Profound Actor-Mentor Relationships That Lit Up the Screen


Jodie Foster played a child prostitute in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver . She was only 12 years old at the time, but had already established herself as a prolific presence in commercials and television. The film took the young star onto the gritty New York City streets opposite the intense and chillingly effective Robert De Niro as the unhinged Travis Bickle. The 33-year-old actor’s methods inspired a career revelation for Foster, who admits she was cocksure when she showed up on set. “I felt like I was the veteran there,” the actress revealed.

This kind of actor-mentor relationship has been prevalent throughout Hollywood since the Golden Age of cinema. Stars guiding other stars and sharing their wisdom has proven crucial for many now iconic actors who sought to perfect their screen personae. We took a look at a few famous actor-mentor duos — including that of Foster and De Niro — below.

Jodie Foster and Robert De Niro

Website Beyond the Frame shared Foster’s revelation about acting, realized during rehearsals with De Niro for the 1976 film. She echoed the same sentiment during her Inside the Actor’s Studio interview. “It hit me like a lightning bolt,” she said of the experience.

“By the time I got the role in Taxi Driver, I’d already made more stuff than De Niro or Martin Scorsese. I’d been working from the time I was three years old. So even though I was only twelve, I felt like I was the veteran there.

De Niro took me aside before we started filming. He kept picking me up from my hotel and taking me to different diners. The first time he basically didn’t say anything. He would just, like, mumble. The second time he started to run lines with me, which was pretty boring because I already knew the lines. The third time, he ran lines with me again and now I was really bored. The fourth time, he ran lines with me, but then he started going off on these completely different ideas within the scene, talking about crazy things and asking me to follow in terms of improvisation.

So we’d start with the original script and then he’d go off on some tangent and I’d have to follow, and then it was my job to eventually find the space to bring him back to the last three lines of the text we’d already learned.

It was a huge revelation for me, because until that moment I thought being an actor was just acting naturally and saying the lines someone else wrote. Nobody had ever asked me to build a character. The only thing they’d ever done to direct me was to say something like ‘Say it faster’ or ‘Say it slower.’ So it was a whole new feeling for me, because I realized acting was not a dumb job. You know, I thought it was a dumb job. Somebody else writes something and then you repeat it. Like, how dumb is that?

There was this moment, in some diner somewhere, when I realized for the first time that it was me who hadn’t brought enough to the table. And I felt this excitement where you’re all sweaty and you can’t eat and you can’t sleep.

Changed my life.”

Dennis Hopper and James Dean

“I thought I was the best young actor in the world. Then I met James Dean. I’d never seen acting like that before. He was way over my head,” Hopper once said about his experience working on Nicholas Ray’s teen drama Rebel Without a Cause. Hopper was only 18 at the time and had just signed with Warner Bros. for a $200 per week deal that cast him as a gang member in the film. After being floored by Dean’s technique, Hopper approached him to find out what his method was. Dean advised him to stop having preconceived notions about how a scene would unfold, and told him to tap into his hatred of his parents and play “on a moment to moment reality level.” Find out more about Hopper’s relationship with his mentor in this audio interview, where the Blue Velvet villain says Dean once described himself in the following way: “In one hand I have Marlon Brando saying, ‘Go fuck yourself.’ In the other hand I have Montgomery Cliff saying, ‘Please forgive me’ — and somewhere in-between is James Dean.” No wonder Hopper loved him.

Kevin Spacey and Jack Lemmon

The Usual Suspects star Kevin Spacey admired Some Like it Hot actor Jack Lemmon immensely. Lemmon wasn’t your traditional leading man, but his familiarity and the integrity he brought to his roles immediately hooked Spacey as a kid. Lemmon became a mentor and father figure to the young actor, and their working relationship spanned many projects — including a Broadway production of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night and real estate drama Glengarry Glen Ross. Spacey discussed his personal history with Lemmon in an interview:

“When I was 14 years old I met Jack Lemmon for the first time. I went to this seminar and he signed an autograph for me, which I still have to this day. I stood next to him and asked him questions about being an actor. He talked to me for like 15 minutes and told me what I ought to do: go to New York and study. He was so warm and encouraging and 11 years later I got an audition for a play that he was starring in. I ended up working with him for a full year doing that play and we ended up doing four things together. He became sort of a second father to me, particularly when my father passed away. You don’t need any lesson in the world about how to treat other human beings or about professionalism then to be in the presence of Jack Lemmon.”

Heath Ledger and Mel Gibson

The late Heath Ledger first got noticed in the teen romantic comedy 10 Things I Hate About You, and his role as Mel Gibson’s son in 2000’s Patriot marked the start a successful career. Gibson became a mentor to the impressionable, talented star, who admitted he was extremely nervous to work closely with someone he admired so much. “I learned a lot socially, and professionally about the industry and the way he tackles it. I guess I also learned a lot about just relaxing and relaxing on set, and not over preparing, not over thinking,” Ledger admitted in an interview.

“But he’s also just such a gentleman, such a lovely, lovely guy, and that pleasantly surprised me. I do know that it’s not everyone in his position is as friendly as he is. He’s a blockbuster, he’s a superhero amongst the industry. He’s really just levelheaded, truly, he walked to the beat of life in such a wonderful way. I was honored to be part of that and part of him. I was very excited to work with him, and extremely nervous. God, when I first turned up on set I was literally shaking in my boots, but he just put me at ease straightaway.”

