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Elia Kazan

Elia Kazan



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Also Known As: Elia Kazanjoglou Died: September 28, 2003
Born: September 7, 1909 Cause of Death: natural causes
Birth Place: Turkey Profession: director, producer, screenwriter, actor, stage manager, author, bartender, waiter


A rare talent who scaled the heights of two artistic disciplines, Elia Kazan overcame humble roots to establish himself as both a driving force in American theater and as a highly-regarded filmmaker. Along the way, he would win three Academy Awards for directing classics like "On the Waterfront" (1954) and "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1951) and be the recipient of an equal number of Tony Awards for his direction of such Broadway landmarks as "Death of a Salesman." Kazan would be further lauded as a pioneer of social justice in cinema, and his daring examinations of topics like racial and religious prejudice came during a time when such things were discouraged by movie studios. Such displays of depth, daring and humanity influenced a generation of filmmakers including Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. Kazan's groundbreaking work with The Actor's Studio also earned him much credit for his promotion of "The Method," and he was instrumental in launching the careers of such practitioners of that craft as Marlon Brando, James Dean and Warren Beatty. However, as much as his personal convictions shaped his creative accomplishments, they would also determine how the general public came to regard him...

A rare talent who scaled the heights of two artistic disciplines, Elia Kazan overcame humble roots to establish himself as both a driving force in American theater and as a highly-regarded filmmaker. Along the way, he would win three Academy Awards for directing classics like "On the Waterfront" (1954) and "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1951) and be the recipient of an equal number of Tony Awards for his direction of such Broadway landmarks as "Death of a Salesman." Kazan would be further lauded as a pioneer of social justice in cinema, and his daring examinations of topics like racial and religious prejudice came during a time when such things were discouraged by movie studios. Such displays of depth, daring and humanity influenced a generation of filmmakers including Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. Kazan's groundbreaking work with The Actor's Studio also earned him much credit for his promotion of "The Method," and he was instrumental in launching the careers of such practitioners of that craft as Marlon Brando, James Dean and Warren Beatty. However, as much as his personal convictions shaped his creative accomplishments, they would also determine how the general public came to regard him following his cooperation with the House Committee on Un-American Activities at the height of the 1950s Red Scare. The ramifications of his decision to betray the trust of former associates would haunt Kazan right up until the end, but he left behind a legacy that even his most vehement ideological opponents could not deny.

Born Elias Kazanjoglou on Sept. 7, 1909 in Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey), Kazan's parents immigrated to America when he was four years old. His father, George, was a rug dealer given to displays of hostility at home, and the quiet boy was more simpatico with his mother, Athena, sharing her love of reading. George felt that his son would not amount to anything and aside from the bond he developed with his mother, Kazan tended to keep to himself. It was not until he later attended Williams College, where he graduated cum laude, that Kazan began to truly find his way. Upon completing an MFA at Yale Drama School in 1932, Kazan joined the Left-leaning Group Theater and became an actor, earning the nickname "Gadge" or "Gadget" for his handyman talents. That same year, he wed theater director Molly Day Thatcher, who introduced him to the works of Tennessee Williams and was a tremendous influence in pushing Kazan to try new things. Following such acclaimed performances as the labor agitator Agate in Clifford Odets' "Waiting for Lefty," he continued acting in Group productions until the troupe's dissolution. However, Kazan also initiated a second career as a director, overseeing stagings of such plays as Robert Ardrey's "Casey Jones" and "Thunder Rock," and made his motion picture directorial debut with the 1937 short "The People of the Cumberland." He also made a brief sojourn into film acting during this time, most notably, a co-starring role in the 1940 James Cagney vehicle "City for Conquest."

