John Garfield (1913 - 1952)

John Garfield (1913 - 1952)

John Garfield was born Jacob Julius Garfinkle on March 4, 1913 into the poverty of New York City's Lower East Side. His parents were first-generation Americans of Ukranian peasant ancestry. His father, David, a clothes-presser by trade and by all acounts was a slow, plodding man, immersed in the culture of the Old Country. Garfield was later to describe him as "an ignorant man, a religious fanatic." Hannah, John's mother, was just the opposite - warm, outgoing and supportive of her young son. But hard life in the slums took its toll, and following a difficult pregnancy and the birth of John's brother Max, Hannah's health began to fail. She died in 1920 when John was seven years old and his brother Max was two. David moved his remaining family to a tenement in East Brooklyn and over the next several years would parcel out his sons to various relatives, unable, or unwilling, to take responsibility for them himself. Several of these relatives lived in tenements in a section of East Brooklyn called Brownsville and there Garfield lived in one house and slept in another. At school he was judged a poor reader and speller, deficits that were aggravated by irregular attendance.

John Garfield as child

'Julie', as Garfield was known to friends and family all his life, was described as an outgoing child with endless energy, a great mop of thick hair and an engaging grin. Small for his age, he soon had to pick up survival tactics on the streets, learning "all the meanness, all the toughness it's possible for kids to acquire." But despite the squalor of his surroundings, Julie thrived on the adversity and relished his triumphs over formidable odds. Just like a movie with the 'Dead End' kids, Julie was a member of a street gang. Much later he would recall: "Every street had its own gang. That's the way it was in poor sections... the old safety in numbers." He soon become gang leader. At this time people started to notice his ability to mimic well-known performers, both bodily and facially and gained a reputation for being a clown - everything Julie did he did better if he had an audience. He also was apparently adept at petty theft - with "quick hands and could run like hell." He also began to hang out and eventually spar at a boxing gym on Jerome Avenue. At some point he contracted scarlet fever, (it was diagnosed later in adulthood) causing permanent damage to his heart and causing him to miss a lot of school. After being expelled three times and expressing a wish to quit school altogether, his parents (father Davied remarried) sent him to P.S. 45, a school for difficult children. His potentially bleak future took a turn for the better when Julie came under the wing of school's principal - the noted educator Angelo Patri. Patri was able to channel the boy's high spirits into performing on a stage, and a whole new world suddenly opened for young Julie. Noticing Garfield's tendency to stammer, Patri assigned him to a speech therapy class taught by a charismatic teacher named Margaret O'Ryan. She gave him acting exercises and made him memorize and deliver speeches in front of the class and, as he progressed, in front of school assemblies. O'Ryan thought he had natural talent and cast him in school plays. She encouraged him to sign up for a city-wide debating competition sponsored by the New York Times. To his own surprise, he took second prize.

Founders of American Laboratory Theatre: Richard Boleslawski and Maria Ouspenskaya

Previously a very poor student, his scholastic record improved solely because it was a requirement for being eligible to take part in plays. Garfield was later to say of Patri, "for reaching into the garbage pail and pulling me out, I owe him everything." With Patri and O'Ryan's encouragement he began to take acting lessons at a drama school that was part of The Heckscher Foundation and began to appear in their productions. At one of the latter he received back-stage congratulations and an offer of support from the Yiddish actor Jacob Ben-Ami who recommended him to the American Laboratory Theater. Funded by the Theatre Guild, 'the Lab' had contracted with Richard Boleslavski to stage its experimental productions and with Russian actress and expatriate Maria Ouspenskaya to supervise classes in acting. Former members of the Moscow Art Theater, they were the first proponents of Stanislavsky's system in the United States. Garfield took morning classes and began volunteering time at the Lab after hours, auditing rehearsals, building and painting scenery, and doing crew work. He would later view this time as beginning his apprenticeship in the theater. Among the people becoming disenchanted with the Guild and turning to the Lab for a more radical, challenging environment were Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg, Franchot Tone, Cheryl Crawford and Harold Clurman. All would become strongly influential in Garfield's later career.

