Legendary director Elia Kazan dies. The Tony- and Oscar-winning director of ''Streetcar'' and ''On the Waterfront'' was 94

By Gary Susman
Updated September 29, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT
Credit: Elia Kazan: Antonio Suarez/Digital Press/NewsCom

Elia Kazan, the Oscar- and Tony-winning director who revolutionized American stage and screen acting by making stars of such Method actors as Marlon Brando and James Dean, died at 94 at his Manhattan apartment, the New York Times reports. The director of such landmark productions as the original Broadway version of Arthur Miller’s ”Death of a Salesman” and the stage and screen versions of Tennessee Williams’ ”A Streetcar Named Desire,” Kazan had a legendary career that threatened to be eclipsed by his having outed former colleagues as communists during the height of the McCarthy era.

Kazan’s career began in the 1930s with New York’s Group Theater, the troupe that imported Stanislavsky’s technique and helped it develop into what would become known as Method acting, in which actors draw on remembered experiences to produce raw, deep emotions on stage or screen. In 1947, he cofounded the Actors Studio, which became the training ground for generations of Method and other actors. His milestone Broadway productions in the 1940s and 1950s included Thornton Wilder’s ”The Skin of Our Teeth”, Miller’s ”All My Sons” and ”Salesman,” Archibald MacLeish’s ”J.B.” (these last three earned Tonys for Kazan’s direction), and Williams’ ”Streetcar,” ”Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” and ”Sweet Bird of Youth.”

Hollywood came calling with ”A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (1945). Kazan’s films often addressed controversial social issues, as in ”Gentleman’s Agreement” (anti-Semitism), ”Pinky” (miscegenation), ”On the Waterfront” (union corruption), and ”A Face in the Crowd” (media demagoguery). He was nominated for seven Oscars and won twice, for directing ”Agreement” (1947) and ”Waterfront” (1954). Along the way, he proved instrumental in launching the careers of such actors as Brando, Dean (in ”East of Eden”), Rod Steiger, Karl Malden, Julie Harris, Carroll Baker, Eli Wallach, and Warren Beatty.

Kazan also received an honorary Oscar for his life’s work in 1999. The decision to honor him revived the controversy of his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952, in which he identified eight Group Theater colleagues as communists, thereby saving himself from the blacklist. Friends like Brando and Miller reviled him for this action, though it didn’t stop them from working with him again. Even in 1999, such actors as Nick Nolte and Ed Harris refused to stand and applaud when Kazan accepted his trophy. But he remained unrepentant for the move, which he had defended in parable form with ”Waterfront,” in which Brando’s dock worker gets beaten within an inch of his life for testifying against the Mob but remains defiant. As is so often the case, the work was its own best defense.