Meeting Elia Kazan

For Elia Kazan’s birthday

I met Elia Kazan once. He showed up at a production of Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing, which was being put on at the Actors Studio. I was involved in the production as a general Girl Friday. I ran lines with Anne Jackson, who played the matriarch lead role. I went out and got people coffee. I ran errands, I took notes during rehearsals. Kazan had been involved in the original Group Theatre production back in the 1930s, also as a “girl” Friday. There was a certain symmetry to this which I couldn’t help but be aware of.

There was a rumor he would show on opening night, but by that point in his life, he was a shut-in. Very elderly, very frail. It was not expected he would be there. Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward were there on opening night, and I think they were involved in making sure Kazan made it. Eli Wallach was there (not only was his wife in the show, but so was his daughter Katherine Wallach). It was an Actors Studio insider-baseball night. But the big question was: would Kazan make it?

Clifford Odets was one of Elia Kazan’s best friends. Odets’s involvement with the Group Theatre catapulted him into fame. He wrote passionate argumentative plays 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 opened on Broadway in 1935, produced by the Group Theatre, starring Group repertory members, Stella Adler, Morris Carnovsky, John Garfield (then known as Julie), Roman Bohnen, Luther Adler, J.E. Bromberg and Sanford Meisner. The 20th century would rip this group apart. There was much treachery later on in the days of the HUAC and the McCarthy hearings, relationships were shattered, lives were ruined, John Garfield had a heart attack at age 39 from the stress, J. Edward Bromberg would also die, shortly after he was “listed” by the HUAC, Kazan named names, Odets did too (on their lists, they also named each other). Kazan was not forgiven. (Witness all those pampered people at the Oscars refusing to stand when he got his Lifetime Achievement Award.) It’s an American tragedy. But in the 1930s, they were a collective. They called themselves “The Group” after all, fashioned after the Moscow Art Theatre ensemble in Russia. I studied The Group as a child. I was weird like that. I wasn’t even a teenager when I discovered this almost forgotten 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 in those movies which blew my mind. Pre-Internet, it took some doing to figure out the who’s who, but it didn’t take me that long to discover the central position of something called the Actors Studio. Thus began a fascination which honestly led to me moving to New York 15 years later, taking classes at the Studio, attending sessions, the whole nine yards.

I hovered over by one of the side doors as the audience filtered in. It was a cold night. Everyone knew everyone else. This was not a commercial production. But I kept my eyes peeled. I was almost scared. Elia Kazan? Would he show?

And suddenly, there he was, flanked by Newman and Woodward. They sat on either side of him in the front row. His walk was very slow and halting, he needed help every step of the way. I looked at his craggy face, so well-known to me from all the books I’d 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. There he is.

On that night, the fragile little Actors Studio production of Awake and Sing opened, opened in the actual Actors Studio, a converted church on W. 44th Street. Odets had been dead for many years. Kazan would soon be dead. But he came out that cold winter night to see the production of the show he helped bring to life so many years before, put on in the institution he helped form way back in the day.

There was a party afterwards, cheap wine in paper cups, the snow falling outside. Everyone stood around, chatting, but it was like everyone’s focus was on Kazan. I felt the awareness of him in that room. Kazan was there, but not there. He was already like a ghost, and I remembered his comments when he received the Honorary Oscar, flanked by the protective shield of Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro. Being almost completely deaf isolated him in his own world. He didn’t speak much. He just stood there.

Eventually, I just had to go over. I didn’t care. I had to just go over and speak to him. I belonged there. I wasn’t an outsider. I worked on the show. I needed to 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 gushes at them. There’s something in me that respects their privacy too much. But with Kazan I needed to. He wasn’t just a star. He was instrumental in me becoming who I am. I just needed to say “thank you”. But 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. You showed me the way. You brought me here, to this very moment.” 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 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 in his late 70s. He and Kazan had been close friends for decades. He was in Kazan’s film America America. I hovered there on the edge, for a second. I waited for a pause, and then held out my hand to Mr. Kazan. He looked confused. He didn’t know me. He took my hand. I shook his hand, gently, and said, “Thank you for everything, Mr. Kazan. Thank you for your work.” – 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.

I was so wiped out from it, wiped out from the searching confused way he stared at my mouth, as he tried to figure out what I was saying … wiped out from what he means to me … and that there I was, in my life, in the actual Actors Studio building, founded BY him, 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 hope he did. Maybe it doesn’t matter either way, I don’t know. When I left the reception shortly thereafter, I huddled in a nearby empty stoop for a second and burst into tears.

Not too many people mean that much. For you it was someone else. For me it was Elia Kazan.

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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11 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. Kerry O'Malley says:


  5. Jennie says:

    So moving and so powerful…I wanted to put my arms around you as you cried…you made it that real with your words…your gift is so very special.

    • sheila says:

      Thank you, Jennie! It was one of those nights when past and present overlap. I’m so glad I got to meet him, share space with him, even if he was so elderly and frail he was somewhat detached from what was happening.

  6. Shawn says:

    He may have not got your exact words, but he most likely got your message. The touch of your hand, and your expression/body language. You were in an unusual position, one where you were compelled to action, in a sort of Ladyhawkish moment of passing lives converging. Wow!

    • sheila says:

      Yes, I hope he felt my feelings even if he couldn’t hear me! I just feel lucky to have shared space with him AND that it was at the Actors Studio made it extra special. It was now or never.

  7. Anthony Cinelli says:

    Epic. I love this story, Sheila. It transcends. You are an extraordinary talent. Thank you for your gift and all that you have given for your craft. We are blessed.

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