John Garfield

After a stint with Eva Le Gallienne's Civic Repertory Theater, at age 17, Julie had landed a few walk-on parts in the theater where he was able to observe and learn from actors at work. He also succumbed to a sense of adventure and went on a sojourn of his own - hitchhiking and riding freight trains across the country. For months he lived the life of a hobo, staying in roadside camps, picking fruit or working as a waiter at truck stops to earn some change. Later, the Hollywood publicity machine would romanticize this experience (and reportedly director Preston Sturges got the idea for his now-classic Sullivan's Travels from listening to Garfield's stories), but in reality it was a dirt-poor existence at the height of the Depression.

1932 was a turning point. Garfield made his Broadway debut in a play called Lost Boy. It ran for only two weeks but gave Garfield something critically important for an actor struggling to break into the theater: a credit. Julie, or, Jules Garfield, as he was now calling himself, joined up with the new avant-garde Theater Group. There he would form friendships that would remain influential throughout his life. Writer Clifford Odets, Stella and Luther Adler, Morris Carnovsky, Elia Kazan - all important names in the theater and in Hollywood for decades to come. Garfield also met the vivacious young actress who would become his wife, Roberta (known as Robbie) Seidman.

Julie and Robbie Garfield, wedding day, 1935

Garfield received feature billing in his next role, that of Henry the office boy, in Elmer Rice's play Counsellor-at-Law starring Paul Muni. The play ran for three months, made an eastern tour and returned for an unprecedented second return engagement, only closing when Muni was contractually compelled to return to Hollywood to make a film for Warners. At this point the Warner company expressed an interest in Garfield and sought to arrange a screen test. He turned them down.

Garfield's former colleagues Crawford, Clurman and Strasburg had begun a new theater collective, calling it simply 'the Group', and Garfield lobbied his friends hard to get in. After months of rejection he began frequenting the inside steps of the Broadhurst Theater where the Group had its offices. Cheryl Crawford noticed him one day and greeted him warmly. Feeling encouraged, he made his request for apprenticeship. Something intangible impressed her and she recommended him to the other directors. They made no dissent.

Photo from the Broadway Production of 'Waiting for Lefty' (1935)

Clifford Odets had been a close friend of Garfield from the early days in the Bronx. After Odets' one-act play Waiting for Lefty became a surprise hit, the Group announced it would mount a production of his full length drama Awake and Sing. At the playwright's insistence, Garfield was cast as Ralph, the sensitive young son who pled for "a chance to get to first base." The play opened in February 1935 and Garfield was singled out by critic Brooks Atkinson for having a "splendid sense of character development." Garfield's apprenticeship was officially over; he was voted full membership by the company. Odets was the man of the moment and he claimed to the press that Garfield was his "find".

Garfield's staunch devotion to the Theater Group received a serious blow when the plum part of Joe Bonaparte in Clifford Odets' new play Golden Boy - a part Odets wrote specifically with Garfield in mind - was given to Luther Adler. Garfield felt that the Group had shunned its purported policy of taking chances and nurturing new talent by choosing an established name for the lead part. A disillusioned Garfield began to take a second look at the overtures being made by Warner Bros Studio in Hollywood. Fully expecting Garfield to stay only temporarily in California - his heart and soul belonged to the New York stage - Robbie stayed behind while her husband made the trip to the West Coast in a rickety old automobile.

The year was 1938. Garfield's arrival in Hollywood was without fanfare. He took a room in a boarding house, got a tour of the Warner Studio and met his new boss, Jack Warner - more sensitive to anti-Semitism than any of Hollywood's other founding fathers - who promptly gave him a new first name - John. Garfield had been approached by Hollywood studios before - both Paramount and Warners offering screen tests - but talks had always stalled over a clause he wanted inserted in his contract, one that would allow him time off for stage work. Now Warner Bros. acceded to his demand and Garfield signed a standard feature-player agreement-seven years with options in Warner's New York office. Many in the Group were livid over what they considered his betrayal. Elia Kazan's reaction was different, suggesting that the Group did not so much fear that Garfield would fail, but that he would succeed.

