Retired professor of theater Stephen Cole, who helped establish one of the nation’s first master’s programs in acting at Cornell in the 1960s and whose students included Jimmy Smits, Christopher Reeve and Jane Lynch, died Aug. 11 at Hospicare in Ithaca. He was 82.
Cole was born in New York City, grew up in the Midwest and began a life in the theater performing comedy and dance professionally while in his teens; actor Barnard Hughes was among his early mentors.
A graduate of the University of Iowa and Indiana University, Cole taught at the University of Nebraska before joining Cornell’s Department of Theatre, Film and Dance in 1968, now the Department of Performing and Media Arts in the College of Arts and Sciences.
Many of the students that Cole taught and influenced went on to distinguished film, stage and television careers. In addition to Reeve ’74; Smits, MFA ’82; and Lynch, MFA ’84, they include Catherine Hicks, MFA ’74; William Sadler, MFA ’75; Margaret Reed, MFA ’81; and Richard Tyson, MFA ’85.
“He was a master teacher, dedicated to his students’ personal growth as much as their technical training, and drew many students to the Ithaca campus to study with him,” said his longtime colleague Bruce Levitt, professor of theater.
Cole retired in 2008; in his 40 years at Cornell, he built a legacy on campus and in local theater. In the early 1970s he co-founded the Ithaca Repertory Company, which became Hangar Theatre; and over the years he acted in and directed productions with that company, Kitchen Theatre Company and the Firehouse Theatre, among others.
Cole’s time at Cornell was offset by a nine-year disability leave after a failed heart bypass operation in 1987; following a heart transplant in 1994 and a long recovery, he returned to campus in 1996. “I was very lucky because I was practically dead; I was out of body twice,” he said in a 2008 Cornell Chronicle interview. After decades of using psychological concepts as part of his holistic training of actors, his near-death experience deepened Cole’s interest in the inner self, which he connected to a variety of subsequent theatrical pursuits in later life.
He was active in Compos Mentis, a group of psychologists and volunteers providing cultural and learning activities for people with mental health challenges; and he taught at the IM School of Healing Arts, a four-year program in healing and spiritual learning based in Ithaca and New York City.
The IM School, Levitt said, “as well as his vast theater teaching, directing and performing experiences, informed his relationship with the men of the Phoenix Players Theatre Group at Auburn Correctional Facility, when Cole became their first facilitator.”
Cole remained active as a facilitator with the Phoenix Players until earlier this year. Cole’s daughter, Paula, an associate professor of theater arts at Ithaca College, also facilitates in the prison program, as does Levitt.
Survivors include Paula Murray Cole of Ithaca and Leslie Dixon of Georgetown, Texas.