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Writer-director Elia Kazan dies at 94

Two-time Academy Award winner directed Brando in ‘On the Waterfront’
/ Source: The Associated Press

Elia Kazan, the Academy Award-winning director of such influential films as “On the Waterfront” and “A Streetcar Named Desire” whose stage and screen career was haunted by his conduct during the McCarthy era, has died. He was 94.

Kazan was at his home in Manhattan when he died, said his lawyer, Floria Lasky. She did not give a cause of death.

“A genius left us,” said Lasky. “He was one of the greats.”

Five of the plays he staged won Pulitzer Prizes for their authors: “The Skin of Our Teeth,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Death of a Salesman,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “J.B.,” for which Kazan himself won a Tony Award. Other stage credits included “Camino Real,” “Sweet Bird of Youth” and “Tea and Sympathy.”

In Hollywood, he won Oscars for directing “Gentleman’s Agreement” and “On the Waterfront.” He also did “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” the film version of “Streetcar,” “East of Eden,” “Splendor in the Grass,” “A Face in the Crowd” and “The Last Tycoon.”

“We were as close as an actor and director could be,” said Karl Malden, who starred in some of the director’s biggest films, including “On the Waterfront,” “Streetcar” and “Baby Doll.”

Malden said Kazan would often take long walks with actors he considered hiring. Kazan needed to understand the actor in order to know how to trigger an actor’s emotions on screen and on stage, Malden said, “so that if he hired you he knew more about you than you did yourself.”

Kazan turned to writing in his 50s and produced six novels — including several best sellers — and an autobiography. The first two novels, “America, America” and “The Arrangement,” he also made into movies.

“Even when I was a boy I wanted to live three or four lives,” he once said.

Naming names in the McCarthy Era
To some, Kazan diminished his stature when he went before the House Committee on Un-American Activities during the McCarthy era and named people he said had been members of the Communist Party with him in the mid-1930s.

But he insisted years later that he bore no guilt as a result of what some saw as a betrayal. “There’s a normal sadness about hurting people, but I’d rather hurt them a little than hurt myself a lot,” he said.

In early 1999, leaders of the motion picture academy announced they would give Kazan a special Academy Award for his life’s work. The decision reopened wounds and touched off a painful controversy.

On awards night, some in the audience withheld applause, though others gave him a warm reception. Director Martin Scorsese and actor Robert De Niro presented the award.

“I thank you very much. I really like to hear that and I want to thank the Academy for its courage, generosity,” Kazan said.

He started out as a stage actor but his ambition was to direct, which he began doing in the mid-1930s. The breakthrough came when he staged Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth” in 1942 and won a New York Drama Critics Award.

He first teamed with Arthur Miller to direct “All My Sons” and went on to do “Death of a Salesman,” which one critic termed “as exciting and devastating a theatrical blast as the nerves of modern playgoers can stand.”

His Broadway collaboration with Tennessee Williams began with “Streetcar” in 1947 and later included “Camino Real,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “Sweet Bird of Youth.”

“He approaches a play more critically than anyone I know; you find yourself doing more revisions for him than for any other director,” Williams once said.

The Actors Studio
Kazan, Lee Strasberg and other Group Theatre alumni founded the Actors Studio in 1948, which became a sort of spiritual home for theater people. Actors liked Kazan’s approach to directing.

“Some directors regard actors as a necessary evil; others, as children to be handled,” actress Mildred Dunnock once said, adding that Kazan treated actors “like an equal. Once he casts you, he makes you confident.”

Carroll Baker, who played the Lolita-like character in “Baby Doll,” said Kazan was especially important in launching the careers of young actors at the Actors Studio, where she met him.

“You got in on your talent and you didn’t have to pay anything,” she said. “Kazan was a real actor’s director. He discovered a lot of people and he knew how to use you to get the best performance out of you.”

Kazan left Broadway and the Actors Studio in 1962 to co-direct, with Robert Whitehead, the Lincoln Center Repertory Company. He resigned after two disastrous seasons, saying he was “not an administrator by taste.”

His friendship with Miller was never the same after his congressional testimony. Kazan talked with Miller before he testified, and Miller later wrote in his journal about a side of his friend that he had not seen before: “He would have sacrificed me as well.”

Kazan told the committee that he had joined a unit of the Communist Party made up of members of the Group Theatre in the summer of 1934 and left 18 months later, disillusioned at “being told what to think and say and do.”

Playwright Clifford Odets, actress Phoebe Brand and Paula Miller, Strasberg’s actress-wife, were among the eight he identified as communists.

He defended his naming names on the ground that all were already known to the committee; others have said that at least half were not.

Some critics saw in as a subtext of “On the Waterfront” a justification for Kazan’s decision to cooperate with congressional Red hunters. The movie’s hero, portrayed by Marlon Brando, breaks the code of silence on the docks and courageously fingers a corrupt, murderous union boss in televised hearings.

In his 1988 autobiography, an 848-page tome titled “Elia Kazan — A Life,” Kazan wrote candidly of the many affairs he had over the years, including one with Marilyn Monroe.

“The affairs I’ve had were sources of knowledge; they were my education,” he wrote. “For many years, in this area and only in this area, I’ve used the lie, and I’m not proud of that. But I must add this: My ‘womanizing’ saved my life. It kept the juices pumping and saved me from drying up, turning to dust and blowing away.”

Taking to the pen Kazan once said he turned to writing because “I wanted to say exactly what I felt. I like to say what I feel about things directly and no matter whose play you direct or how sympathetic you are to the playwright, what you finally are trying to do is interpret his view of life. ... When I speak for myself I get a tremendous sense of liberation.”

Born Elia Kazanjoglous on Sept. 7, 1909, in what was then Constantinople, Turkey, he was the son of a Greek rug merchant. The family came to New York when Kazan was 4 and he grew up in a Greek neighborhood in Harlem and later suburban New Rochelle.

He went to Williams College, where he picked up the nickname Gadget — “I guess because I was small, compact and eccentric,” he once said. Shortened to Gadge, it was a name that stuck — and one that he came to loathe.

During his senior year he saw Sergei Eisenstein’s film “Potemkin” and focused on the performing arts. After graduating with high honors, he attended the Yale University Drama School, then joined the Group Theatre in New York in 1933.

Kazan, a short, stocky intense man, preferred casual dress and was direct in social dealings.

“Gadge is the kind of man who sends a suit out to be cleaned and rumpled,” actress Vivien Leigh once remarked. “He doesn’t believe in social amenities and, if he is bored by any individual or group, he simply departs without apology or explanation.”

Kazan married three times. With first wife Molly Day Thatcher he had four children, Judy, Chris, Nick and Katharine. After her death he married Barbara Loden and they had two sons, Leo and Marco. She died of cancer in 1967; in 1982 he married Frances Rudge.