As friends growing up in the Bronx in the early ‘20s, Jules Garfinkel and Clifford Odets shared a number of things in common. Both were in the process of surviving stereotypically tough Bronx childhoods, neither received much by way of a formal education, and by the time they were in their teens, both had decided they wanted to be actors. In the end, despite their wild individual successes, a single play would link them, becoming a running subtext in both their lives.
In 1931, Odets became a charter member of Harold Clurman, Lee Strasberg and Cheryl Crawford’s Group Theater, which for better or worse introduced The Method to far too many young New York actors. After appearing in a few small supporting roles in the troupe’s productions, however, it was gently suggested to Odets that he might be of more use to the troupe writing plays than actually appearing in them.
In 1934, as Odets was still struggling to get a handle on that whole “playwrighting” thing, Garfinkel, after stints with several other theater companies, joined the troupe himself. His streetwise spirit and heavy New York accent was in sharp contrast to most of the trained thespians in the group, but was exactly what they were looking for for plays that were supposed to be giving voice to the common man. The next year he accepted a major role in Odets first staged play, Waiting for Lefty, about a New York cabbie strike. The play was a hit, and overnight it transformed Odets into America’s hottest new young playwright. It also earned a lot of attention for Garfinkel, who went on to appear in Odets’ next play, Awake and Sing! The second play only increased both their reputations.
In 1937 Garfinkel (who by then was performing as Jules Garfield) was starring in a play in Los Angeles when he was contacted by Odets. Odets was working on a play written specifically for him, and it was simply a given that Garfield would play the lead. (I’ve always thought Odets liked having Garfield in his plays, not only because they were old friends, but because Garfield was one of the few actors who could actually make that self-conscious and overwrought street poetry sound almost believable.) Well aware of Garfield’s early training as a boxer, Golden Boy concerned Joe Bonaparte, a kid from the slums who had to choose between boxing and the violin. Well, Garfield quit the play in Los Angeles and immediately flew back to New York to begin prepping for the role. But when the casting was announced, director Harold Clurman gave the role of Joe Bonaparte to Luther Adler instead, explaining Garfield, then in his mid-20s, was too young for the part. Garfield was relegated to playing another wisecracking and free-spirited cabbie. The play went on to become the most successful in Group Theater history.
Feeling a bit more than betrayed, more by Clurman than by Odets (who was pretty pissed about the snub himself), when Warner Brothers offered Garfield a two picture deal not long after that, he packed up, left the Group Theater behind, and moved to Hollywood. His first screen appearance, a small but memorable turn in Four Daughters, earned him not only an Oscar nomination but also a new and deadly seven-year contract with Warners. It also marked the moment he would become now and forever known as John Garfield.
Two years later in ‘39 when Columbia was preparing to adapt Golden Boy for the screen, Harry Cohn called Jack Warner at Odets’ urging and asked if they could borrow Garfield to play the lead. Warner refused, and this time the role of Joe Bonaparte went to William Holden.
It would be another six years, with Garfield approaching the end of his Warners contract before he and Odetts took another stab at it, in a way. Odets, who by this time was well established as a Hollywood screenwriter, co-wrote Humoresque, about a kid from the slums who becomes a famed violinist torn between his career and his love for a crazy, crazy Joan Crawford. Yeah, the script has more than a little Golden Boy lurking about at its core, and at times almost feels as if Odets is doing what he can to make amends for that earlier snub. The film even co-starred the Group Theater’s Ruth Nelson.
Humoresque was a huge hit, Garfield was riding high as the most outrageously popular movie star in the world, and now finished with Warners he was free to create his own production company, a company that would go on to make the likes of Body and Soul and Force of Evil. Odets, who’d been doing quite well for himself in Hollywood (if reluctantly, and often uncredited) left for six years after Humoresque to resume writing for the stage, returning in ‘52 for Fritz Lang’s adaptation of his play Clash by Night. Perhaps coincidentally it was with his return to Hollywood that the friendship took an unexpected turn.
At the height of the McCarthy era, Garfield, who not only campaigned hard to hire black and Latino actors and crew members, worked with a number of avowed Communist Party members, and who’s wife was a former member of the Party herself, but who had also appeared in a number of politically suspect films (We Were Strangers, Force of Evil) and had gone on the radio to rail against the witch-hunt, was not surprisingly called to testify at the HUAC hearings in 1952. Under questioning, he told the investigative panel in essence that where he grew up, you learned not to snitch. He refused to name names, refused to say anything at all about anyone else, and was summarily blacklisted. Odets meanwhile, who had joined the Party in ‘34 but quit a few months later and subsequently disavowed communism completely, appeared before the hearings as a friendly witness. Although he’d grown up in the same neighborhood as Garfield, he apparently never learned the same lessons. To be fair, while he named names, he did not name anyone who hadn’t already been named by others, and in the end was not blacklisted. Despite the different lessons they took away from their Bronx childhoods, the divide at the HUAC hearings did not seem to have any effect on their friendship.
A few months after the hearings and unable to find movie work of any kind, Garfield finally had the chance to star as Joe Bonaparte in a new Broadway production of Golden Boy. Fifteen years after Clurman spit in his eye, he was finally old enough to play the role, and could finally put what he had always considered his greatest professional disappointment (apart from that whole “blacklist” thing, I guess) behind him. The new production—as stories like this demand—was directed by Clifford Odets.
Two months after appearing in Golden Boy, Garfield died at the age of 39. And two days after a funeral which was the largest New York had seen since Valentino’s, the Times ran a long letter from Odets which ended, simply enough, “I will always love you.”
by Jim Knipfel