Elia Kazan Biography

Born Elia Kazanjoglous, September 7, 1909, in Constantinople, Turkey; died of natural causes, September 28, 2003, in Manhattan, NY. Director and author. Director of stage and screen, Elia (pronounced EE–lee–yah) Kazan played an important role in bringing to life some of America's most treasured plays and movies. His intimate work with playwrights such as Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams transformed Broadway. Kazan was also known for his skill in dealing with actors and helped bring up some of the cinema's enduring stars, including Marlon Brando and Warren Beatty. Controversy followed Kazan for decades after his decision in the 1950s to testify before the House Un–American Activities Committee (HUAC), but his career never suffered.

When Kazan was four years old his father, a rug merchant, moved to New York from Constantinople, Turkey, and shortened the family name from Kazanjoglous to Kazan. The family lived in the Greek section of Harlem for a short time before moving to the suburb of New Rochelle. Despite the shortened name and growing up in the suburbs of New York, Kazan always considered himself an outsider. Expected to become a rug merchant like his father, Kazan decided to take a different route.

Kazan had an interest in film and literature and after high school he entered Williams College. At college, Kazan's sense of isolation and separateness was further enhanced. He was not invited to join a fraternity and instead worked as a bartender and waiter at their social gatherings. Kazan attributed some of his desire to succeed to the revenge fantasies he harbored during his days in college. He decided to study performing arts after seeing the influential film Battleship Potemkin. He graduated with honors in 1930 and attended Yale University Drama School for two years before heading to New York.

In New York, Kazan joined the Group Theatre. He studied as an actor with them and also worked as part of the stage crew. It was with the Group Theatre, which included famed actor and teacher Lee Strasberg and writer Clifford Odets, that Kazan became devoted to the "Method" form of acting—one which asked the actor to find a matching internal emotional truth to mimic the emotion exhibited by the character. Kazan eventually became disillusioned with the Group Theatre, particularly with the influence that the Communist Party held over the group.

Kazan began directing plays in 1935. During that time he was also acting in plays, including several written by Group Theatre member Odets such as Paradise Lost, Golden Boy, and Night Music. In 1940 he had his first film role, playing a gangster in City for Conquest. Despite offers to remain in Hollywood and continue acting, Kazan passed up a long–term contract with Warner Brothers and chose to concentrate on directing. He returned to New York. His first critical success came in 1942 with the comedy Cafe Crown. That same year his direction of Skin of Our Teeth won the New York Drama Critics Award.

It was not long before Kazan was noticed by Hollywood again—this time for his direction. In 1945 he made his directing debut with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, in which he used actual locations in the city for some of the film's scenes instead of sets. The lead actors of the film won Academy Awards for their performances and Kazan went on to direct several other critically acclaimed as well as popularly successful films in the 1940s. Kazan continued to pioneer on–location filming with Boomerang!, which was shot in Connecticut. In 1947, Kazan won an Academy Award for Best Director for Gentleman's Agreement, which starred film icon Gregory Peck. The film addressed the issue of anti–Semitism and also won Best Picture. In 1949, Kazan directed Pinky, which successfully tackled issues of racism.

While his film career was gaining steam, Kazan continued directing award–winning Broadway plays. In 1947, he won a Tony award for his direction of Arthur Miller's All My Sons. His long collaboration with playwright Tennessee Williams began around this time, including his direction of A Streetcar Named Desire, Camino Real, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Sweet Bird of Youth. Kazan also directed the highly successful production of Miller's Death of a Salesman. In 1948, Kazan, along with Lee Strasberg and others, formed the Actors Studio, which produced such stars as Al Pacino and Robert De Niro.

On April 10, 1952, Kazan made the most controversial decision of his life. On that day he appeared before HUAC and listed the names of eight former associates of his, calling them Communists. His personal relationships suffered the most. The testimony led to a long–standing rift between him and Miller. On the other hand, Kazan's directing career suffered little. He went on to direct such films as On the Waterfront, which won eight Oscars. In 1956, his film East of Eden introduced the young James Dean to filmgoing audiences.

Despite continuing success on Broadway—he won the New York Drama Critics award for Sweet Bird of Youth in 1959—Kazan became frustrated with the financial burdens and restrictions becoming prevalent in Broadway productions. He abandoned Broadway and began focusing on writing novels and screenplays. He also left the Actors Studio to co–direct the Lincoln Center Repertory Company. After two disastrous years with the Lincoln Center's first acting company, Kazan resigned.

Through the 1960s and 1970s, Kazan focused even more on writing. As a writer, Kazan wrote six novels and an autobiography. His novels America, America and The Arrangement were turned into films, which he also directed. One of the last films he directed was The Last Tycoon, made in 1976, starring De Niro. In his 1988 autobiography, Kazan said he turned to writing because he was tired of interpreting the work of others.

In 1999, Kazan faced controversy again when he was given a special award by the Motion Picture Academy. Even after 40 years, Kazan was still seen by some as a traitor and his award was protested. Others, including director Martin Scorcese and De Niro, supported the award and Kazan. During the award presentation many audience members withheld applause in protest, while others gave him a standing ovation.

Kazan was married three times. His first wife, playwright Molly Day Thacher, died in 1963 after a 31–year marriage. His second wife, actress Barbara Loden, died after 13 years of marriage. He is survived by his third wife, Frances Rudge, four children, three step–children, six grandchildren, and two great–grandchildren. Kazan died on September 28, 2003, of natural causes; he was 94. Bart Barnes of the Washington Post wrote, "[Kazan was] widely acclaimed as one of the 20th century's most innovative and influential American artists." His direction bolstered the work of American playwrights, introduced some of stage and screen's most influential actors, and created a kind of filmmaking that has influenced generations of movie makers.


E! Online, http://www.eonline.com/News/Items/0,1,12590,00.html?eol.tkr (September 9, 2003); New York Times, September 29, 2003, p. A1, p. A20; Washington Post, September 29, 2003, p. A1, p. A9.

Eve M. B. Hermann

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