Elia Kazan, acclaimed theater and film director, died Sunday at the age of 94. Mr. Kazan will long be remembered for his contributions to the American stage and motion pictures.
Elia Kazan was born in a Greek section of what is now Istanbul, Turkey, on September 7, 1909. His family emigrated to the United States when he was only four years old. He was a shy youngster, who was later remembered by his college classmates as somewhat of a loner.
In 1932, after a year at Yale University's School of Drama, Elia Kazan moved to New York City to become an actor. He found the outlet for his creative energies at the Group Theater, a center that showcased works of social commentary. Initially, he was told that he had no acting ability. But determined to prove himself, Kazan surprised even his loudest critics by emerging as one of the Group's most capable actors.
However, acting wasn't enough for the young Kazan, and by the mid-1930s, he began to direct in the theater. His first real break came in 1942, with Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer prize-winning play The Skin of Our Teeth. He went on to direct the stage productions of the now-legendary All My Sons and Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, and Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams. The partnerships with Miller and Williams firmly established Kazan's reputation as the foremost theater director of his day.
At the height of his stage success, Kazan turned to Hollywood and quickly demonstrated his skill as a director of motion pictures. Kazan pulled Marlon Brando out of obscurity to star in the 1954 film On the Waterfront. The film exposed corruption in the New York area's longshoreman's union and won the Academy Award for the best picture of the year.
Elia Kazan's long list of film credits includes Viva Zapata (1952), East of Eden (1955), Wild River (1960) and The Last Tycoon (1976). In Splendor in the Grass (1961), he put the then unknown Warren Beatty into a starring role. Today a popular actor and director, Beatty told a Kennedy Center audience that Kazan had given him the most important break of his career.
"I was a lucky guy to be able to observe this man in my first picture," said Beatty. "I observed his clarity, his organization, his innovation, his sense of vitality and persistence, his stamina, and, most of all, his ability to make everyone around him feel that they were geniuses.
"I remember the night that he hired me for Splendor in the Grass," recalled Beatty. "He grabbed my lapels as we walked into a restaurant, and he sort of pushed me up against the wall, and he said, 'O.K. kid, I don't have to look at the [screen] test we made today. You got the part.' Then he said, 'Do you want to know why?' I said, 'Yes!' He said, 'I'll tell you why. It's because you gave me so many good directorial ideas when we worked on the scene today.' And he said, 'I'm going to need a lot more of that out of you.'"
Although Kazan never left the director's chair, he did turn away long enough to write four best-selling novels. In two of these - America, America and The Arrangement - he told the story of his Greek immigrant ancestors. Kazan later turned these novels into motion pictures.
During his long career, Elia Kazan won the coveted Tony and Oscar Awards for excellence on stage and screen. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan presented Kazan with the Kennedy Center honors award, a national tribute for life achievement in the arts. At the ceremony, Budd Schulberg, screenwriter of Kazan's On the Waterfront, thanked his lifelong friend saying, Elia Kazan "has touched us all with his capacity to honor not only the heroic man, but the hero in every man!"
In 1999, the film industry gave Elia Kazan an Academy Award for lifetime achievement. "I want to thank the Academy for its courage, its generosity," said Kazan in his acceptance speech. "Thank you all very much. Now I can just slip away."