The Kennedy Center

Elia Kazan


Elia Kazan
(director, born September 7, 1909, Constantinople, Turkey; died September 28, 2003)

The Skin of Our Teeth, A Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, J.B. They were the Pulitzer Prize-winning plays he directed. He won Tony Awards for his direction of All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, and J.B., the latter two Tony winners themselves, and Oscars for directing Gentleman's Agreement and On the Waterfront. These are just some of the productions that have made Elia Kazan's name legendary in the history of American theater and film.

Kazan was born in Istanbul (then Constantinople), Turkey, to Greek parents, with whom he moved to the United States when he was 4. After living in a Greek neighborhood in New York City for a time, his father, who had become a successful rug merchant, moved his family to suburban New Rochelle, NY, where Elia attended public schools before enrolling in Williams College, where he majored in English and became interested in the performing arts after viewing Eisenstein's film classic Potemkin After having been graduated cum laude with a B.A. degree, he went on to Yale Drama School.

Armed with a letter of introduction from Philip Barber of the Yale faculty, Kazan headed for New York and joined the recently founded Group Theater in 1933. After several bit parts and much backstage work, young Kazan got the part of a taxi driver in the Group's production of Clifford Odets' Waiting for Lefty in 1935 and as Kewpie in Odets' Paradise Lost the same year. The following year, he created the role of the gangster Eddie Fuselli in Odets' Golden Boy. Although he had received some strong praise for his acting ability, his goal was to direct. His first directorial credits were with Group Theater productions, such as Casey Jones and Cafe Crown, in the mid-1930s. But his first major recognition came with his direction of Thorton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth in 1942, a year after the Group Theater ended. The play not only won the Pulitzer Prize, but also a New York Drama Critics Award for Kazan.

By then considered one of Broadway's finest directors, Kazan went on to One Touch of Venus (1943) and Jacobowsky and the Colonel, a Drama Critics Circle Award winner (1944); Kazan reached another milestone in his career with his co-production and direction of Arthur Miller's All My Sons in 1947. Brooks Atkinson, in his New York Times review, hailed "a new writer bringing unusual gifts to the theater under the sponsorship of a director with taste and enthusiasm." In addition to such praise, Kazan won a Tony Award, a New York Drama Critics Award, and a Donaldson award.

That was the year he also began his collaboration with Tennessee Williams and won another Donaldson award for his direction of William's Pulitzer Prize-winning A Streetcar Named Desire.

The following year, Kazan, Lee Strasberg and other alumni of the Group Theater founded the Actors Studio, which, like its predecessor, became a spiritual home for theater people. It was there that Kazan molded the styles of such actors as Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, James Dean, and scores of others. It was the breeding ground of "method" acting.

While teaching at the Actor Studio, Kazan continued on Broadway, with Love Life and Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, which won not only the Pulitzer Prize in 1949 but, for Kazan another Tony, a New York Drama Critics Award and a Donaldson.

Tennessee Williams' Camino Real was among the plays he directed in the 1950s. Also, Robert Anderson's Tea and Sympathy, Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and William Inge's Dark at the Top of the Stairs. Kazan won Donaldson awards for both the Anderson and Williams plays. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof also won a Pulitzer Prize and a Drama Critics Circle Award in 1955. Three years later, Kazan directed Archibald MacLeish's Pulitzer Prize-winning verse play J.B., a complex allegory about a modern day Job. He also directed Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth in 1959.

After undertaking with Robert Whitehead, the direction of the Lincoln Center Repertory Company in the early 1960s, hoping to build a national theater company that would in time attain its "own voice and vocabulary" and then realizing the impossibility of the goal, Kazan returned to directing feature films, a medium he had first tackled in the 1940s.

Kazan, also known as "Gadget," a nickname he had acquired, he says because "I am short, compact and eccentric--like a gadget," had made his film directing debut with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for Twentieth Century-Fox in 1945. Boomerang in 1947, based on a real murder case of the 1920s, won a New York Film Critics Award, as did Gentleman's Agreement, an adaptation of Laura Hobson's novel about anti-semitism, which, critics felt, more than equaled Kazan's stage triumph.

For Kazan, 1954 was also a milestone year. Budd Schulberg wrote an original screenplay called On the Waterfront, based on a series of articles Edmund P. Barnett, City Editor of the New York Sun, had assigned Malcolm Johnson to write about life on the New York piers. The film, which won a number of Oscars, including best picture and best director, is considered to be perhaps Kazan's best-known and most widely acclaimed.

East of Eden (1955), a Cannes Film Festival award winner; Baby Doll (1956), which was written by Kazan in collaboration with Tennessee Williams, A Face in the Crowd, Wild River, and Splendor in the Grass followed.

Kazan also proved himself to be a novelist with America, America and The Arrangement, both of which he turned into motion pictures. The first, a semi-biographical story of Kazan's uncle, focused on a young Greek fighting his way to the United States. The second follows a second-generation Greek-American on his quest for success. Kazan has since written The Assassins, The Understudy, and most recently, The Anatolian.

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