Honorary Doctorate Recipient: Diane Baker
Photo courtesy of AAU Publications.
In her 14 years at the Academy of Art University, School of Acting Executive Director Diane Baker’s presence served as a sort of gateway into Hollywood’s past and present. When she and I met in her office at 466 Townsend, she recounted her life for me via anecdote after anecdote. Within each one, she mentions a name or two of someone from her voluminous circle; not on purpose, but that’s just what happens when you speak to someone with a vast network.
Her film connections list a few names that might pop out at you: Some are widely-recognized within the Hollywood circuit—actors such as George Clooney and Mary Steenburgen for example, plus Stacey Snider, co-chairman of 20th Century Fox. Others are from her earlier days, such as directors George Stevens, Mark Robson and Alfred Hitchcock; actors Paul Newman, Joan Crawford, Gregory Peck and Barbara Stanwyck included in the mix.
And let’s not forget to factor in the network she fostered within the Academy: Jack Isgro, Melissa Gray, Melissa Marshall, Shaaron Murphy, Eduardo Rufeisen, Elan Santiago Cuan, Sue Rowley, Damon Sperber, Karen Hirst, Lauren Gee, to name a few. She mentions dozens more at the Academy Spring 2017 Commencement ceremony, where she was recognized with an honorary doctorate for her life’s work as an actor and educator.
Baker’s acting career began in 1959 when she landed her first role as Margot Frank in director George Stevens’ The Diary of Anne Frank. If you comb through her filmography, Baker worked on a movie or TV show—sometimes multiple in a single year—for the subsequent 39 years following her debut, either as an actor or producer.
Honorary doctorate recipient Diane Baker and Dr. Elisa Stephens. Photo by Bob Toy.
For context: She has worked on big and small screen pictures such as Journey to the Center of the Earth (1950); The 300 Spartans (1962); Nine Hours to Rama (1963); Route 66 (1963); Strait-Jacket (1964); Marnie (1964); Mirage (1965); The Fugitive (1967); Mission: Impossible (1979); Never Never Land (1980); The Silence of the Lambs (1991); The Joy Luck Club (1993); The Cable Guy (1996), among many, many more tucked in between this timeline.
The only year where she goes unlisted is 1999, but in 2000, Baker was back on set with roles in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, ER and House. To this day, she primarily produces (including A Woman of Substance, a mini-series with Deborah Kerr and Liam Neeson; Never Never Land starring Petula Clark), but she did mention if the right script came along, she’d be tempted to take on the role.
What is at the center of Baker’s career now is her role as executive director of the School of Acting, which she has held since 2004. She received a call from Mary Scott, director emeritus of the School of Graphic Design and long-time friend of Baker’s. Scott had an important message to relay: Dr. Elisa Stephens asked if Baker would like to help establish the School of Acting.
The idea enticed Baker enough to fly from Los Angeles to meet with the president and her father, Mr. Richard A. Stephens, plus a slew of faculty and figures. The sales pitch was a lengthy discussion but Baker’s answer was a car ride away, when Mr. Stephens drove her to the building that would eventually become Morgan Auditorium.
“What would you do with all this?” was the only question he needed to ask.
“That did it,” she remembered. “I thought Shakespeare, voice, speech, acting, dance, movement. My head was reeling over all the things that, in some part, I wish I had been privy to when I was studying, but also I remember how invaluable it was to have those disciplines.”
As a forever student of Hollywood’s golden age, the philosophies she baked into the School of Acting centered on giving students the opportunity to develop rounded skills and basic foundation (including being on time). She wanted to pass on the fundamentals of those before her—Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner, Uta Hagen—and carry on the traditions that she believes made the good actors great.
“What’s truly important is that you’re not going to be inspired every single day of your life,” she explained. “This fundamental learning is having the skills to save you from falling into an abyss of non-creativity, inability, paralysis. If you’re blank, you can still turn to the rudimentary moves.”
She continued: “Inspiration comes most when you’re free to use your imagination. It’s the daydreamer, it’s looking out of the window—but you have to be free to look out of the window.”
Baker’s own daydreaming for the School of Acting culminated into what it is today: “When I came here, there was no theater, there were no plays being done, there was no sound stage; not one place where a film student could use sound and picture, there was nothing. I fought hard and believed that we could make this happen for the students.” The School of Acting was originally under the School of Motion Pictures & Television until it became its own Academy entity in 2010.
Trying to summarize Baker’s accolades and accomplishments—as an actor and an educator—is a bold endeavor by itself. She’s proud of what she’s achieved, but prefers to not outwardly express it. Instead, she’s first to acknowledge those that stood beside her each step of the way.
Most artists have a difficult time talking about their process, creative or otherwise—after all, inspiration often arrives spur of the moment—so the easiest way to attribute is to point to their comrades. Perhaps, this is where Baker’s pride lies the most: How her own dreams, and the actions to make them true, landed her within many circles of iconic artists. From there, she continued to bring her dreams into fruition with some help from her collaborators—people she simply calls her friends and acquaintances.
“If you get good people around you, they inspire you. I’ve been lucky to have that,” she said to me.
Even after a decades-long career, Baker isn’t short on passion for films and her students. At her commencement speech at the Bill Graham Auditorium on May 11, she spoke to graduates on the power of tradition, imagination and the individual voice. She emphasized on being honest and truthful in their work and daily lives. Above all, she said to remain curious, to always ask questions and to find humanity even in the places it seems unlikely to exist.
“The more you know, the more you have to know,” she said. “Be a positive influence on your own generation and the generations to come. Tell stories that mean something. Some of it may impact someone else’s life and it may even impact your own.”