Theatre yesterday and today



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In writing these columns, I often try and tie them in a bit to what occurred on a given date in theatre history. So yesterday, while staring at the blank screen for awhile, I finally hit upon something to write about … and then the day got away from me. That’s because (historical or not) it was my birthday. I was born March 4, 1957 — exactly sixty years ago. And I am reveling in it.

I feel like I’m a better person now than I was at twenty, thirty, forty or fifty, mostly because I’ve lived a long time by this point and have matured (somewhat) and learned from my mistakes (hopefully). 2017 is looking like it’s going to be one of my best years yet, even while living in fear that the country may have one of its worst. The irony isn’t lost on me that while never feeling more self-assured, I am less positive about the world around me. Talk about a dichotomy.But getting back to theatre history, I have always shared my March 4th birthday with an actor born in 1913, who is (unfortunately) largely unknown today. But through the 1930s and ’40s, he had an intensity on both stage and screen that made him the precursor to James Dean, Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando. In fact, he was offered (and turned down) Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire before Brando’s name was brought into the conversation. His name was John Garfield, born Jules Garfinkle, (forever called Julie by his friends) and was close to being Hollywood’s sole Jewish leading man of the 1940s.

John Garfield publicity photo, circa 1940

Garfield came up the hard way, born on the Lower East Side of New York to Jewish immigrants from Zhytomyr (now a part of the Ukraine). After his mother’s death when he was only seven, his father, a clothes presser and part-time cantor, raised him. Later, after his father remarried, the move to a rough and tumble Bronx neighborhood made a boxer out of him, more out of self-defense due to his short stature. It would come in handy as he portrayed boxers in more than a few of his Hollywood films.

As a teenager, Garfield was something of delinquent, a gang leader and a terrible student. When his parents enrolled him in a school for difficult children, it was at this last place for hope and redemption where an insightful teacher saw the actor in Garfield and introduced him to the world of the theatre. Along the way, he came under the tutelage of Richard Boleslavski and Maria Ouspenskaya, seeped in the works of Konstantin Stanislavski with whom they studied in their native Russia, and whose teachings would begin the spread of what would later become “the Method.”

In the early 1930s, Stanislavski devotees and future major theatre directors Elia Kazan, Robert Lewis and Harold Clurman, formed the decidedly left-wing and extremely influential Group Theatre, of which Garfield was a founding member. Playwrights such as Sidney Kingsley, Irwin Shaw and especially Clifford Odets, wrote specifically for “The Group,” of which John Garfield was one of its brightest young stars alongside Lee J. Cobb, Morris Carnovsky, Frances Farmer and Franchot Tone.

But when casting began for what would become one of the Group Theatre’s most successful productions, Clifford Odets’s Golden Boy, its director Harold Clurman had a problem, which he wrote about in The Fervent Years, his autobiographical book about the company. “Odets had promised the central role to Jules Garfield — Odets, like many playwrights, had a habit of making promises to actors even before he had written a word of his script. Garfield was obviously the type, but he had neither the pathos nor the variety, in my opinion, to sustain the role.” This was not an opinion shared by Garfield. When Clurman cast Luther Adler, another group member —and the brother of Clurman’s soon-to-be wife — Stella, later to become one of the most famous acting teachers in America, Garfield had to settle for the supporting comedy role of Ziggie in the play. He was so incensed about it, he took off for Hollywood mid-run, earning the enmity of his fellow Group members.

Garfield got off to an auspicious start, nominated for his debut in 1938's Four Daughters for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. The New York Times critic wrote that he “bites off his lines with a delivery so eloquent that we still aren’t sure whether it is the dialogue or Mr. Garfield who is so bitterly brilliant.” But the role was a secondary one to a female star and with the serious theatre work behind him that won him his Warner Bros. contract, he was yearning to play parts offering greater challenges than just playing an ingenue. He thought that role would be the one Odets claimed to have written for him and which he already lost out on, but the film adaptation of Golden Boy went to another up and coming young actor, William Holden, which launched what would be a major film career.

Garfield struggled a bit with the tribulations of being a contract player in Hollywood, often taking work that didn’t entirely please his artistic ethics. He would return to the theatre periodically, even once more to the Group Theatre before it dissolved in 1941. One of his best parts on film was a supporting one he did not only as a favor to the film’s director, his old friend Elia Kazan, but because he thought the part was an important one. The same year he was up for Best Actor in Body and Soul (as a boxer), he appeared in a small but vital role in Gentlemen’s Agreement, which would win that year’s Best Picture Oscar. In Moss Hart’s screenplay, based on the book by Laura Z. Hobson, Garfield was best friend to journalist Gregory Peck, who decides to write a piece on anti-semitism by posing as a Jew to find out personally what discrimination was like. Garfield, as his Jewish best friend, steals every scene he’s in. Peck, who always had a somewhat wooden quality (never used more effectively than as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird), is barely noticeable when sharing the screen with Garfield.

John Garfield and Gregory Peck in “Gentlemen’s Agreement” (1947)

Very shortly after what was the best year of his career, everything changed for Garfield. He, among so many others, was the victim of the Hollywood witch hunt, otherwise known as the blacklist. Called to testify before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, he refused to name names and all film work ended as a result. He took to the stage for employment since film work was scarce, and in an ironic turn, returned to Broadway in a 1952 revival of Golden Boy, finally performing the role he had once hoped to originate. But in that same year, the scarlet fever he contracted as a child, and only properly diagnosed years later in adulthood, was now permanently damaging his heart. With the pressures of supporting his family, and work difficult hard to come by, Garfield succumbed to a heart attack on May 20th, 1952. He was thirty-nine years old.

It has been written that Garfield’s funeral was the largest in New York since Rudolph Valentino’s, with over ten thousand people crowding the streets outside.


I’ll close with a story told to me by the prolific theatre producer Emanuel Azenberg when I interviewed him in 2013: “When I was fourteen, I went to see my uncle, who was an actor, in a play called Skipper Next to God. It starred John Garfield, who I loved because he grew up in the Bronx like I did. Afterwards, I’m backstage and I pass Garfield’s dressing room and instead of a star on the door it had a Jewish star and it says “Julie,” which was his real first name. Julie Garfinkle. You gotta love that.”

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available for pre-order exclusively from Griffith Moon Publishing.