Elia Kazan, Influential Stage and Film Master, Is Dead at 94

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28 Sep 2003

Elia Kazan
Elia Kazan
Elia Kazan, the influential and controversial stage and film director who had a critical impact on post-World War II American theatre, died at his New York home on Sept. 27. He was 94.

In the 1940s and 1950s, no American director was as important or prominent as Mr. Kazan. He created the original stagings of Arthur Miller's two first major plays, All My Sons and Death of a Salesman, his efforts going a long way toward establishing Miller as a leading American playwright.

He was also a force in the career of Miller's leading contemporary, but tempermental opposite, Tennessee Williams, directed A Streetcar Named Desire, Sweet Bird of Youth, Camino Real and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Mr. Kazan's flair for stage pictures, ability to tap into the underlying psychology of a story and talent for eliciting unforgettable performances from his actors (he began as an actor himself, working with the renowned Group Theatre) helped etch these productions into the theatre history books, as well as into the minds of audiences.

Mr. Kazan also directed the original productions of such important works as The Skin of Our Teeth, Tea and Sympathy, J.B., One Touch of Venus and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs.

In 1963, he and producer Robert Whitehead became the first directors of Lincoln Center Theater, which, at the time, was intended to become America's national theatre. But, after directing Miller's poorly received After the Fall and two other plays, Mr. Kazan, frustrated with the theatre world in general, left in 1965, never to return to stage work. In an interview years later, the always outspoken Mr. Kazan said, "There is no damn theatre anymore...It's boring and archaic." He had previously abandoned Broadway work, saying the rising costs made his job impossible. He directed his first film in 1945, and devoted himself to movies more and more as the years passed, producing such classics as "Gentleman's Agreement," "East of Eden," "A Streetcar Named Desire," "Baby Doll," "Splendor in the Grass," "Panic in the Streets," "Viva Zapata!" and "On the Waterfront."



The last title—about a Brooklyn longshoreman, played by Marlon Brando, who strikes out against a brutal mob boss in control of the waterfront—was thought by artists and critics to be Mr. Kazan's veiled attempt to explain himself to his critics. In 1952, he identified colleagues in show business as being members of the Communist Party before the House Un-American Activities Committee—an action for which many people never forgave him. As recently as 1999, the decision to honor him with a special Academy Award set off a tornado of protest and debate. For his part, Mr. Kazan always defended his decision as one of conscience, though many people noted that his career sailed on unimpeded after his government appearance. Whatever his motivations, the episode cast a cloud over his achievements for decades.

Many an actor's career was made under the guidance of Mr. Kazan's hand, most famously that of Marlon Brando, who rocketed to fame after appearing on Broadway in Streetcar. Brando's moody filmic soulmate, James Dean, had his first movie role in Mr. Kazan's "East of Eden." Other actors who benefited greatly from working with him include Eli Wallach, Burl Ives, Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden and Lee J. Cobb. A performance ferried to the stage or screen by Mr. Kazan was typically fiery, emotional, introspective, vulnerable, explosive and larger than life. He led many performers to Tony Awards and Oscars.

One Kazan technique had the director whispering a note into the ear of one actor, without telling the other performers what he had said. The actor would then do what he had been told, often to the great surprise of his costars. Thus, a scene would unfold at its emotional peak.

When Mildred Dunnock, who plays Linda Loman in Death of a Salesman, was rehearsing the play's famous "Attention must be paid" speech, Mr. Kazan began beating a rhythm with an old brookstick. "More! More! More!" he commanded. Dunnock raised her voice louder and louder until it seemed to her she was screaming the lines, but finally protested, "I can't! I won't do it that way!" Mr. Kazan answered, "That's exactly the way you will do it."

Mr. Kazan could often be insistent in his vision of a play. With Cat of a Hot Tin Roof, he famously pushed Tennessee Williams to rewrite the third act, suggesting dramatic changes in the characterizations of Brick, Maggie and Big Daddy. Williams acquiesced, though he later regretted making the changes. A printed version of the play included both the original and the performed third act.

He was born Elia Kazanjoglous on Sept. 7, 1909, in Constantinople, to Greek parents. His family moved to New York City when he was four. His career in the theatre began when in the 1930s he joined the activist, political, "Method"-worshipping Group Theatre, whose members included future giants like Clifford Odets, Harold Clurman, Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler. He stage managed and had small parts in Odets' Waiting for Lefty and Golden Boy.

In 1947, he founded the Actors Studio with Cheryl Crawford and Bobby Lewis. The place made "Method" acting—emotionally based performance based on the teaching of Stanislavsky—a staple of American plays and movies, and engendered several generations of leading actors.

He first directed on Broadway in 1935 with The Young Go First. Thunder Rock followed in 1939. He had a popular success in 1942 with Cafe Crown. The Skin of Our Teeth came the same year. The critical and commercial success of the piece help cement his career.

Mr. Kazan's well known nickname, received in college, was "Gadge," short for gadget. The implication was that he was a useful man to have around.

His marriage to Molly Day Thatcher ended in 1963. He then married actress Barbara Loden, who died in 1980.