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September 01, 2011

David Pressman, Award-WInning Director Known for One Life to Live and More

After a prolific career as a stage and TV director, Pressman, whose career was derailed by the Hollywood blacklist, became a key figure in the long-runnig daytime drama One Life to Live, for which he won three Daytime Emmy Awards.

Award-winning director David Pressman died of natural causes on August 29, 2011. He was 97.

A prolific television director who began his career in the medium’s infancy, Pressman had his career interrupted when he was blacklisted during the McCarthy era.

He turned to teaching and directing for the stage before returning to television for a lengthy tenure with the daytime drama One Life to Live.

Born in the eastern European city of Tiblisi, Georgia, on October 10, 1913, Pressman was nine years old when he came to the U.S. with his family, how were traveling musicians with the Russian Grand Opera Company.

A theater aficionado from a young age, Pressman scored a scholarship at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater, where he studied acting with Sanford Meisner.

Later, in Toronto, he began directing theater, and won awards with a socialist acting troupe called Theater for Action.

At the request of Meisner, he returned to the Neighborhood Playhouse as a teaching assistant. His students included Gregory Peck, Eli Wallach and Tony Randall.

Pressman joined the Communist Party during the 1930s. according to news reports, he later explained that he and many others in the arts were drawn to the Communist Party because it supported such integration, civil rights, socialized medicine and other ideas that were regarded as radical at the time.

During his more than 12 years as a teacher at the Neighborhood Playhouse, Pressman also acted in several Broadway productions.

Pressman was drafted into the U.S. Army during WWII. He fought for two years in Europe and earned two Purple Hearts.

After the war, he returned to the Neighborhood Playhouse and was asked to be an original member of the Actors Studio. Instead, he chose to pursue directing for live television, which was growing at the time.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s he received a Peabody Award for directing the live Actors Studio television show. Other shows he directed included Nash Airflyte Theatre, Treasury Men in Action and Cosmopolitan Theater.

As his career was cresting, his political affiliations came under scrutiny as a result of the House Un-American Activities Committee investigation, and he was blacklisted, which halted his television work.

Instead, Pressman went on to establish the acting department at Boston University, which later produced such students as Olympia Dukakis, Joan Baez and Verna Bloom.

He also found work on Broadway, which was not as affected by the blacklist. He directed such plays as The Disenchanted, for which Jason Robards won a Tony, and Summertree.

At Mesiner’s request, Pressman took over the Neighborhood Playhouse, and he ran the school for a decade.

Later, after the blacklist had ended, Pressman returned to directing television with episodes of such series as The Defenders, The Nurses and NYPD.

When Pressman was in his sixties, he began directing the daytime drama One Life to Live, a job he held for the next quarter-century. He retired at 85, having won three Daytime Emmys along the way.

After retiring, he returned to acting in his late eighties with a role on One Life to Live.

Survivors include his wife, three sons, five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

On July 27, 2004, David Pressman had the distinction of being interviewed by the Television Academy Foundation’s Archive of American Television. During the three-hour interview, conducted in New York City, Pressman recounted his arrival in the U.S. from Russia in 1922 and his early interest in acting.

He then talked about acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse in the 1930s and his entrance into WWII in the early 1940s (as well as describing the feeling of returning home from the war, seeing the Statue of Liberty from a porthole on his ship).

Went on to discuss the Actor’s Studio, created in 1947, which he described as a gym for actors. He also spoke in great detail about the prestigious live ABC television drama series Actors Studio that started shortly after the Studio itself opened, and which featured many of the emerging talent at the time.

Later, Pressman talked about appearing as an actor in the very first production of Actors Studio and then becoming one of the series primary directors. He also talked about the process by which the productions were staged and directed for television. He listed the writers, performers, and other talent who worked on the show and the series’ struggle for sponsorship.

Pressman recalled the excitement of working in live television and talked about other anthology series he directed.

In addition, he detailed his struggle to work as a director in television despite the shadow of the Hollywood blacklist, and how he ultimately switched careers to teaching until the end of the blacklist, when he returned to television, notably as a Daytime Emmy Award-winning director of the daytime drama One Life to Live.

The entire interview may be viewed here.

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