Lucille Ball and Buster Keaton

Author Kathleen Brady described the mentor relationship that TV and film icon Lucille Ball shared with legendary comedic actor Bustor Keaton in her biography Lucille: The Life of Lucille Ball . The silent film star took her under his wing when she found herself fired from MGM after appearing in a slew of showgirl and gangster moll roles during the 1930s and 1940s. Keaton convinced Columbia Pictures’ president Harry Cohn to hire her, and Lucy apparently spent most of her time hanging out at the Boors Nest — the name of the office Keaton shared with director Ed Sedgwick who later became godfather to the actress’ children. Brady writes:

“The jokes, reminiscences, and reenactment of well-loved movie bits that filled the Boors Nest were more than an exercise in nostalgia. For the aging men, they kept the withering muscles of their comedy in shape. For Lucille, they provided informal professional training. Keaton was a master of props and sight gags, an amateur inventor who built replicas of the Golden Gate Bridge and miniature railroad trestle that won first prize at a hobby show. In his films, the put-upon, sad sack character he played relentlessly battled motorcycles, trains, steamships and other developments of the modern age. Up in the Boors Nest, Keaton taught Lucille how to command props and how to throw herself into physical maneuvers without hurting herself. Speedy, rambunctious Lucille learned to slow down and refine action. Keaton drilled her in the mantra that was the foundation of her fabled comic timing: Listen, React, then Act. She learned to hear whatever another character said or did, respond to it and then perform an appropriate action. If, as so often happened in her comedy, a boat or barrel sprung a leak, she discovered it, gasped and plugged the spouting hole, sometimes by sitting on it. Keaton watched her from the corners of the set while she was filming and later made suggestions on how she might improve.

Miss Grant Takes Richmond, her first film under her new Columbia agreement, showed that Keaton’s belief in her was justified. Lucille played a public-spirited secretary, a character so ditsy that watching her is like standing before a photographer’s developing tray and seeing a photograph of Lucy Ricardo gradually emerge.”

Elizabeth Taylor and Spencer Tracy

“He was one of the people I think I learned from. He had a stillness, a quietness about him that spoke more than volumes, and it just was mesmerizing. He could play anything, any role and he just drew you in,” Elizabeth Taylor told Larry King about her mentor Spencer Tracy — who called the young talent “The Kid.” The duo appeared in the 1950 comedy Father of the Bride as father and daughter, which was a fitting parallel to their working relationship.

Susan Tyrrell and Candy Darling

Cult cinema fans just said goodbye to actress Susan Tyrrell of Fat City fame. The actress hand a penchant for playing wild, eccentric, and fiercely individual characters — a lifelong type that seems to have been inspired by transsexual Warhol superstar and actress Candy Darling. The two became best friends after Tyrrell moved to New York City in the 1960s and moved in with Darling. “She was so velvet, so helpless, and so funny and beautiful,” Tyrrell said of her mentor. “She was in Vogue, she was ravishing, yet so tacky. She had no teeth in front, two were rotted out; she looked like Ollie from Kukla, Fran and Ollie with this fang that came down.”

Diane Keaton and Warren Beatty

In a post Annie Hall world, Diane Keaton fell in love with Reds co-star Warren Beatty. The stoic leading man highly regarded her as a talented actress and not just a love interest. “She approaches a script sort of like a play in that she has the entire script memorized before you start doing the movie, which I don’t know any other actors doing that,” he once said. Beatty’s professional attentions meant everything to Keaton. “Once Warren chooses to shine his light on you, there’s no going back,” she wrote in her memoir. “I wanted to be Warren Beatty, not love him.”

Catherine O’Hara and Gilda Radner

As funny lady Gilda Radner’s comedic star was rising, a young understudy was watching her from the wings during their time at improv troupe Second City. Beetlejuice and For Your Consideration actress Catherine O’Hara considered Radner her sounding board in those early days. Eventually Radner left for Saturday Night Live, where O’Hara almost followed (she replaced Ann Risley, but soon quit) before deciding to move on to other projects.

Robin Williams and Jonathan Winters

If you’re wondering where Robin Williams got his shtick from, just take one look at improv genius Jonathan Winters. The It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World star’s characters and unique voices swept a young Williams off his feet, and their later on-screen interplay is fun to watch. Winters gently poked at Williams’ adoration of him during a video interview:

“When I first met him, they chose me to do the baby of all things, as Mearth, on Mork and Mindy. I had only seen Robin a couple of times and thought he he was funny. And now I’m his dad’s age. So he said, ‘Pops, God’ he said, ‘I love your stuff, I love ya. And we’re gonna have a good time.’ And, and we did. He said he started talking to people after the show about being interviewed and what’s it like to work with Jonathan Winters, and he said time and again, ‘Jonathan is my mentor.’ And I turned to him, and I said one day, ‘Don’t say mentor anymore, I’ll tell you why. In Ohio they think that’s a salve. Say idol, we all know that. See, mentor’s a little cutie stuff.'”