News your connection to The Boston Globe

Phoebe Brand; blacklisted actress began troupe

LOS ANGELES -- Phoebe Brand Carnovsky, one of the first actresses to join the legendary Group Theatre in New York City that was founded in 1931 to bring contemporary plays of social relevance to Broadway, has died. She was 96.

Ms. Brand, who along with her actor husband, Morris Carnovsky, was blacklisted for their political beliefs in the 1950s, died July 3 at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York City of complications from pneumonia, according to her son, Stephen.

A teacher of acting as well as an actress and director, Ms. Brand used her maiden name professionally for a theater career that spanned much of the last century.

Although she spent most of her professional life in New York, she and her husband lived in Hollywood for about a decade starting in 1942, where she was a member of the Actor's Lab theater.

It was there that Ms. Brand established her reputation as a gifted and passionate teacher of acting.

After decades of stage work, Ms. Brand made her movie debut at age 86. She had a small role in ''Vanya on 42nd Street," directed by Louis Malle.

''She worked until the end of her life," her son said. Her career ''shows us the importance of art and of the work that actors and actresses do."

Ms. Brand joined the Group Theatre's innovative team that included director and teacher Lee Strasberg, resident playwright Clifford Odets, actors John Garfield and Stella Adler as well as Morris Carnovsky.

Their goal was to stage plays that mirrored the difficult times in the 1930s.

The ensemble company developed American Method acting, a realistic approach to stage performance that draws on emotional memories, private experiences, and improvisation. Future actors, most notably Marlon Brando, were powerfully influenced by the style.

Ms. Brand appeared in a number of plays that Odets wrote for Group Theatre. Odets's ''Waiting for Lefty", about corruption in a trade union, was first performed in 1935 at a union hall for striking New York taxi drivers.

It received an enthusiastic response.

She was also in Odets's ''Awake and Sing!" and ''Golden Boy" before the company disbanded in 1941.

That same year Ms. Brand married Carnovsky, and they soon moved to Los Angeles where he pursued a film career while she continued her stage work.

Their passion for social justice was apparent in their frequent appearances in fund-raising productions for progressive causes.

They once helped close a Hollywood delicatessen after the owner refused to serve a black actor. Ms. Brand, Carnovsky, and about 100 other protesters set up a picket line outside the store, recalled Norma Barzman, a screenwriter and friend of Ms. Brand, who is also the author of ''The Red and the Blacklist," a memoir about Hollywood and the Communist hunting in the 1940s and 1950s.

''Phoebe was a great actress, she had great talent," Barzman said.

Through the 1940s, Ms. Brand and her husband were members of the American Communist Party. They were among eight people named as communists by Elia Kazan, a former Group Theater member and famous director, during the McCarthy hearings in 1952. Brand and Carnovsky were blacklisted.

The exposure was a setback to Carnovsky's film career, but the couple returned to theater work in New York City starting with a production of ''The World of Sholem Aleichem."

The play ran for two years at the Barbizon-Plaza Theater.

From there, Ms. Brand became a founding member of the Round Table Review in New York City, where she also directed several works, including a stage adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel ''The Idiot."

In the early 1960s she was a co-founder of Theater in the Street and directed plays with free admission in New York City's less affluent neighborhoods.

She worked with several up-and-coming actors at the time, including Billy Dee Williams and the late Raul Julia.

Born in Ilion, near Syracuse, N.Y., she began training for an acting career after high school, attending the Clare Tree Major School of Theater in New York City.

She studied singing, dancing, and Shakespearean acting before she joined the Group Theatre, where Strasberg became her teacher.

Ms. Brand continued teaching after she left acting and directing. Most recently, she taught private lessons to small groups of students in her home.

She held her last classes in her hospital room.

Morris Carnovsky died in 1992.

Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives