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Elia Kazan, 94; reshaped stage, cinema; roiled industry

Elia Kazan, whose work as a director in film and theater during the 1940s and 1950s helped effect a revolution in American acting, and whose willingness to testify as a friendly witness before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952 made him a political lightning rod for half a century, died yesterday at his home in Manhattan. He was 94.

No cause of death was given.

The tangled relationship between artistic achievement and political controversy in Mr. Kazan's career was illustrated in 1999 by the storm of protest that followed the announcement the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would honor him with a lifetime achievement award.

Mr. Kazan had won two previous Oscars, as best director, for "Gentleman's Agreement" (1947) and "On the Waterfront" (1954). He also won two Tony Awards, Broadway's highest honor, as best director for "Death of a Salesman" (1949) and "J.B." (1958). He was named a Kennedy Center honoree in 1983; and in 1987 the Directors Guild of America presented him with its highest honor, the D. W. Griffith Award.

Conversely, the American Film Institute rejected Mr. Kazan's nomination for its lifetime achievement award in 1989 because, as one board member put it, "I don't care about the films he directed. He named names [before HUAC] and we just can't honor anyone who did that." Similar rejections, for the same reason, came from the San Francisco Film Festival, in 1995, and the Los Angeles Film Critics, in 1997.

Mr. Kazan's artistic credentials were never at issue.

"From the mid-1940s through the '50s and on into the first two years of the '60s, I was the most successful director at work in America," Mr. Kazan wrote in his autobiography, "Elia Kazan: A Life" (1988). It was no idle boast. Among the first theatrical productions he oversaw were Thornton Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth" (1942), Arthur Miller's "All My Sons" (1947), Tennessee Williams's "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1947), "Salesman," Williams's "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955)" and "Sweet Bird of Youth" (1959), and Miller's "After the Fall" (1964).

Besides "Gentleman's Agreement" and "On the Waterfront," both of which earned Academy Awards for Best Picture as well as Best Director, Mr. Kazan's films include "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1951), "Viva Zapata!" (1952), "East of Eden" (1955), and "A Face in the Crowd" (1957).

Films directed by Mr. Kazan received a total of 58 Oscar nominations and won the award 22 times. Twenty-four of those nominations were for acting, and it was as a shaper of performers that Mr. Kazan, himself a former actor, had his greatest impact. As the film historian David Thomson has written, no other filmmaker has been "so absorbed in the American regard for sincere intensity of performance" or contributed more to the "enormous glamorization of the American actor."

Mr. Kazan had been a member of New York's famed Group Theatre during the 1930s and a founder with Lee Strasberg of the Actors Studio in 1948. Both institutions were dedicated to what has become known as "Method" acting: a performing style grounded in psychological realism, individual self-expression, and intense naturalism. It long ago came to be the dominant form of acting in this country -- a dominance created in no small way by the powerful performances Mr. Kazan harnessed in his work.

"Acting," he once explained, "is more than a parade of emotionalism, and it's more than gesturing appropriately and manipulating the voice. It is also more than a series of deft and clever bits of stage `business.' It is -- or should be -- a human life on stage, that is to say, behavior: total, complex, and complete."

His approach helped turn young, sometimes unknown actors into titans of the stage and screen: Montgomery Clift, James Dean (it was Mr. Kazan who first brought Dean to Hollywood), Lee Remick, Warren Beatty, and Marlon Brando. "Elia Kazan was my first teacher in movies, an indispensable mentor for me; inspiring, generous, unpretentious, pre-eminent in both the legitimate theater and the movies during a chaotic clash of culture and politics in America," Beatty told the Los Angeles Times yesterday.

Mr. Kazan worked with Brando five times: in Maxwell Anderson's play "Truckline Cafe" (1946), "Streetcar" on both stage and screen, "Zapata," and "Waterfront." "I always preferred Brando to anybody," Mr. Kazan once wrote. As for Brando, with no other director did he create as impressive a body of work. Their pairing ranks with that of Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich or John Ford and John Wayne as a touchstone for the collaboration between director and actor in the last century.

Elia Kazan was born in what is now Istanbul, the son of Greek parents, George and Athena (Sismanoglou) Kazanjioglou, on Sept. 7, 1909. The family moved to Berlin when he was 3 and, a year later, to the United States. They settled in New Rochelle, N.Y., and Mr. Kazan's father prospered as a rug merchant. Over his father's objections, Mr. Kazan attended Williams College and, after graduation, Yale Drama School. There he met his first wife, Molly Day Thacher, an aspiring playwright. The couple married in 1932.

