04 February, 2009
John Garfield was an Academy Award-nominated American actor. Garfield was especially adept at playing brooding, rebellious, working-class character roles. Garfield is acknowledged as the predecessor of such Method actors as Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Montgomery Clift.
Born Jacob Julius Garfinkle in New York City, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants David and Hannah Garfinkle, Garfield spent the first seven years of his life in Sea Gate, Brooklyn. After the death of his mother, Garfield was sent to a school for difficult children in the Bronx. It was under the guidance of the school's principal—the noted educator Angelo Patri—that he was introduced to both boxing and acting. He had also contracted a childhood illness, severely damaging his heart and limiting his ability to engage in strenuous athletics. He received a scholarship to Maria Ouspenskaya's acting school, making his Broadway debut in 1932.
He became a member of the Group Theater. The Group's play Golden Boy was written for him by Clifford Odets, but ultimately he was cast in a supporting role rather than the lead. Garfield decided to leave Broadway and try his luck in Hollywood. In 1938, he received wide critical acclaim and a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Four Daughters.
At the onset of World War II, Garfield immediately attempted to enlist in the armed forces, but was turned down because of his heart condition. Frustrated, he turned his energies to supporting the war effort. He and actress Bette Davis were the driving forces behind the opening of the Hollywood Canteen, a club offering food and entertainment for American servicemen. He later traveled to Yugoslavia to help entertain for the war effort.
Garfield graduated to leading roles in films such as The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) with Lana Turner, Humoresque (1946) with Joan Crawford, and the Oscar-winning Best Picture Gentleman's Agreement (1947). (In the latter film, Garfield took a featured, but supporting part because he believed deeply in the project.) In 1948 he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for his starring role in Body and Soul (1947). That same year, Garfield returned to Broadway in the play Skipper Next to God. A strong-willed and often verbally combative individual, Garfield did not hesitate to venture out on his own when the opportunity arose. In 1946, when his contract with Warner Bros. expired, Garfield decided against renewal of his studio contract and opted to start his own independent production company, one of the first Hollywood stars to take this step.
Long involved in liberal politics, Garfield was caught up in the Communist scare of the late 1940s and early 1950s, and supported the Committee for the First Amendment, which opposed governmental investigation of political beliefs. When called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which was empowered to investigate purported communist infiltration in America, Garfield refused to name communist party members or followers, testifying that, indeed, he knew none in the film industry. Indeed, Garfield rejected Communism, and just prior to his death, in hopes of redeeming himself in the eyes of the blacklisters, had written that he had been duped by Communist ideology, in an unpublished article "I Was a Sucker for a Left Hook", a reference to Garfield's movies about boxing. However, his forced testimony before the committee had severely damaged his reputation. He was blacklisted in Red Channels, and barred from future employment as an actor by Hollywood movie studio bosses for the remainder of his career.
With film work scarce because of the blacklist, Garfield returned to Broadway and starred in a 1952 revival of Golden Boy, finally being cast in the lead role denied him years before.
John Garfield's grave in Westchester Hills CemeteryHe and Roberta Seidman married in February 1935. Though his wife had been a member of the Communist Party, there was no evidence that Garfield himself was ever a Communist. They had three children: Katherine (1938-45), who died of an allergic reaction, David (1943-1994), and Julie (born 1946), the latter two later becoming actors themselves.
Long-term heart problems, allegedly aggravated by the stress of his blacklisting, led to his early death at the age of 39 on May 21, 1952. Garfield is interred at Westchester Hills Cemetery in Hastings-on-Hudson, Westchester County, New York. Roberta Garfield married attorney Sidney Cohn in 1954, who died in 1991. She died in January 2004.