Elia Kazan (Kazanjoglous) was born in Constantinople, Turkey, on 7th September, 1909. Four years later the Kazan family moved to the United States. Kazan attended Williams College in Massachusetts before studying at the Drama School at Yale University.
In 1932 Kazan joined the Group Theatre in New York led by Lee Strasberg. Members of the group tended to hold left-wing political views and wanted to produce plays that dealt with important social issues. Those involved in the group included John Garfield, Howard Da Silva, John Randolph, Joseph Bromberg and Lee J. Cobb.
Kazan joined the American Communist Party in 1934 and the following year appeared in Waiting for Lefty, a play by a fellow party member, Clifford Odets. Kazen became active in the Actors Equity Association. He worked closely with Philip Loeb, a fellow member of the American Communist Party. Kazen recalled in his autobiography, Elia Kazan: A Life (1989): "In 1934, when I was in the Party, we helped start a left-wing movement in a very conservative Actors' Equity Association. Our prime goal was to secure rehearsal pay for the working actor and to limit the period when a producer could decide to replace an actor in rehearsal without further financial obligation... I was working on reforming Equity with a fine man named Phil Loeb... Our cause was so just that now, looking back, it's hard to believe there was any opposition to what we were proposing. Still it wasn't an easy to fight to win."
Kazan also appeared as an actor in two movies: City for Conquest (1940) and Blues in the Night (1941). In 1947 Kazan, Lee Strasberg, and Cheryl Crawford established the Actors Studio, where they pioneered the idea of Method Acting (a system of training and rehearsal for actors which bases a performance upon inner emotional experience).
Kazan directed All My Sons, a play by a young playwright, Arthur Miller. It opened at the Coronet Theatre on 29th January, 1947, and starred Ed Begley, Karl Malden and Arthur Kennedy. As Michael Ratcliffe pointed out: "A family tale of corrupt profiteering at home that led to the death of US pilots abroad, it exploded in the pause between victory and the attempted press-ganging of show business for Washington's cold war. From this point on, Miller's best scenes display a mastery of conversation, a gift for sketching vivid characters on the margins of a play, and a narrative talent for seizing the spectator's attention from the start." The play won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award and ran for 328 performances.
Miller sent details of his next play, Death Of A Salesman, to Kazan. He thought it was "a great play" and that the character of Willy Loman reminded him of his father. Miller later recalled that Kazan was the "first of a great many men - and women - who would tell me that Willy was their father." The play opened at the Morosco Theatre on 10th February, 1949. It was directed by Kazan and featured Lee J. Cobb (Willy Loman), Mildred Dunnock (Linda), Arthur Kennedy (Biff) and Cameron Mitchell (Happy).
Death Of A Salesman played for 742 performances and won the Tony Award for best play, supporting actor, author, producer and director. It also won the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Play. Miller was himself highly critical of the play: "I knew nothing of Brecht then or of any other theory of theatrical distancing: I simply felt that there was too much identification with Willy, too much weeping, and that the play's ironies were being dimmed out by all this empathy."
Kazan also worked with Tennessee Williams on the Pulitzer Prize winning, A Streetcar Named Desire (1947). Kazan also became interested in movies and directed three films that dealt with social issues: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), Gentlemen's Agreement (1947), The Sea of Grass (1947) and Boomerang! (1947).
In 1947 the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began an investigation into the Hollywood Motion Picture Industry. In September 1947, the HUAC interviewed 41 people who were working in Hollywood. These people attended voluntarily and became known as "friendly witnesses". During their interviews they named several people who they accused of holding left-wing views.
Ten of those named: Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Albert Maltz, Adrian Scott, Samuel Ornitz, Dalton Trumbo, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner Jr., John Howard Lawson and Alvah Bessie refused to answer any questions put by the HUAC. Known as the Hollywood Ten, they claimed that the 1st Amendment of the United States Constitution gave them the right to do this. The HUAC and the courts during appeals disagreed and all were found guilty of contempt of congress and each was sentenced to between six and twelve months in prison.
Kazan was known for his left-wing views and he was eventually called to appear before the House of Un-American Activities Committee. Controversially, Kazan decided to name eight people who had been fellow members of the American Communist Party in the 1930s. As a result, these people were called before the HUAC. Those that refused to name names, were blacklisted. Kazan later claimed he felt no guilty about what he had done: "There's a normal sadness about hurting political, but I's rather hurt them a little than hurt myself a lot."
As a reward for his co-operation, Kazan was allowed to continue working in Hollywood. Films included and Pinky (1949), Panic in the Streets (1950), A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Viva Zapata! (1952) and Man on a Tightrope (1953).
On the Waterfront (1954), was an attempt to justify the morality of providing information on friends to people in authority. Budd Schulberg, the writer and the actor Lee J. Cobb, who both testified before the HUAC, also worked on the film. Other movies directed by Kazan during this period included East of Eden (1955), Baby Doll (1956) and Splendor in the Grass (1960).
Kazan also wrote several novels including America, America (1962), The Arrangement (1967), The Assassins (1972) and The Understudy (1974). In his autobiography, A Life (1988), Kazan attempted to defend his decision to give names of his former friends to the House of Un-American Activities Committee. One critic has described it as "maybe the best show business autobiography of the century."
Elia Kazan, who was married three times (Molly Thatcher, Barbara Loden and Frances Rudge), died on 28th September, 2003. The film critic, David Thompson, wrote at the time of his death: "There were people who hadn't spoken to him in over 45 years; and who had crossed the street sometimes to avoid him. They had their reasons, good reasons; but everyone has his reasons. And the man is dead now, and his size cannot be denied any longer. Crossing the street will not do. Elia Kazan was a scoundrel, maybe; he was not always reliable company or a nice man. But he was a monumental figure, the greatest magician with actors of his time, a superlative stage director, a film-maker of real glory, a novelist, and finally, a brave, candid, egotistical, self-lacerating and defiant autobiographer - a great, dangerous man, someone his enemies were lucky to have."