John Garfield

“If I hadn’t become an actor, I might have become Public Enemy Number One.” A revealing comment from the man born Jacob Jules Garfinkle. Filmgoers knew him by his stage name-John Garfield.

Born March 4, 1913 in a small apartment in Manhattan’s Lower East Side to Russian immigrants David and Hannah Garfinkle. Growing up his friends called him “Julie,” not meaning any disrespect. His father, although a hardworking man struggled to support his growing family. When his wife died as a result of a difficult pregnancy, David’s two sons we sent to family members scattered around New York City.

Wherever the two young brothers went they faced poverty. Young Julie spent more time on the tough New York streets than in school. His ability to read and perform in school suffered since he was chronic truant. He once said that he learned all “the meanness it’s possible for kids to acquire,” while surviving on the streets. It would be a natural extension for him to learn boxing. He soon started earning a few dollars as a sparring partner at local gyms. He soon developed a reputation as a kid who would bring his personal frustrations into the ring and punish whoever climbed into the ring for a workout. To Garfield, there was no such thing as soft boxing; he fought with a fire and passion.

After being removed from school three times he was sent to a special school for “difficult youngsters.” This was the best thing to happen to Garfield. He came under the guidance of the principal, Angelo Patri who introduced the young man to the art of acting.

Patri noticed a stammer in John’s speech and had him assigned to a speech therapy class where his teacher had him memorize lines and recite them before his classmates. John worked hard and soon he was cast in school plays. His teacher encouraged him to enter a citywide debating contest for students. John took second place. John was amazed at the love and admiration he received for his achievements. A whole new world opened to him.

His teachers urged him to take acting classes after school. He balanced his schoolwork with his acting classes. When he wasn’t acting, he volunteered building sets, auditing rehearsals and becoming involved in any shape possible. It wasn’t long before he petitioned acting groups to let him participate in productions. He got his break when
a Clifford Odets play, “Waiting for Lefty” hired to him to play a brooding young man.

John received positive reviews and thought that Broadway was to become his new home. This was not to happen. Promises made, promises broken.

John heard the call to Hollywood when Warner Brothers offered him a featured player contract for seven years. The first thing Warner did was change his name to John Garfield.

In 1938, his portrayal as a tragic composer in “Four Daughter” and an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Quickly Warners realizing what they had, renegotiated his contract-now he was one their Star Players for seven years.

John tried to enlist in the service and join the fighting in World War II. He was rejected because of a heart condition. Eager to do all he could, he and Bette Davis organized the famous Hollywood Canteen. He went overseas to entertain troops, made promotional films encouraging the purchase of war bonds. He also made such patriotic films as “Air Force,” “Destination Tokyo,” and “Pride of the Marines.”

After the war, he continued to make well received films- “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” and “Humoresque” The production company he founded tackled the issue of anti-Semitism with the 1947 film, “A Gentleman’s Agreement.” In 1948, he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in “Body and Soul.”

When his contract with Warner Brothers expired he elected not to resign and instead focused on developing scripts and films for his own company.

A supporter of liberal causes, he was involved in the Communist investigations of the late 1940s and early 1950s. He was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and asked to name members of any organization he was connected with. Garfield refused to list any names and this damaged him personally and professionally. “I have nothing to hide and nothing to be ashamed of. My life is an open book. I am no Red. I am no Pink. I am no fellow traveller. I am a Democrat by politics, a liberal by inclination, and a loyal citizen of this country by every act of my life.” Garfield became blacklisted. He could not find work in Hollywood since he was too hot to handle.

Needing work, he returned to his love of Broadway and starred in a 1952 revival of “Golden Boy.”

On the morning of May 21, John Garfield was found dead in the apartment of a friend. The cause was linked to his long standing heart problem. Others believed it was as a result of the blacklisting.

Long before there was a James Dean or a Marlon Brando, or Pacino or DeNiro, John set the pattern of the brooding dynamic rebel.

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