to Shanghai. There, Fine’s mother met his father, a U.S. serviceman. They were married in China, and the bride wore a dress cut from parachute silk, according to family lore.
“On my mother’s side, they’re all Holocaust survivors,” Fine says. “Everybody I saw had the [prisoner] number on their arms. And they were characters. The people that I knew were full of life, and appreciative of every day.”
Today, Fine has a shaved head and a silver goatee, and he is almost always pictured smiling. On the phone, he has a boisterous laugh and responds generously to every question.
Our interview took place the day after his return from Melbourne, Australia, where he also has an acting studio, yet his voice didn’t betray a hint of jetlag or crankiness. In fact, Fine seems like the polar opposite of the hot-tempered, clipboard-hurling archetype of acting coaches.
Ask him for his recipe for success, whether he has a secret, and you’ll get only humility.
“I actually don’t know,” he says. “I think nothing is as easy as it seems. In my experience, everything has felt rocky. Do I really know how I got where I am? No. That’s the truth.”
Yet Fine’s journey reads like a Cinderella story, which began in high school. A scheduling conflict led him to accidentally sign up for drama class; the moment he walked into the classroom, everything clicked.
“It felt immediately as if it was home,” he remembers. “It’s rather inexplicable to me. I understood it.”
Fine’s intuition for theater was evident to his drama teacher, who soon encouraged him to direct “The Sandbox,” a challenging absurdist play by Edward Albee.
From there, Fine’s fate was sealed: He earned a B.A. in communications and theater from Rhode Island College, and a master’s in directing at Emerson College, in Boston, and then headed to New York City to immerse himself in the theater industry.
By the age of 24, Fine was head of the acting department at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, in New York City, a competitive conservatory program. He would go on to teach in Australia, then move to Los Angeles, where he directed plays and opened his acting studio in the late 1980s.
Fine had secured his reputation by the time he met Uta Hagen, one of the most legendary acting coaches in the world, and the two became friends. In 2006, industry magazine Backstage named Fine the “Best Acting Teacher in Los Angeles.” His book, “Fine on Acting: A Vision of Craft,” came out in 2009. He is well known in the Academy of Motion Pictures and a veteran consultant for the Federal Bureau of Investigations.
Despite the world-famous names that surround him in Southern California, Fine remains proud of his Rhode Island roots and devoted to his Jewish identity. His father was a war veteran and worked as a mechanic, yet he strongly encouraged young Howard’s theatrical ambitions.
“My father was remarkable in this way,” Fine remembers. “I inherited none of his skills. I grew up thinking, ‘I’m not good at anything.’ But he let each [of his children] go wherever they wanted to go. He was proud of all of us. He came to every theater production. He was so proud of me.”
Fine speaks eloquently about his love for Jewish values, and has served on the board of the Synagogue for the Performing Arts, a California-based congregation geared toward entertainment professionals.
“My first instinct, when I was very young, was to become a rabbi,” Fine says. “Judaism struck a chord with me as a child. I would put myself in the Reform category, maybe in between Reform and Conservatism. I think there are such practical lessons in everyday life [in Judaism].”
On stage and screen, many of the actors who have studied with Fine have gone on to play bigots, antisemites and Nazis. Fine feels strongly that actors must do justice to these roles.
“It’s something that I learned from [the biblical] Joseph – we judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their actions,” he says. “The stories have to be told. There is good and evil in this world. Somebody has to play those roles. That person, no matter what their behavior, thinks they’re doing good.”
In 2020, the pandemic was hard on the Howard Fine Acting Studio, since no students could appear in person. Theaters and film lots were particularly hard hit during that time, and actors could barely scrape by, much less hone their craft.
“There was a moment when I thought my career was over,” Fine says.
But first, he tried one-on-one classes on FaceTime, then expanded to a virtual curriculum. While in-person classes have resumed, the online curriculum is still being offered.
“We found a way to be online. Suddenly, I was working with people around the world,” he says.
Even now, after so many years, Fine still gets excited to work with famous actors.
“Most of us [acting coaches] began as fans,” he says. “That never goes away.”
Only a few blocks from his studio, the Hollywood Walk of Fame is dotted with the names and handprints of actors that Fine taught.
And while he is 65, Fine says he’s not thinking of winding down his career.
“Teaching, for me, is not my job, it’s my identity,” he says. “I see no purpose in retiring. I’m going as long as I can.”
ROBERT ISENBERG is a freelance writer and multimedia producer based in Cranston. His latest book, “Mile Markers: Essays on Cycling,” will be released in April.