Director-writer Elia Kazan, winner of two Oscars and a controversial figure, dies

Monday, September 29th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ Elia Kazan, the Academy Award-winning director of such influential films as ``On the Waterfront'' and ``A Streetcar Named Desire'' but whose conduct during the McCarthy era haunted his career, has died. He was 94.

``A genius left us,'' Kazan's lawyer, Floria Lasky, said after the director died at his Manhattan home Sunday. She did not give a cause of death.

Kazan won Oscars for ``Gentleman's Agreement'' and ``On the Waterfront'' and staged five Pulitzer Prize-winning plays: ``The Skin of Our Teeth,'' ``Death of a Salesman,'' ``A Streetcar Named Desire,'' ``Cat on a Hot Tin Roof'' and ``J.B.,'' for which Kazan won his first of three a Tony Awards for directing.

Kazan was one of the most prominent entertainment figures to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, set up shortly after World War II to rid the United States of any communist influences.

In his testimony, given in January 1952, Kazan identified eight people he said had been members of the Communist Party with him in the mid-1930s. All were eventually blacklisted.

Most left the country or simply never worked in theater or film again; a few were lucky enough to keep their jobs using pseudonyms. Kazan defended his decision by saying that all were already known to the committee, a stance disputed by others.

Years later, Kazan insisted he carried no guilt for what many of his colleagues saw as a betrayal during the reign of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. ``There's a normal sadness about hurting people, but I'd rather hurt them a little than hurt myself a lot,'' he said.

Kazan received a special Oscar in 1999 for his life's work. The decision reopened wounds and touched off a painful controversy. At the ceremony, there was only a smattering of applause. Some audience members showed their disapproval with silence.

Besides his two Oscar-winning efforts, Kazan directed ``A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,'' the film version of ``Streetcar,'' ``East of Eden,'' ``Splendor in the Grass,'' ``A Face in the Crowd'' and ``The Last Tycoon.'' His other stage credits included ``Camino Real,'' ``Sweet Bird of Youth'' and ``Tea and Sympathy.''

``I lost a dear friend. We were as close as an actor and director could be,'' actor Karl Malden said. ``I idolize him, I think he was one of the best directors I've ever worked with in theater and films.''

Kazan turned to writing in his 50s and produced six novels _ including several best sellers _ and an autobiography. The first two novels, ``America, America'' and ``The Arrangement,'' he also made into movies.

``Even when I was a boy I wanted to live three or four lives,'' he once said.

He started out as a stage actor but his ambition was to direct, which he began doing in the mid-1930s. The breakthrough came when he staged Thornton Wilder's ``The Skin of Our Teeth'' in 1942 and won a New York Drama Critics Award.

He first teamed with Arthur Miller to direct ``All My Sons'' and went on to do ``Death of a Salesman,'' which one critic termed ``as exciting and devastating a theatrical blast as the nerves of modern playgoers can stand.''

His friendship with Miller was never the same after his congressional testimony. Kazan talked with Miller before he testified, and Miller later wrote in his journal about a side of his friend that he had not seen before: ``He would have sacrificed me as well.''

His Broadway collaboration with Tennessee Williams began with ``Streetcar'' in 1947 and later included ``Camino Real,'' ``Cat on a Hot Tin Roof'' and ``Sweet Bird of Youth.''

``He approaches a play more critically than anyone I know; you find yourself doing more revisions for him than for any other director,'' Williams once said.

Carroll Baker, who played the Lolita-like character in ``Baby Doll,'' said Kazan was especially important in launching the careers of young actors at the Actors Studio, where she met him.

``You got in on your talent and you didn't have to pay anything,'' she said. ``Kazan was a real actor's director. He discovered a lot of people and he knew how to use you to get the best performance out of you.''

Kazan once said he turned to writing because ``I wanted to say exactly what I felt. I like to say what I feel about things directly and no matter whose play you direct or how sympathetic you are to the playwright, what you finally are trying to do is interpret his view of life. ... When I speak for myself I get a tremendous sense of liberation.''

Born Elia Kazanjoglous on Sept. 7, 1909, in what was then Constantinople, Turkey, he was the son of a Greek rug merchant. The family came to New York when Kazan was 4 and he grew up in a Greek neighborhood in Harlem and later suburban New Rochelle.

He went to Williams College, where he picked up the nickname Gadget _ ``I guess because I was small, compact and eccentric,'' he once said. Shortened to Gadge, it was a name that stuck _ and one that he came to loathe.

During his senior year he saw Sergei Eisenstein's film ``Potemkin'' and focused on the performing arts. He attended the Yale University Drama School, then joined the Group Theatre in New York in 1933.

Kazan, a short, stocky intense man, preferred casual dress and was direct in social dealings.

``He doesn't believe in social amenities and, if he is bored by any individual or group, he simply departs without apology or explanation,'' actress Vivien Leigh once remarked.

Kazan married three times. With first wife Molly Day Thatcher he had four children: Judy, Chris, Nick and Katharine. After Thatcher's death, Kazan married Barbara Loden and they had two sons, Leo and Marco. She died of cancer in 1967; in 1982 he married Frances Rudge.