However, a motion picture directing career was what Kazan truly desired and he made his feature debut with the acclaimed "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" (1945), about a young girl striving to overcome the limitations of life in the Brooklyn tenements. His next effort, the Western "The Sea of Grass" (1946) proved far less auspicious and Kazan would later state that it was the only title in his filmography of which he was ashamed. The well-received docu-noir "Boomerang" was more rewarding, but the most important credit for Kazan in 1947 was "Gentlemen's Agreement," the first of the "social message" pictures for which he would become known. The groundbreaking story of a reporter (Gregory Peck) who pretends to be Jewish in order to research a story on anti-Semitism, the film won Best Picture and earned Kazan his first Best Director Oscar. Nonetheless, Kazan felt it just did not go far enough in its examination of the suffering of those who faced such prejudice. That same year, Kazan co-founded The Actor's Studio, which would become the preeminent organization for actors, directors and playwrights to study and refine The Method, an acting style derived from the teachings of Constantin Stanislavski. Practitioners sought to create more layered and complicated characters, and Kazan's leads were often thoughtful and introverted, but also given to bouts of great emotion, including unpredictable, violent outbursts of anger. Allowing performers to display a more complex range than commonly seen on the American stage at that time, The Method also brought a new reality and naturalism to screen acting.

Much as "Gentlemen's Agreement" explored anti-Semitism in a manner quite proactive for that time, Kazan's "Pinky" (1949) proved to be equally pioneering in its look at race relations in America, with Jeanne Crain starring as an African-American woman successfully passing for Caucasian in the South. While less polarizing in its subject matter, 1950's "Panic in the Streets" continued Kazan's successful exploration of film stylistics, making excellent use of down and dirty New Orleans locations in the manner made popular by 1948's trendsetting crime drama, "The Naked City." The year 1951 would prove to be a landmark one for Kazan, masterfully interpreting Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire" for the screen after having made it a smash on Broadway four years earlier, where it showcased a dynamic new talent named Marlon Brando. With powerhouse performances by Brando - who was making waves with his raw and real Method style - and Vivien Leigh, the film version's steaming sexual tension required that edits be made to satisfy censors, but there was still more than enough dramatic power remaining for the picture to score with both critics and the public.

In the wake of this triumph, however, Kazan made a decision in the spring of 1952 that would negatively color many people's perception of him until the end of his life. As a result of his membership in the American Communist Party from 1934 to 1936, Kazan was called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and eventually agreed to act as a "friendly witness," providing the names of several individuals - including playwright Clifford Odets, actor John Garfield, and Lee Strasberg, an instructor at The Actor's Studio - who were also members of the Group Theater during that time. Although the people in question were already familiar to the committee, Kazan also made his case in the press and that zealous championing of his beliefs set him apart from most others who cooperated with HCUA . Liberal members of the industry quietly condemned Kazan's actions, feeling that he could easily have continued his career with Broadway productions had he been blacklisted in Hollywood instead of throwing his coworkers under the proverbial bus.

Shouldering on, Kazan continued his string of successes, reteaming with Brando on "Viva Zapata" (1952) with the hot young star vividly interpreting famous revolutionary Emiliano Zapata in a mostly fictionalized screenplay by novelist John Steinbeck. Kazan and Brando worked together again on the powerful Union corruption drama "On the Waterfront" (1954), which earned the director his second Academy Award and further plaudits for Brando's singular talents via his superb turn as a punch-drunk ex-boxer who develops a conscience and fights back against his thuggish employers. Brando had spoken out against Kazan's testimony and said that he would no longer work with him, but the actor reconsidered his stance for this picture. However, "On the Waterfront" -which many interpreted as being in thematic support of Kazan's decision to name names - proved to be their final collaboration and one of many prices Kazan had to play. In a 1957 interview for The American Weekly, the director solemnly reported "I guess Marlon and I were as close as two people could get in this business. But I never hear from him. I sent him a script a year ago. He sent it back through an agent."

As much as "On the Waterfront" lionized Brando as one of the greatest screen actors of his generation, Kazan's superb adaptation of John Steinbeck's "East of Eden" (1955) made an instant icon of the similarly gifted James Dean, who was riveting as an angry youth desperate to attain the love denied to him by his father. However, the incredible critical plaudits for "East of Eden" were followed by loud condemnation from conservative elements when Kazan's "Baby Doll" hit screens the following year. The director's adaptation of Tennessee Williams' salacious play "27 Wagons Full of Cotton" (about the rivalry between a cotton gin owner and a Sicilian competitor for the affections of the former's sexy, virginal wife, who still sucks her thumb and sleeps in a baby's crib) pushed the Hays Code movie censorship rules to their breaking point and the picture was vehemently condemned by The Catholic Legion of Decency. While distributor Warner Bros. capitalized on some of the heat that was generated, "Baby Doll" proved to be too much of a hot potato for many theater owners and the film did not receive the wide exposure one would have expected of a project that had attracted such notoriety.