Film debut, Four Daughters (1938)

The studio announced that Garfield would make his first appearance in The Sisters, with Errol Flynn and Bette Davis, then it was to be in The Patent Leather Kid, then Girls on Probation - but for one reason or another, none of these came through. He was finally cast in a supporting, yet crucial role as a tragic young composer in a Michael Curtiz film titled Four Daughters which Warners hoped to promote a new leading man, Jeffrey Lynn. Co-starring Priscilla Lane, her sisters Rosemary and Lola, and Gale Page in the title roles, it told the story of a small-town family nicely ensconced in then-typical wholesomeness. Into this sweetness-and-light comes Mickey Borden, out-of-work musician (Garfield) - brash, sarcastic, brooding, and....dangerous. Not many actors - certainly not Eddie Albert, who was considered for the part of Mickey and turned up in two sequels - could deliver the memorable speech (the superb screenplay is credited to Lenore Coffee and Julius Epstein), which Garfield delivers while playing the piano and with a cigarette hanging from his mouth. To audiences he was like a dash of cold water in the face, and his naturalness and sheer presence made all around him suddenly seem two-dimensional. After the picture's release in 1938, he received wide critical acclaim and a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. At the age of 25, he achieved a level of stardom that, at the time, still eluded fellow New Yorker and Warner player Humphrey Bogart (who, unlike, the character he often played, came from a priviliged background) after eight years in Hollywood. The studio quickly revised Garfield's contract - designating him a star player rather than a featured one - for seven years without options. Garfield's debut had a cinematic impact difficult to conceive in retrospect. As biographer Lawrence Swindell put it:

Garfield's work was spontaneous, non-actory; it had abandon. He didn't recite dialogue, he attacked it until it lost the quality of talk and took on the nature of speech. The screen actor had been dialogue's servant, but now Julie had switched those roles. Like James Cagney he was an exceptionally mobile performer from the start of his screen career. These traits were orchestrated with his physical appearance to create a screen persona innately powerful in the sexual sense. What Warners saw immediately was that Garfield's impact was felt by both sexes. This was almost unique.

Robbie soon joined him and the two took up residence in Hollywood. In the fall, their daughter Katherine was born, and Garfield was on top of the world. Warners created a name-above-the-title vehicle for him titled: They Made Me a Criminal. Before the breakout success of Daughters Garfield had made a B movie feature called Blackwell's Island. Not wanting their new star to appear in a low budget film, Warners ordered an A movie upgrade by adding an additional $100,000 to its budget and recalling its director Michael Curtiz to shoot newly scripted scenes.

With Gloria Dickson and Claude Rains in They Made Me a Criminal (1939)

Warner Bros Studio in the '30s and '40s was a factory - and Garfield became part of the well-oiled machinery, turning out 4 and 5 films per year. Not unlike Cagney and Edward G. Robinson, his initial role had made such an impact on audiences (and on the Warner coffers) that he was continuously cast in replicas of Mickey Borden roles. And, also like Cagney and Robinson, Garfield would fight this typecasting - with only marginal success. His "honeymoon" with Warners over, Garfield entered a protracted period of conflict with the studio, they attempting to cast him in crowd-pleasing melodramas like Dust Be My Destiny and he insisting on quality scripts that would offer a challenge and highlight his versatility. The result was often a series of suspensions, Garfield refusing an assigned role and Warners refusing to pay him. Garfield's problem was the same problem shared by any actor working in the studio system of the 1930s: by contract the studio had the right to cast him in any project they wanted to. But, as Robert Nott explains, "To be fair, most of the studios had a team of producers, directors, and writers who could pinpoint a particular star’s strengths and worked to capitalize on those strengths in terms of finding vehicles that would appeal to the public – and hence make the studio money. The forces that prevented him from getting high quality roles were really the result of the combined willpower of the Warner Bros., the studio system in general, and the general public, which also had its own perception of how Garfield (or Cagney or Bogart for that matter) should appear on screen." A notable exception to this trend was Daughters Courageous, the sequel to his debut film. Now considered a late 1930s classic, the film did well critically but failed to find an audience, the public dissatisfied that it was not a true sequel (hard to pull of since the original character Mickey Borden died in the first picture). The director Curtiz called the film "my obscure masterpiece". Although there was written in his contract a stipulation that Garfield could accept stage roles, he only took advantage of it occasionally - he had come to realize the enormous power of the film media and became totally committed to it.

With Rory Mallinson and Rosemary DeCamp in 'Pride of the Marines' (1945)

Garfield was a staunch liberal, idolized FDR, and during World War II did more than almost any big star of the time to further America's cause. Turned down for military service because of heart problems, Garfield became a travelling entertainer, a war bond salesman, and joined with Bette Davis to form the Hollywood Canteen - a combination restaurant/showplace where servicemen on leave in Los Angeles could, at no cost, have meals served to them by the likes of Joan Crawford and Lana Turner, dance with Ann Sheridan or Joan Leslie, and watch Benny Goodman or Tommy Dorsey perform live. He starred in a string of popular, patriotic films like Air Force, Destination Tokyo and Pride of the Marines (all box office successes). He was particularly proud of the latter film based on the life of Al Schmid, a war hero blinded in combat. In preparing for the role Garfield lived for several weeks with Schmid and his wife in Philadelphia and would blindfold himself for hours at a time.

