Daniel Caldwell, Influential Drama Teacher, Dies


By Raqshan Khan

Former Tam student and visionary drama teacher Daniel Caldwell, who founded Tam’s Conservatory Theater Ensemble (CTE), died on March 15 at age 79 due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease.

Born in 1935, Caldwell attended Tam for three years before transferring to Sir Francis Drake High School when it opened in 1951. He graduated in 1952. After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees from San Francisco State University, Caldwell worked as an actor and director. He was also president of the San Francisco branch of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) in the 1970s as well as a national vice president for the SAG.
Caldwell began his work at Tam in the 1970s and founded the CTE program in 1976. Instead of holding CTE productions solely as after school activities, Caldwell’s program created a student-run business that functioned during school and had a class curriculum.

Michelle Swanson, who helped Caldwell develop CTE in its early years, said that Caldwell seemed drawn to Tam despite connections he had to higher-profile acting opportunities. “He was very, very well connected to all the actors in, really, the country,” Swanson said. “And it was always very moving to me that he chose to spend his life at Tam High because he certainly could have gone another way….He really loved young actors and young people who were trying to practice a craft.” Caldwell’s program model throws students into more than just the acting involved in drama. Students are part of the acting, production, set design, costume design, and much more.

“When I went to do my first movie, he gave me some of the best advice,” said Courtney Thorne-Smith, a former student of Caldwell’s. “[He said that if] you’re gonna be on a movie set, people will offer to get you coffee or whatever you want. They can get you coffee, or you can get your own and make 200 friends. Meaning if you act like a worker among workers on the set, you’ll be friends with the entire crew. And I took that to heart.” Smith has played roles such as Alison Parker on the television show “Melrose Place” and her recurring role on the show “Two and a Half Men” as Lindsey McElroy.

As a teacher, Caldwell put as much effort into his work with his students as he had in his professional life. “He set the bar high,” said Amanda Rowam, another of Caldwell’s former students.

Swanson also spoke of Caldwell’s effect on her life outside of theater. “He was one of the great mentors of my life,” she said. “He was enormously supportive of you as a person and as an artist.”

Quin Gordon, a former student and a current drama teacher at The University of North Carolina School of Arts spoke of Caldwell’s effect on his life. “My experience when working with young artists is that they are often so lacking in belief and that’s the big obstacle,” Gordon said. “They just don’t have enough belief in themselves and [Caldwell] was one of the first teachers that I’ve felt really and truly trusted me and put responsibility in me and believed in me and got me to believe in myself.”