Still timely decades after its release, "A Face in the Crowd" (1957) found Kazan successfully returning to the role of social commentator, presenting a scathing look at the power of the young medium of television in the transformation of a seemingly country-wise, but actually highly-ambitious and hateful rube (Andy Griffith) into a powerful influence on the world of politics. "Wild River" (1960) offered a fictional return to a subject the director previously explored with "The People of the Cumberland," telling of a Tennessee Valley Authority representative (Montgomery Clift) charged with kicking people off their land so that the river system can be re-directed. Working with a leading man plagued by personal problems that further impacted his performance, Kazan still fashioned a compelling drama, highlighted by Jo Van Fleet's turn as a stubborn, elderly local who refuses to capitulate to government demands. The following year's "Splendor in the Grass" heralded another Kazan find in Warren Beatty, who made an immense impression opposite Natalie Wood in a sometimes melodramatic, but ultimately affecting look at unrequited love and a struggle between father and son that shared echoes of the similar conflict at the heart of "East of Eden."

Having already achieved great success in the theater and cinema, Kazan explored new frontiers with his first novel, 1962's semi-autobiographical America, America, based largely on the life of his uncle. He adapted the book for film the following year, intending it to be the first chapter in a trilogy that unfortunately never materialized. In spite of this and the great hardships he endured making it, Kazan considered "America, America" to be the favorite of his movies. With more film work not immediately in the offing, he concentrated his energies on the Lincoln Center, directing such plays as Arthur Miller's "After the Fall" and S.N. Berhman's "But for Whom Charlie." He returned to the literary world with 1967's The Arrangement which told of a successful advertising man struggling to find true happiness. A huge success, the subsequent paperback edition received a first printing of 2.4 million copies, a record at the time. Kazan would direct a 1969 film adaptation, toplined by Kirk Douglas and Faye Dunaway. Negative critical reaction to the novel did nothing to stem its popularity, but the brickbats afforded the film version did hurt its chances and the movie was not among Kazan's better remembered titles. Based on a novel that author F. Scott Fitzgerald had only partially completed prior to his death, "The Last Tycoon" (1976) was a fictionalized look at the life of Irving Thalberg, the young wunderkind studio head at MGM during the 1920s and '30s. Supervised by legendary producer Sam Spiegel, the film featured a number of attributes, including some impeccable production design and costuming, but ended up a commercial disappointment, in spite of a powerhouse cast, including Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson and Robert Mitchum.

His days as a member of the Hollywood community were now behind him, but Kazan continued to write novels and enjoyed much status as a director emeritus, with his greatest works being the object of considerable study. He also penned his autobiography, Elia Kazan: A Life in 1988 and was celebrated by esteemed film critic Richard Schickel twice over, first by the documentary "Elia Kazan, a Director's Journey" (1995) and later with Schickel's 2005 publication Elia Kazan: A Biography. In the spring of 1999, it was announced that Kazan would receive a lifetime achievement award from The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Inevitably, the director's cooperation with HCUA became an issue and a few hundred picketers both in support of and against Kazan marched in advance of the ceremony. Kazan's appearance onstage was introduced by Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese. The 89-year-old filmmaker expressed his thanks for the Academy's "courage and generosity," though some members of the audience refused to acknowledge these sentiments with applause, sitting firmly in their seats during the standing ovation. It would be his last hurrah, as Kazan passed away on Sept. 28, 2003 at the age of 94, leaving behind a daunting and still controversial legacy as a master director of stage and screen, a successful novelist, a leading proponent of an acting style that helped revolutionize the depiction of emotion on stage and in cinema, and a man who stood by personal principles that shaped both his own craft and the way the world viewed him.


