From Hackley to Hollywood to Horticulture: Peter Strauss ’65 Reflects on His Life and Legacy

Written by Alexi Sandhu '18 

In a career that’s spanned more than half a century of work in television, film, and theater, including an Emmy and 5 Golden Globe nominations, Peter Strauss ’65 has literally done it all and then some. During a series of in depth Zoom conversations, Alexi Sandhu ’18 spoke with Peter about his time on the Hilltop, what he’s done since graduating, and the ways in which he continues to reinvent himself and pursue his personal passions. Peter is living proof that you’re never too old to become who you might have been.

It’s a warm day in Ojai, California, judging from the glare of the sun just offscreen in the Zoom video. A clean kitchen with a warm, earthy orange and brown color palette makes up the background. Some papers on the island countertop and an array of magnets and notes on the fridge door provide a peek into the domestic life of the residents of this home. It’s a refreshing scene compared to the jet lag, fancy hotels, and publicity agents that usually accompany interviews with Peter Strauss.

Mr. Strauss attended Hackley from 1961 to 1965. He then studied in the School of Communications at Northwestern University and graduated in 1969 with a bachelor’s degree in theater. His most noted acting credits include the television miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man, which garnered multiple Emmy and Golden Globe nominations and awards, and the television film The Jericho Mile for which he won an Emmy.

Before all that success, however, Mr. Strauss was just a kid from Croton, New York. Mr. Strauss didn’t have a great home environment. It was two things, theater and Phil Havens, that saved Mr. Strauss’s life. Despite having below-average grades, Mr. Havens, then the Director of Admissions, accepted Mr. Strauss to Hackley. Without having gone to Hackley, Mr. Strauss may not have been scouted by Northwestern University recruiters who invited him to join an acting program the summer before his senior year at Hackley.

Phil Havens passed away in 2018, but there is not a moment that goes by that Mr. Strauss does not remember Mr. Havens especially in his memories of Hackley. His senior year, Mr. Strauss decided that he was going to win the Hackley marathon. “The man standing at the finish line, watching the kids come across, the man there was Phil Havens…and when I crossed that finish line, I saw something in his face where I felt I confirmed his belief in me,” says Mr. Strauss. He considers winning the Hackley marathon to be one of his fondest memories.
When asked about his theater career at Hackley, Mr. Strauss wastes no time in grabbing a binder full of laminated photos from Hackley productions he either acted in or directed. He didn’t recall a formal acting program at Hackley before he founded Workshop 14 (named after the initial 14 members), which put on productions such as Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar performed as a theater in the round in modern dress.

Not all of Mr. Strauss’s fond Hackley memories are of a thespian nature. Mr. Strauss is quick to confess to his “rabble rouser” past. Although he is coy on the details, he insists that they were all fun memories. Despite spending many weekends “on bounds” during which he would have to remain on campus, Mr. Strauss still recalls trying to go to Dobbs Ferry to meet girls. “The only way you could do that was through Glee Club,” explained Mr. Strauss. “Glee Club guys were the guys you looked up to more than the football players, because they got to sing with the Whiffenpoofs at Yale and if you were in the Glee Club, you got to go to mixers, and you could meet girls, and you could have dances. So, of course, I joined Glee Club. I couldn’t sing, but that didn’t matter.”

In addition to being a member of the Glee Club, Mr. Strauss was also captain of boys’ varsity soccer, president of Black & Grey Key, and a writer for the Dial. Other Hackley memories range from the iconic (the feared yet remarkable English teacher Mr. Arthur Naething) to the tragic (hearing the announcement of John F. Kennedy’s death on the radio in Mr. Harry Gratwick’s history class). So how did this kid from Croton and Hackley graduate react to his newfound fame on television? After the second episode of Rich Man, Poor Man, Mr. Strauss was asked to be on Good Morning America. After being confronted with a mob at the airport, Mr. Strauss recalls hiding in his hotel room. “I was not prepared psychologically for that,” explained Mr. Strauss, “So I went to Europe and hid for a year. I made a bad mistake. As opposed to pursuing the huge success of the show, I ran away from it.”

Despite being notable for his television success, Mr. Strauss is careful about emphasizing his roots in classical theater. In fact, Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew was Mr. Strauss’s first foray into acting back when he went to school in Croton. At Northwestern, a professor offered an A to anyone who could continue a relatively unknown line from Hamlet. Mr. Strauss not only continued the line, but recited the entire monologue and made sure to hold the professor to his word about receiving that A.