A few months later, Mr. Kazan auditioned for the Group Theatre. "You may have talent for the theatre," Harold Clurman, one of Broadway's foremost figures and a founder of the organization, told him, "but it's certainly not for acting." Instead, he caught on as an artistic factotum. His backstage utility soon earned him the nickname "Gadget" or "Gadg." It was a name Mr. Kazan disliked along with what had inspired it: a reputation for "being handy, useful, and able to cope with any minor emergency."

He had greater ambitions.

Despite Clurman's critique, Mr. Kazan won acclaim for his supporting performances in three legendary Group productions of Clifford Odets dramas: "Waiting for Lefty," "Paradise Lost" (both 1935), and "Golden Boy" (1937).

Mr. Kazan, however, wanted to direct. "I've never been sure that I'm talented," he wrote in his autobiography, "not compared with those for whom the word `gifted' is precise. But I was always able to work harder than anyone else." And, he might have added, with more intensity. It was that quality, more than any other, perhaps, that he most memorably brought to bear as a director.

Mr. Kazan had his first great success with "The Skin of Our Teeth" -- one of the few times he would direct a comedy -- but it was after the war, working with Williams and Miller that he came into his own. Within a span of 14 months, he directed the premieres of what are generally considered the two greatest works in postwar American theater, "Streetcar" and "Salesman" (the latter was Mr. Kazan's favorite among the plays he was involved with).

The toast of both Broadway and Hollywood, Mr. Kazan found himself threatened with disaster, however. He had been a member of the Communist Party between 1934 and 1936; "a softheaded hard-liner," as he later described himself. Summoned before HUAC, he admitted his membership and -- the act many never forgave -- offered the names of eight other party members, including Odets. Mr. Kazan, who said that he cooperated because he opposed communism rather than he feared being blacklisted, never disavowed his actions. He even took out an ad in The New York Times defending his decision.

Mr. Kazan later wrote that, "The only genuinely good and original films I've made, I made after my testimony." He directed an undistinguished (and explicitly anticommunist) film soon after his HUAC appearance, "Man on a Tightrope" (1953), then embarked on a string of films marked by an emotional urgency new to American film. Mr. Kazan's earlier screen work had been notable for its social conscience. "Gentleman's Agreement" attacked anti-Semitism; "Pinky" (1949) attacked racial prejudice. His films also displayed an affinity for gritty urban settings, as in "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" (1945), "Boomerang" (1947), and "Panic in the Streets" (1950). Still, even Mr. Kazan's best work differed only in degree, not kind, from the "organized indifference," as he called it, of old-style moviemaking.

All that changed with "On the Waterfront," an explosive account of labor racketeering that was widely seen as a justification by Mr. Kazan and the film's writer, Budd Schulberg, for their having cooperated with HUAC. The movie's hero, portrayed by Brando, breaks the code of silence on the docks and courageously fingers a corrupt, murderous union boss in televised hearings.

The winner of eight Academy Awards, "Waterfront" was followed by "East of Eden," the highly controversial "Baby Doll" (1956), "A Face in the Crowd" (1957), "Wild River" (1960), and "Splendor in the Grass" (1961).

At their best, these films exhibit an emotional nakedness and hurtling drive that point the way to the franker, more innovative cinema of the 1960s and 1970s. At their worst, they can seem overwrought and neurotic; but even at that worst, there is not a single frame in them anyone would describe as tepid or rote.

It was, perhaps, inevitable that a sense of exhaustion would overtake Mr. Kazan. By the mid-1960s, he had largely abandoned film, and completely abandoned the stage, to concentrate on writing fiction. His first novel, "The Arrangement" (1967), topped the New York Times best-seller list for 37 weeks. Mr. Kazan later directed a film version (1969). His other novels include "The Assassins" (1972), "The Understudy" (1974), "Acts of Love" (1978), "The Anatolian" (1982), and "Beyond the Aegean" (1994).

The decision by the academy in 1999 to honor Mr. Kazan touched off a painful controversy. On awards night, some in the audience withheld applause; others gave him a warm reception. Director Martin Scorsese and actor Robert De Niro presented the award.

"I thank you very much. I really like to hear that and I want to thank the Academy for its courage, generosity," Mr. Kazan said.

His first wife died in 1963. His second wife, the actress and director Barbara Loden, died in 1980. Mr. Kazan leaves his wife, Frances, two sons, Leo and Nicholas, a screenwriter who received an Oscar nomination for the 1990 film "Reversal of Fortune;" two daughters, Katie and Judy; and several grandchildren.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this obituary.

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