Meeting Elia Kazan

I met Elia Kazan once. He showed up at a production at the Actors Studio that I was involved in as a general Girl Friday. It was a production of an Odets play- Awake and Sing – which Kazan had been involved in (also as a Girl Friday) in its original production with the Group Theatre in the early 1930s.

There had been a rumor that he would show, but by that point in his life, he was a shut-in. Very elderly, very frail. It was not expected that he would come. But he did. Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward were there, and I think they were involved in making sure that Kazan made it. Anne Jackson was playing the lead in the show, and Katherine Wallach (her daughter) was also in the show. Eli Wallach was there. It was an Actors Studio kind of night. But the big question was: would Kazan make it?

There he was.

His walk was very slow, very halting, there were people hovering around him, helping him.

I looked at his craggy face, so well-known to me from all the books I’ve read since I was 12 years old, since he started me on the path I was to take in my life, his face was so familiar, and my articulate baffled thought was: Jesus Christ. That is Elia fucking Kazan.

Clifford Odets, the long-dead playwright, had been one of Elia Kazan’s best friends. Odets’s involvement with the Group Theatre was what catapulted him into fame. He wrote passionate argumentative plays with dialogue that set New York theatregoers on fire. He started one play MID-argument. Arthur Miller, a young unknown playwright at the time, wrote in his autobiography Timebends:

An Odets play was awaited like news hot off the press, as though through him we would know what to think of ourselves and our prospects.

The original Awake and Sing was a hit in the 30s. It starred Stella Adler, Morris Carnovsky, John Garfield (then known as Julie), Roman Bohnen (who has a beautiful cameo in Harold Clurman’s film Deadline at Dawn, scripted by Odets), Luther Adler, J.E. Bromberg and Sanford Meisner. Rather extraordinary. The 20th century would rip this group apart, and there was much treachery later on in the days of the HUAC, relationships shattered, things unforgivable, all that, but in the 1930s, they were a group. That is what they called themselves after all. The Group Theatre. Fashioned after the Moscow Art Theatre ensemble in Russia. I had studied The Group as a child. Literally, I wasn’t even a teenager yet when I discovered this part of American history. In a one-two punch in the same year, I saw both East of Eden and Dog Day Afternoon when I was babysitting and knew I had to know everything about the context of the people involved, which led me to the Actors Studio, and Kazan, and Lee Strasberg and all the others. Which then led to my involvement in the actual Actors Studio 20+ years later.

On that night with the opening of a fragile little Actors Studio production of Awake and Sing, taking place in the actual Actors Studio on W. 44th Street in the converted church, the institution that Kazan helped form, Odets had been dead for many years. And Kazan would soon be dead. But he came out, on a cold winter night in New York City, to see the production of the show he had helped bring to life so many years ago.

Kazan was almost completely deaf by this point. He sat in the front row.

There was a party afterwards, with cheap wine in paper cups, the snow falling outside the windows. And everyone stood around, chatting, trying to pretend they wanted to talk to each other, when really all anyone was aware of was Mr. Kazan. Kazan was there, but not there. He was already like a ghost, reminiscent of his last comments when he received his Honorary Oscar, flanked by the protective shield of Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro. Being deaf had encapsulated him in his own world. He didn’t speak much. He just stood there.

Eventually, I just had to … I didn’t care … I had to just go over and speak to him. I would never forgive myself if I didn’t. I would never get this chance again. I’m not normally a person who goes up to stars and says, “Thank you for your work”. There’s something in me that just respects their privacy too much. But with Kazan I threw all that out the window. I needed to thank him. That’s all. Just needed to say “thank you”. Because how do you say, “Because of you, I have made certain choices… You opened up my young mind to a whole world which changed me forever, when I was still impressionable … You held out a hand across the space-time continuum and said, ‘Come with me'”? You can’t say THAT even if it’s true. “Thank you” will have to do.

I sidled over to his group. He was standing with a guy I had dated for about 2 seconds, and that guy’s father, a luminary in the Actors Studio world. My friend’s father was an actor and director and was in his late 70s, early 80s. He had been friends with Kazan all his life. I hovered there on the edge, for a second, waited for the pause, and then held out my hand to Mr. Kazan. He looked confused. He took my hand. I shook his hand, gently, and said, “Thank you for your work, Mr. Kazan. Thank you. Thank you.” – and he, very old, just shook my hand, and stared at my mouth, stared at the shapes my mouth made, trying to see what I said.

And that was that. I let him be, after that. I let go of his hand, and backed away.

Enough. Let the man go.

I was so wiped out from the night, and then from the searching confused way he stared at my mouth, trying to figure out what I was saying … wiped out from what he means to me and that there I was, in my life, in that building, with an opportunity to MEET him … but then there was that confused look in his eyes when he took my hand, the confused way he stared at my mouth … I don’t think he got my message … I was so wiped out from all of this that when I left, I huddled in a nearby empty stoop for a second, out of the falling snow, and burst into tears.

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5 Responses to Meeting Elia Kazan

  1. tracey says:

    Oh, hon. My heart is full. Beautiful.

  2. John McElwee says:

    And Thank You … Thank You … for this and all your fabulous writing.

  3. David says:

    Wow! I never heard this story. Wow!

  4. phil says:

    He understood.
    You cried because he understood, not at that moment but later in the night, everything you meant.

    Wonderful story.

    On a lighter note – That header photo. I can’t decide if it’s Deanna Durbin or a young Frances Farmer.

  5. sheila says:

    Phil – Thank you. I have always hoped that the message did get through.

    It’s actually Peggy Cummins from Gun Crazy – although you’re right – it totally could be Frances Farmer!!

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