Elia Kazan (born Elias Kazantzoglou, September 7, 1909 – September 28, 2003) was an American director, producer, writer and actor, described by The New York Times as “one of the most honored and influential directors in Broadway and Hollywood history”. He was born in Istanbul, to Cappadocian Greek parents. After studying acting at Yale, he acted professionally for eight years, later joining the Group Theater in 1932, and co-founded the Actors Studio in 1947. With Robert Lewis and Cheryl Crawford, he introduced Method acting to the American stage and cinema as a new form of self-expression and psychological “realism.” Kazan acted in only a few films, including City for Conquest (1940). Kazan introduced a new generation of unknown young actors to the movie audiences, including Marlon Brando and James Dean. Noted for drawing out the best dramatic performances from his actors, he directed 21 actors to Oscar nominations, resulting in nine wins. He became “one of the consummate filmmakers of the 20th century” after directing a string of successful films, including A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), On the Waterfront (1954), and East of Eden (1955). During his career, he won two Oscars as Best Director and received an Honorary Oscar, won three Tony Awards, and four Golden Globes. Among the other actors he introduced to movie audiences were Warren Beatty, Carroll Baker, Julie Harris, Andy Griffith, Lee Remick, Rip Torn, Eli Wallach, Eva Marie Saint, Martin Balsam, Fred Gwynne, and Pat Hingle.
His films were concerned with personal or social issues of special concern to him. Kazan writes, “I don’t move unless I have some empathy with the basic theme.” His first such “issue” film was Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), with Gregory Peck, which dealt with anti-Semitism in America. It received 8 Oscar nominations and 3 wins, including Kazan’s first for Best Director. It was followed by Pinky, one of the first films to address racial prejudice against blacks. In 1954, he directed On the Waterfront, a film about union corruption on the New York harbor waterfront, which some consider “one of the greatest films in the history of international cinema.” A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), an adaptation of the stage play which he had also directed, received 12 Oscar nominations, winning 4, and was Marlon Brando’s breakthrough role. In 1955, he directed John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, which introduced James Dean to movie audiences, making him an overnight star. A turning point in Kazan’s career came with his testimony as a witness before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952 at the time of the Hollywood blacklist, which brought him strong negative reactions from many liberal friends and colleagues. His testimony helped end the careers of former acting colleagues Morris Carnovsky and Art Smith, along with ending the work of playwright Clifford Odets. Kazan later justified his act by saying he took “only the more tolerable of two alternatives that were either way painful and wrong.” Nearly a half-century later, his anti-Communist testimony continued to cause controversy. When Kazan was awarded an honorary Oscar in 1999, dozens of actors chose not to applaud as 250 demonstrators picketed the event.
Kazan influenced the films of the 1950s and ’60s with his provocative, issue-driven subjects. Director Stanley Kubrick called him, “without question, the best director we have in America, [and] capable of performing miracles with the actors he uses.” Film author Ian Freer concludes that “if his achievements are tainted by political controversy, the debt Hollywood—and actors everywhere—owes him is enormous.” In 2010, Martin Scorsese co-directed the documentary film A Letter to Elia as a personal tribute to Kazan. Elia Kazan died from natural causes in his Manhattan apartment, September 28, 2003 aged 94.
- September, 07, 1909
- Constantinople, Ottoman Empire
- September, 28, 2003
- Manhattan, New York
Cause of Death
- natural causes