Blacklisted helmer did stage, TV work

Television and stage director David Pressman died Monday, Aug. 29, of natural causes in New York City. He was 97.

Pressman began as an acting teacher at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York, directed live television in the early days of the medium but was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. After a return to teaching, he directed Broadway productions and ultimately returned to TV to helm “One Life to Live” for decades.

Born in Tiblisi, Georgia, Pressman came to the U.S. at age 9 with his family, musicians traveling with the Russian Grand Opera Company, owned by impresario Sol Hurok.

Passionate about theater, the young Pressman landed a scholarship at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater, where he studied acting with Sanford Meisner. He then started directing theater in Toronto, where he won numerous awards with a socialist acting troupe called Theater for Action.

Soon Meisner asked him to return to the Neighborhood Playhouse as his teaching assistant; they taught such students including Gregory Peck, Eli Wallach and Tony Randall.

Pressman joined the Communist Party during the 1930s, later explaining that the Party appealed to many in the arts because it supported such “‘radical ideas’ back then as integration, civil rights and socialized medicine.”

Pressman taught at the Playhouse for more than 12 years, during which time he also acted in several Broadway stage productions.

During WWII, Pressman was drafted into the U.S. Army and fought for two years on the European front lines, earning two Purple Hearts.

After the war, he returned to teaching at the Neighborhood Playhouse and was asked to be an original member of the Actors Studio. Instead, Pressman chose to follow his developing interest in directing live productions for the new medium of television.

He became a successful director of live television in the late 1940s and early 1950s, winning a Peabody for directing the live “Actors Studio” TV show. He also directed shows including “Nash Airflyte Theatre,” “Treasury Men in Action” and “Cosmopolitan Theater.”

His 1951 direction of Molnar’s “The Swan,” starring Grace Kelly, as a segment of “Studio One in Hollywood” earned him widespread acclaim in the new medium. (It was later remade for the bigscreen with Kelly.)

At the height of his career, however, he was blacklisted during the McCarthy witch hunt due to his political affiliations and beliefs and barred from working in television.

Despite the setback, Pressman forged on and founded Boston U.’s acting department, which ultimately became renowned, with such students as Olympia Dukakis, Joan Baez and Verna Bloom.

Broadway, relatively untouched by McCarthy paranoia, called on Pressman. His first directorial effort was “The Disenchanted,” which saw Jason Robards win a Tony in his Broadway debut in a leading role. Pressman went on to direct other plays, including “Summertree,” by Ron Cowen, at Lincoln Center.

Meisner invited Pressman to take over the Neighborhood Playhouse, and he headed the school for the next 10 years.

Pressman ultimately returned to directing television, including episodes of “The Defenders” and “The Nurses.” He directed nine episodes of “NYPD,” including a famous 1968 episode in which then-unknowns Al Pacino and Jill Clayburgh appeared.

It was then, in his early 60s, that Pressman was offered to direct the daytime soap “One Life to Live,” which he went on to helm for the next 25 years, until the age of 85, receiving three Daytime Emmys during his tenure.

After retiring, he returned to acting, which was his first love, and played a role on “One Life to Live” in his late 80s.

Pressman is survived by his wife Sasha, a Russian-born dancer who was a member both of Martha Graham’s dance company and of the Anna Sokolow dance company; sons Michael, an award-winning television producer and director and current co-exec producer of “Blue Bloods,” Gregory, Of Council and former partner w Schulte, Roth, and Zabel, and Eugene, a freelance writer; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

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