Filmographyclose complete filmography


  Last Tycoon, The (1976) Director
  The Visitors (1972) Director
  The Arrangement (1969) Director
  America America (1963) Director
  Splendor in the Grass (1961) Director
  Wild River (1960) Director
  A Face in the Crowd (1957) Director
  Baby Doll (1956) Director
  East of Eden (1955) Director
  On the Waterfront (1954) Director

CAST: (feature film)

 Tell Them Who You Are (2004) Cast
 Heritage de la chouette, L' (1989) Himself
 Sis (1989) Fishing Boat Captain
 Hello Actors Studio (1987) Himself
 50 Years of Action! (1986) Himself
 Fighters, The (1974) Himself

Milestones close milestones

Co-directed and acted in the experimental short film, "Pie in the Sky"; wife Molly Day Thatcher also directed a segment
Accused of union-busting on "The Visitors", a family-affair (son Chris wrote and produced), low-budget picture shot in and around Kazan's home turf of Newton, CT; film reportedly cost $150,000, of which the non-union actors (including James Woods and Steve Railsback) received a total of $1,200; put on "unfair" list of Screen Actors Guild
After brief stay in Berlin, immigrated to the USA with parents
Bombed with "The Arrangement", film version of his own best-selling novel
Broadway directing debut, Thornton Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth"
Directed "Viva Zapata!", written by John Steinbeck and starring Marlon Brando
Directed Miller's "After the Fall" for inaugural season of Lincoln Center Repertory Theater; production starred second wife Barbara Loden playing a thinly disguised Marilyn Monroe
Helmed "Splendor in the Grass" from an Oscar-winning original screenplay by William Inge
Helmed the Broadway production of Miller's "Death of a Salesman"; received second Tony Award
"Panic in the Streets" marked his passage to a more ambitiously cinematic phase
Appeared on Broadway in Group Theatre production of Clifford Odets' "Waiting for Lefty"
Collaborated with Tennessee Williams on "Baby Doll"
Directed overtly anti-Communist film, "Man on a Tightrope", starring Fredric March
Directed short documentary "People of the Cumberland"
Film acting debut in the short "Cafe Universal"
Published memoirs "Elia Kazan: A Life"
Received acclaim for producing and directing "J.B.", Archibald MacLeish's retelling of the biblical story of Job
Staged the premiere of Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" on Broadway; exercised much influence over the final draft
Subject of documentary "Elia Kazan: A Director's Journey" (AMC), produced by long-time friend Julian Schlossberg
Was a member of the Communist Party
Appointed to develop and run the new Lincoln Center Repertory Theater
Broadway acting debut, "Men in White"
Co-founded (with Cheryl Crawford, Robert Lewis and Lee Strasberg) Actors Studio
Feature film acting debut in "City for Conquest", playing a neighborhood tough-turned-gangster opposite James Cagney
Feature film directing debut with "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn"
Nominated for three Oscars--Best Director, Best Picture (as producer) and Best Screenplay--for "America, America", based on his uncle's life
Played Eddie Fusseli in the Group Theatre production of Odets' "Golden Boy"
Produced first film "East of Eden"; also directed; adapted by Paul Osborn from the Steinbeck novel; picked up fourth Oscar nomination as Best Director
Received Oscar nomination as Best Director for "A Streetcar Named Desire"
Reunited with Schulberg for "A Face in the Crowd"
Subject of French documentary "Elia Kazan, Outsider"
Testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee and named eight former colleagues (including Odets and actress Paula Strasberg) as dangerous Communist infiltrators
Took home second Oscar as director of "On the Waterfront", written by fellow "name-dropper" Budd Schulberg
Turned up in a surprising role as Captain of Fishing Boat in foreign film "Sis", directed by Omer Zulfi Livanelli
After trying for some time to write a screenplay about the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority), turned ideas over to Osborn who scripted "Wild River", directed by Kazan
Apprenticed with Group Theater
Directed last feature film to date, "The Last Tycoon", adapted from the unfinished F. Scott Fitzgerald novel by Harold Pinter
Directed seminal Broadway productions of Arthur Miller's "All My Sons" (for which he won his first Tony) and Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire"
Group Theater folded
Raised in New York
Stage directing debut with "Casey Jones"
Theatrical debut as stage manager and understudy for the Theater Guild production, "The Pure in Heart" in Baltimore, Maryland
Won Best Director Oscar on first-ever nomination for "Gentleman's Agreement"; film also won Best Picture


