MY VIEW:† Kazan and Me

By Emanuel Fried

Years ago, stage and screen director Elia Kazan, who died in September at 94, directed me in The Young Go First at New Yorkís Columbus Circle Theatre.† My performance prompted a Universal Pictures scout to say that one more leading role would get me a Hollywood movie contract.

Kazan publicly stated that he had been a Communist Party member when I was.† When I was a young actor, I heard Kazan say things that convinced me that his communist membership was not the inconsequential involvement that he later claimed.† I remember him as a rigid hard-liner who shot a string of obscenities at an actor who wavered from Kazanís conception of the party line.

Our paths separated. After returning to Buffalo temporarily to direct the Buffalo Contemporary Theatre, I worked at the Curtiss Wright aircraft plant during World War II, expecting to be drafted shortly. I became co-chairman of the United Auto Workers organizing committee, was fired, then hired as an organizer by the United Electrical Radio Machine Workers.†

My union work was interrupted by service in the infantry in World War II.† I wrote a letter to Kazan, voicing indecision about my future, and received a reply that he wanted to see me when I got out of the Army.

Newly separated from the service, still in uniform, I was cast in a major role in Boomerang, the film Kazan was shooting.† He said he was launching my film career, and gave me a week to see my wife and child in Buffalo before Iíd be needed.† In Buffalo, I met with Charlie Cooper, our unionís rank and file leader, who was in the hospital with another piece of his already amputated leg cut off.†

I told Charlie that I was really an actor, not a union organizer, and I had this chance to resume my acting career. Charlie grabbed my arm and swore at me, ďDonít you abandon us, you red-headed so and so.Ē I said I would think about it.† Charlie died that night.† I stayed on as the union organizer. Karl Malden began his film career with the role Kazan had offered me.

A few years after that, Kazan cooperated with the House Un-American Activities Committee, naming names, destroying the careers of actors who had been his closest friends.†† Called before the committee in 1954, I refused to answer any questions and challenged the constitutionality of the resolution establishing the committee. I wanted to get indicted so the courts could decide whether I went to jail or the committee went out of existence. The committee said it would ask Congress to indict me, but then ducked the challenge.† I was not indicted.†

At the last Oscar ceremony, Kazan was given a Lifetime Achievement Award.† Some people stood and applauded, while others sat and booed.† If I had been there, I would have been torn between the two reactions.

As a young actor, I worshiped Kazan, both for his talent and for his apparent dedication to the cause of working people. Though I dislike what he did, I find it hard to dislike him. Iíd always thought of Kazan as an iron man who would never surrender his principled beliefs. But when he sacrificed his close friends to protect his career, I realized that iron men can crack.

Thinking back over my long life, Iím glad that I instinctively made the choice to continue as a union organizer.† Because of that, I have been able to embody in my plays, novels and articles the respect and support that our working families deserve.


SOURCE: Fried, Emanuel. "MY VIEW:  Kazan and Me", Buffalo News, Nov. 2, 2003, page H-2.

©2003 Emanuel Fried. All rights reserved.


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