That discipline as an actor is what drew crowds of fans to the airport after his role in Rich Man, Poor Man yet Mr. Strauss credits that discipline as one of the many values he learned at Hackley. “If you look at the world today, and you look at politics and business, I would say there sure is a dearth of moral code,” says Mr. Strauss, “and so it’s even more important than ever for Hackley to emphasize those value systems.” Mr. Strauss can’t credit any particular class or lecture at Hackley, but rather cites his entire Hackley experience as providing him with a moral compass and an ethical code for life.

Throughout the interview, Mr. Strauss makes sure to keep the side door ajar the whole time. His passion for nature and horticulture is evident from the number of plants that can be seen lining the garden path right outside. The pandemic may have put some people’s lives on hold, but not for Peter Strauss. Currently, he is working on a project on his property to recreate the four great deserts of the Americas: the Great Basin, the Mojave, the Sonoran, and the Chihuahuan deserts. That same dedication that Mr. Strauss has applied to his acting career has aided him in his meticulous task of researching the plants endemic to each environment. “In some instances, I either didn’t have the alpine cold of the Great Basin [or] I had to be wary of frost that I get here for some of the more Sonoran desert plants,” explained Mr. Strauss. “I don’t know my kids’ birthdays, but I know all my plants in Latin,” jokes Mr. Strauss.

While on his ranch, Mr. Strauss often hears numerous bird calls and is reminded of Mr. Art King’s biology class where they had studied the birds in Hackley’s forest. Likewise, Mr. Strauss wants to use these desert recreations as a learning tool. This spring, he will be speaking with Ms. Tessa Johnson’s biology class about his Deserts of the America’s project regarding how desert plants adapt to survive in harsh conditions. Previously, Mr. Strauss gave a talk to Hackley acting students on public speaking; which he also teaches classes on in his local community of Ojai as well. His three tips on public speaking for high schoolers are to be knowledgeable about the subject, believe in the subject, and practice, practice, practice. 

When Mr. Strauss first heard about Hackley’s proposed the Center for the Creative Arts and Technology, his immediate thought was “What could I bring to the school?” Mr. Strauss believes that the value of the arts lies in their ability to generate creativity in people. Just like “to be or not to be” can be read in a myriad of ways, Mr. Strauss never believes in a singular answer or solution for any question, which is a skill he feels can be applied to all sorts of careers. Together with his wife, Rachel Ticotin, an accomplished actress, dancer, and director at the LaGuardia school, they have set up a foundation that donates to local community programs and schools including their alma maters to support classical arts education and performance opportunities for youths. Rachel worked especially hard this past spring to allow her students to virtually audition for and put on one of the school’s famous spring shows that are often attended by talent scouts.

Mr. Strauss is still quite the troublemaker as he pulls out a copy of his yearbook. “I don’t know why I’ve got this one,” he says as he opens the inside cover to reveal the words ‘Headmaster’s office,’ but Mr. Strauss thinks it best if “we won’t even acknowledge it,” he says smiling. Although he can excitedly name all of his former classmates in old theater photos, Mr. Strauss’s biggest regret is that he wasn’t able to stay in touch with his former classmates. “When you move into the performing arts, you’re living a different life than most people who might be in business and can interact [with each other.] You’re isolated, you’re traveling, you’re on location,” explains Mr. Strauss. However, Mr. Strauss hopes that “maybe through this [interview]...I can reestablish some ties with them.”

Mr. Strauss has thought about his legacy a few times over his life. At first, he thought about what would outlive him. Perhaps it would be the preservation of his acting career through old footage in archives or perhaps it would be his garden and the plants and cacti that he hoped would thrive and live on. Now, though, the true legacy he would like to leave behind are his children smiling. “If my children can laugh, I’ve done a good job in the world,” says Mr. Strauss. It’s been three weeks since Mr. Strauss’ first grandchild was born, yet he still hasn’t held his grandchild nor even his own son. The painful absence has made Mr. Strauss realize at this stage in his life that the most important thing is “to be surrounded by people you love, and to be capable of loving.”

Alexi Sandhu ’18, a former member of the Dial staff as a writer and online editor, shares Hackley, Northwestern, and Hackley Theater in common with Peter Strauss. She’s a junior studying Journalism at Northwestern’s Medill School. Alexi is also minoring in Asian American Studies and Business.