With daughter Katharine

Reports filtered into gossip columns that all was not entirely well with the Garfield marriage; it wasn't that John chased women - quite the opposite - but he apparently had a low threshold of resistance. But in 1945 a tragedy occured that was to bring John much closer to his home and family. Daughter Katherine suffered from severe allergies that had always been controllable - until a day she was on a picnic at a friend's ranchhouse. Kat was struck with an attack and had difficulty breathing. Her condition worsened when she returned home, and before she could be rushed to the hospital, she died of strangulation. She was just 6 years old. Garfield was totally devastated and never fully recovered from the loss - a gloom that had never been apparent before would at times overshadow his naturally sunny disposition.

Body and Soul (1947)

When Garfield's contract at Warner Bros expired in 1946 he opted to go it alone. Not many stars ventured out of the safe, if artistically confining, studio system but Garfield in an attempt to encourage work by humanist artists formed his own production company, Enterprise, saying, "I've saved every penny I made and now I'm going to do the pictures I want to do." The first project he chose turned out to be one of his very best films - Body and Soul. Garfield's performance garnered him his second Academy Award nomination for Best Actor and his fledgling independent company was off to a promising start.

But clouds were forming over Hollywood in the late 1940s - a paranoia in Washington DC would spread, becoming the scourge called the House of Un-American Activities Committee. A veritable witch-hunt would ensue over the coming years, plucking victims from the actors, actresses, writers and directors in the movie industry and stomping on their careers, their very lives.

Garfield under examination before the House Commitee on Un-American Activities, April 23, 1951

The premise was that the film industry, which had such tremendous influence over audiences, was somehow infiltrated with dangerous Communists who were out to destroy the American way of life. Artists' pasts were dug up and examined down to the minutest details - and anyone who had even a slight glimmer of leftist leanings was raked over the coals. The damage done by this insanity left wounds still raw today. One of the HUAC's most destructive ploys was to bring to the stand so-called 'friendly' witnesses - in other words, anyone who would point the finger at a colleague. No matter that a charge of being a Communist could not be substantiated - once singled out a person was as good as finished in the movie business. That Garfield would come under the microscope was inevitable, given the extremity of the HUAC's criteria. His association with the Theater Group a decade earlier was enough - any such unique group was viewed as a 'commune', a hotbed of liberals who had dared to be different, and therefore were 'suspicious.' Though his wife had been a member of the Communist Party, Garfield was never officially charged with Communist sympathies - it was his refusal to name names that would bring disaster upon him. Perhaps harking back to his boyhood street-gang days, he stubbornly refused to 'rat on a pal' - and it would be his downfall. Operating under the premise that if you weren't for them you were against them, the HUAC succeeded in making John Garfield too hot to handle. Opportunities for work dropped off, doors were (figuratively and in some cases, not so figuratively) slammed in his face, former 'friends' avoided him. 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.

Such was the power of the Blacklist that any contact with one under suspicion was certain vocational death. Members of the film industry were running scared, and the majority didn't care who got trampled, as long as they themselves remained unscathed. Hemmed in on all sides by vague accusations he knew not how to fight, Garfield spent his last days futilely going over past letters, old tax forms, anything that could disprove that he had ever been any harm to the country he loved. His fierce loyalty to his friends and his beliefs never wavered, but he succumbed to a great anger, born of confusion and fear. He became estranged from his family, disappeared for days on end, began drinking heavily and would go without sleep for long periods of time.

John Garfield

On May 9, 1952 Garfield moved out of his New York apartment for the last time, indicating to friends it was not a temporary separation. He confided to columnist Earl Wilson that he would soon be divorced. He heard that a HUAC investigator was reviewing his testimony for possible perjury charges. His agent reported that 20th Century wanted him for a film called Taxi but would not even begin talks unless the investigation concluded in his favor. Three actor friends Canada Lee, Mady Christians and J. Edward Bromberg had all recently died after being listed by the committee.

