© 2003 The New York Times
Recalling John Garfield, Rugged Star KO'd by Fate
By BERNARD WEINRAUBHOLLYWOOD, Jan. 29 2003 Before James Dean and Marlon Brando, before Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, there was John Garfield.
A tough kid who grew up in the 1920's on the streets of the Lower East Side, Brownsville and the Bronx, Garfield (whose original name was Julius Garfinkle) was one of the first dark-haired, working-class ethnic outsiders to turn into a Hollywood star, following the path of actors like James Cagney.
Garfield's chip-on-the-shoulder style and his rugged looks often cast him as a social outsider on the screen: a boxer, a gangster, a soldier. The persona affected actors from the 1950's onward.
His relatively brief but dazzling career was cut short by a heart condition and the Hollywood blacklist. He was never a Communist, but he refused to name those, including his wife, Roberta, who had been. He died of a heart attack in 1952 at 39, and 10,000 fans gathered outside Riverside Memorial Chapel in Manhattan. At the time it was the largest turnout for a celebrity funeral in New York since Rudolph Valentino's.
"He's a forgotten star," said David Heeley, one of the producers of "The John Garfield Story," a documentary that will have its premiere on Turner Classic Movies, the cable channel, on Monday, followed by a festival of 25 Garfield films, to be shown on Mondays through February. "He never lived long enough to become an icon like Humphrey Bogart."
His daughter, Julie Garfield, an acting teacher in New York, put it another way. "He was horribly neglected, forgotten, pushed aside," she said. "It was almost as if Hollywood was so ashamed of what was done to him that they almost made him disappear."
The new film, produced by Mr. Heeley and Joan Kramer, who have made documentaries for PBS about Fred Astaire, Katharine Hepburn, Judy Garland and others, includes interviews with performers like Joanne Woodward, Harvey Keitel and Hume Cronyn, as well as the director Martin Scorsese. Danny Glover has perhaps the most reflective comment. He says actors and audiences identified with Garfield, adding, "What was wonderful about John Garfield's acting is that you felt that in some way his story was your story."
Garfield is most remembered for his role opposite Lana Turner, in Tay Garnett's sexy drama "The Postman Always Rings Twice" (1946), based on James M. Cain's novel. His other films included "Humoresque" (1947), with Joan Crawford; Robert Rossen's classic "Body and Soul" (1947), in which he works his way up from poverty to become a champion boxer at great personal cost; and Abraham Polonsky's "Force of Evil" (1948), in which Garfield was acclaimed for his role as a greedy lawyer for racketeers. He also played the Jewish friend of Gregory Peck's character in Elia Kazan's "Gentlemen's Agreement" (1947), about anti-Semitism. Garfield was nominated twice for Oscars, as a supporting actor for his first film, "Four Daughters" (1938), and as best actor for "Body and Soul."
Garfield's career and life ended tragically. As the documentary recounts, he was a target of the House Un-American Activities Committee during its investigation of Communists in the entertaintment industry. Garfield was one of the few high-profile movie stars rather than lesser-known writers, directors and supporting actors who seemed vulnerable. His wife had briefly been a member of the Communist Party, as were some friends, many from his days at the Group Theater in New York. At a committee hearing Garfield refused to name anyone, and his career was shattered.
"He didn't know what happened to him in the end," Mr. Heeley said. "He didn't understand why they were hounding him. In the end he was scared."
Ms. Garfield, 57, was 6 when her father died. In an interview she spoke about him in a cracked voice: "It killed him, it really killed him. He was under unbelievable stress. Phones were being tapped. He was being followed by the F.B.I. He hadn't worked in 18 months. He was finally supposed to do `Golden Boy' on CBS with Kim Stanley. They did one scene. And then CBS canceled it. He died a day or two later."Ms. Garfield said she had vivid memories of her father. The family lived on Central Park West. "He'd take me to the merry-go-round in Central Park or boating on the lake," she recalled. "He had a fantastic smile. He was so charismatic. People would always come up to him. And he loved it. He loved the attention. He was guileless. I always felt so special." Garfield grew up first on Rivington Street on the Lower East Side, the son of immigrants from Russia. His mother, Hannah Garfinkle, died when he was 7. His father, David, a clothes presser and part-time cantor in a synagogue, was indifferent to him. The family moved to Brownsville in Brooklyn, and then to the Bronx, where the boy spent more time fighting on the streets than in school.
He was placed in P.S. 45, a school for difficult children, where the principal, Angelo Patri, encouraged him to channel his aggression into boxing and put him in speech and drama classes to deal with his stammer. He then arranged a place for Julius in the Heckscher Foundation Drama Workshop, which led to further training with teachers from the Moscow Art Theater and an apprenticeship at Eva Le Gallienne's Civic Repertory Theater.
By 1934 Garfield had joined the Group Theater a founding member, Clifford Odets, was a friend from the Bronx and he began appearing in plays like Odets's "Waiting for Lefty" and "Awake and Sing."
Phoebe Brand, an original member of the Group, recalls in the documentary: "He talked like a New York kid. And we were all very trained actors. And he was refreshing because he came with a freedom of speech that was right off the streets."
Just before his 22nd birthday in 1935, Garfield married his childhood sweetheart from the Bronx, Roberta Seidman. They had three children. Despite numerous separations "Women just swamped him," Ms. Brand said they remained married until he died.
By the late 1930's Garfield's good looks began attracting Hollywood studios. "Four Daughters," a drama about small-town life directed by Michael Curtiz, was an unexpected success, and Garfield's performance drew raves. (A reviewer for The New York Times wrote, "We still aren't sure whether it is the dialogue or Mr. Garfield who is so bitterly brilliant. Our vote, though, is for Mr. Garfield.")
He was placed under a seven-year contract at Warner Brothers and given roles that tapped into his background on the streets. "There was a dead-end quality where Julie was concerned," Mr. Cronyn says in the documentary. "He was a tough hombre."
Warner Brothers groomed Garfield as a successor to Cagney and Edward G. Robinson. But Garfield became restless and was suspended after Warner Brothers refused to loan him to Columbia to make "Golden Boy," an adaptation of the Odets play, in which Garfield had appeared onstage. The film subsequently made a star of William Holden.
During World War II Garfield, rejected for the military because of a heart condition, toured extensively overseas and made acclaimed films, including "Destination Tokyo," "Pride of the Marines," and "The Fallen Sparrow," in which he played a psychologically damaged veteran of the Spanish Civil War. Later Garfield was one of the first actors to set up his own production company, which made some of his most significant films, including "Body and Soul," in which he insisted that Canada Lee, the black actor, appear with him.
"For John Garfield to advocate Canada Lee was an enormous step," Mr. Glover says in the documentary.
Perhaps a contributing factor for Garfield's being forgotten is that most of his movies were in black-and-white, which means television programmers are reluctant to show them.
Ms. Garfield has been striving to have her father recognized in some way during an Academy Awards ceremony, but she said she had received no response to several letters.
Still, his impact is evident on the screen, not only with the stardom of the New York-bred Mr. Pacino and Mr. De Niro, but before them through the work of James Dean and Mr. Brando, who shaped their fictional characters and personal personas as outsiders, as Garfield had.
He once said that actors do not reach maturity until they are 40, a statement that has caused Mr. Heeley to reflect. "You think what would have happened to him had he had 10 or 20 more years," he said.