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Posted June 12, 2009
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Elia Kazan was drawn to show business but in the early days of his career he showed little aptitude for any place in the theatre. He was quite good at painting sets and by simply hanging around was eventually given a few bit parts in several plays. He got little notice from the critics but Harold Clurman took him under his wing and Kazan grew some as an actor within the Group Theatre. Most of the group had socialist leanings but Kazan was too much of an individual to follow any structured ideology and he let it be known that he would never become a part of the communist party.
During the 30's there was very little money to be made by working with the Group Theatre. He finally found a way to augment his income, and that was doing radio plays and was pretty good at it.
Kazan's wife Molly's great grandfather was president of Yale University. Kazan slipped around the edges of conflict; Molly stood up right in the center of the storm. Molly's principals permitted no deviation from her obligations of what was right.
In the late forties and early fifties the Stanislavsky method of acting was making its way from the Moscow Arts Theatre to New York. Lee Strasberg and Kazan opened the Actors Studio on West 44th Street in an old church building. At the time there were a number of adherents to the Stanislavsky Method teaching their brand of the method and each claiming to have tapped into the authentic Stanislavsky system while pointing out the others as imposters.
In time Lee Strasberg and the Stanislavsky method were one.
During one summer in Hollywood Kazan turned his life around. He made the decision that he would never make it as an actor. His friend Clifford Odets wrote a screenplay for Lewis Milestone and it gave Kazan a chance to spend time with and learn from one of the great film directors the art of script writing as well as the basic mechanics of directing. The film they worked on was never made but Kazan got the guidance and the inspiration he needed to begin his career as a director.
Back in New York Kazan was hired to direct 'The Skin of our Teeth' and in spite of fighting over every line with Tallulah Bankhead from start to finish he managed to bring a successful play to Broadway.
He then followed that up by rescuing a play starring Helen Hayes called Harriet. Kazan brought the play back to life from the brink of disaster. Then he suddenly had two Broadway hits on his hands at the same time. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn came a bit later, and that also turned into a big hit.
Kazan paid his dues in Hollywood with a couple of lack luster films followed by Street Car Named Desire with Marlon Brando on Broadway and film. Then his big success came with On the Waterfront.
Kazan had more than a little conflict in his personal life, that of a wife and family and a mistress along with the HUAC Hearings in Washington.
Elia Kazan has written in the highs and lows of his life and career, and there are times you might find the book a bit tedious in detail - but if you'll follow along to the end you will be richly rewarded for your effort.
Tom Barnes author of 'Doc Holliday's Road to Tombstone.
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