In the morning of May 20 Garfield, against his doctor's strict orders, played several strenuous sets of tennis with a friend, mentioning the fact that he had not been to bed the night before. He met actress Iris Whitney for dinner and afterward became suddenly ill complaining that he felt chilled. She brought him to her apartment where he refused to let her call a doctor and instead went to bed. The next morning she found him dead. Long-term heart problems, allegedly aggravated by the stress of his blacklisting, had led to his death at the age of 39. The funeral was the largest in New York since Rudolph Valentino with over ten thousand persons crowding the streets outside. His estate, valued at more than $100,000, was left entirely to his wife. Shortly afterward, ironically, the HUAC closed its investigation of John Garfield, leaving him in the clear.

John Garfield

So long before there was Brando - who ironically only won the role of Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway after producer Irene Mayer Selznick and Garfield could not come to terms - and long before there was Pacino and De Niro, there was Garfield. He is said to have been the first student of 'The Method' to succeed in Hollywood, and in so doing changed the face not just of American acting, but the standard of film acting as well. Garfield was more than just an actor who played defiant rebels from the wrong side of the tracks. His natural style brought the internal rhythms and emotions of a character to the fore. While Edward G. Robinson and Paul Muni had played the first tier of such characters on screen - and have been rightly heralded as two of the greatest American actors of all time - Garfield's interpretation of the same sort of anti-heroes could break through sans expressionistic lighting and sound and was cloaked in a sexual energy that neither Robinson nor Muni had. Even Joan Crawford succumbed to him in Humoresque (1946). He burnt up the celluloid with Lana Turner as lovers who murder her husband in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1947). Even when subdued, Garfield's appeal threatened to steal the picture, as in Gentleman's Agreement (1947), in which he had the supporting role of Gregory Peck's Jewish buddy, a man not sure he has fought in World War II for an America that wants him. The more sedate Peck may have been the unquestioned star, but he was no match for Garfield's seething manliness.

John Garfield

Some critics have claimed that Garfield gave stiff performances, and while that point is debatable, his virility and unpolished charm saved many a film from becoming merely a programmer. He is also remembered for such roles as Porfirio Diaz in Juarez (1939) and as the brash seaman trying to escape the tyranny of Edward G. Robinson in Sea Wolf (1941). In Destination Tokyo (1944), Garfield's raw sexual energy clashed head on with Cary Grant's more polished variety and helped to give Grant a forum to stretch as an actor. Garfield credits also included Michael Curtiz's Breaking Point (1950), an acclaimed remake of Howard Hawks' To Have and to Have Not (1944).

Garfield is also legendary for his stage portrayals. He rose to prominence in 1935 based on his work in two Clifford Odets plays, Waiting for Lefty and Awake and Sing, both directed for The Group Theatre by Harold Clurman. Clurman also directed in Clifford Odets' Golden Boy (1937). Although the role was written for Garfield by Odets, he was cast in a supporting role instead and Luther Adler played Joe Bonaparte, the music-minded young man who becomes a prize fighter (Joe was played by William Holden in the 1939 film version). The actor would later return to the stage in the late 40s and early 50s, delivering acclaimed work in The Big Knife (1949) and Peer Gynt (1951), both directed by The Group Theatre co-founder Lee Strasberg.


  • He Ran All the Way (1951)
  • The Breaking Point (1950)
  • Under My Skin (1950)
  • We Were Strangers (1949)
  • Jigsaw (1949) (uncredited)
  • Force of Evil (1948)
  • Gentleman's Agreement (1947)
  • Body and Soul (1947)
  • Humoresque (1946)
  • Nobody Lives Forever (1946)
  • The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
  • Pride of the Marines (1945)
  • Between Two Worlds (1944)
  • Destination Tokyo (1943)
  • The Fallen Sparrow (1943)
  • Air Force (1943)
  • Tortilla Flat (1942)
  • Dangerously They Live (1941)
  • Out of the Fog (1941)
  • The Sea Wolf (1941)
  • East of the River (1940)
  • Flowing Gold (1940)
  • Saturday's Children (1940)
  • Castle on the Hudson (1940)
  • Four Wives (1939)
  • Dust Be My Destiny (1939)
  • Daughters Courageous (1939)
  • Juarez (1939)
  • Blackwell's Island (1939)
  • They Made Me a Criminal (1939)
  • Four Daughters (1938)
  • Footlight Parade (1933) (uncredited)