Mayfair School: New York, New York -
New Rochelle High School: New Rochelle, New York - 1926
Williams College: Williamstown, Massachusetts - 1930
School of Drama, Yale University: New Haven, Connecticut - 1932


Kazan's handyman abilities earned him the nickname Gadget--Gadg for short--a handle he has often said he despised for its patronizing tone but which many of his closest friends use to this day as a purely affectionate form of address. Reportedly John Steinbeck told him: "That goddamn name is not you. ... You're not--or weren't--a handy, friendly adaptable little gadget. You made yourself that way to get along with people, to be accepted, to become invisible ... "

"I was the first to deal with many difficult subjects in the United States. I read the papers carefully. I get much of my inspiration from them." --Elia Kazan quoted at 1996 Berlin Film Festival in New York Post, February 19, 1996.

" ... I can get along all right with you liking me or disliking me. I'm O.K., I do my work, and that's what I feel is important for an artist--that he does his work in his way with his vision and he doesn't pay a lot of attention to the reaction. And I don't. I never did. ... On my worst day, when I was being attacked by all sides, I didn't care. I don't live by what people are saying about me. The only way we're ever going to be known is by our work, not by somebody boasting about us.

"You're looking at a man who is essentially content. I'm proud of my films. I think about a dozen of them are very good, and I don't think there are films as good on the subject or feeling. Writing my own work means more to me than I can get out of somebody else's work, and some of the stuff I did turned out all right." --Kazan to The New York Times, August 24, 1995.

"For what he's done, he's gone into a hermit's life. The thing is, he did name people, and many careers were destroyed. But you have to remember, this was an era where just ten years before, Japanese citizens, not aliens, had been rounded up and put in concentration camps in this country. We came through a dreadful time. But [Kazan] won't apologize, and he has to live with that. He felt his career would be over unless he did what he did." --Eli Wallach, in Entertainment Weekly, March 1998.

"If you can't say what's on your mind in the time it takes to soft-boil an egg, it isn't worth saying." --Elia Kazan quoted by Patricia Bosworth in "Kazan's Choice" in Vanity Fair, September 1999.

Companions close complete companion listing

Molly Day Thatcher. Filmmaker, photographer. Married on December 2, 1932; died in 1963 from a brain aneurysm; worked together with Kazan as members of the anti-fascist filmmaking group Nykino (for New York Camera, using the Russian word for "camera"); were two of the six directors of the famous experimental short, "Pie in the Sky" (1934), in which Kazan also acted.
Barbara Loden. Actor, director. Married on June 5, 1967; died on September 5, 1980; met while Kazan was casting "Wild River" (1960) and appeared in "Splendor in the Grass" (1961) and on Broadway in "After the Fall" (1964) under Kazan's direction; directed acclaimed independent feature "Wanda" (1971).
Frances Rudge. Novelist. Formerly married to manager Peter Rudge with whom she had a son and daughter; married on June 28, 1982.

Family close complete family listing

George Kazanjioglou. Rug merchant. Greek.
Athena Kazanjioglou. Greek.
Judy Morris. Mother, Molly Day Thatcher.
Chris Kazan. Screenwriter, novelist, film professor. Born in New York City c. 1939; died of cancer on December 14, 1991 in Santa Monica CA; mother, Molly Day Thatcher; wrote and produced "The Visitor" (1972) directed by his father; novels include "Mouth Full of Sugar" (1969) and "The Love Freak"; received BA from Harvard; was an assistant professor of film at Columbia University's School of the Arts; married to Jeneene Harris.
Nicholas Kazan. Screenwriter, director. Mother, Molly Day Thatcher; received Oscar nomination for "Reversal of Fortune" (1990); married to screenwriter Robin Swicord.
Katherine Athena Kazan. Mother, Molly Day Thatcher.
Leo Kazan.

Bibliography close complete biography

"America, America" Stein and Day
"The Arrangement"
"Kazan on Kazan: Interviews with Michel Ciment"
"The Assassins"
"The Understudy"
"Elia Kazan: A Life" Alfred A. Knopf
"Beyond the Aegean" Alfred A. Knopf
"The Assassins"
"Kazan--The Master Discusses His Films--Interviews with Elia Kazan"

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