Jack Garfein, Director from Actors Studio's heyday, dies at 89

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Jack Garfein, Director from Actors Studio's heyday, dies at 89
The director, producer and acting teacher Jack Garfein while teaching at the Actors Studio in New York on March 15, 2011. Garfein, a Holocaust survivor who became a noted director, producer and acting teacher, working with some of the greatest actors and playwrights of his era, died on Dec. 30, 2019, at a hospital in Manhattan. He was 89. Robert Caplin/The New York Times.

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Jack Garfein, a Holocaust survivor who became a noted director, producer and acting teacher, working with some of the greatest actors and playwrights of his era, died Dec. 30 at a hospital in Manhattan. He was 89.

His family said the cause was leukemia.

Garfein was at the heart of the Actors Studio in Manhattan in the 1950s, when it was staging attention-getting work based on the method-acting principles of Konstantin Stanislavski.

“Garfein was one of the last surviving early members of the Studio,” the film and theater historian Foster Hirsch said by email, adding that he “in effect had become a historian of the Studio’s earliest and most illustrious period.”

He first drew wide notice as the director of “End as a Man,” Calder Willingham’s adaptation of his own novel about harsh life in a Southern military academy. The play, which featured Ben Gazzara in his breakout role, opened in the West Village and then moved to Broadway. Garfein, seven years after arriving in New York speaking no English, was only 23.

It was a remarkably fast start to a career that went on to include five more Broadway credits as director or producer, countless off-Broadway productions, and a major role in establishing a West Coast branch of the Actors Studio in 1966.

Garfein, working on both coasts and having advanced the early careers of Gazzara, George Peppard, Steve McQueen and other stars, might also have been expected to have a substantial film résumé. But he never got much of a foothold in that world, directing only two movies, “The Strange One” in 1957 (an adaptation of “End as a Man”) and “Something Wild” in 1961.

The reason was no secret: He clashed with certain Hollywood titans, including producer Sam Spiegel, at a time when that was enough to end a movie career. But in a 2011 interview, Garfein, whose whole family died in the Holocaust and who barely survived the concentration camps himself, shrugged off the blackballing.

“I’ve been bullied by bigger people than them,” he said.

Jakob Garfein was born July 2, 1930, in Mukachevo, then part of Czechoslovakia and now part of Ukraine. His father, Hermann, was an executive at the family sawmill, and his mother, Blanka (Spiegel) Garfein, was a homemaker. With the Nazis threatening the country in the late 1930s, the family fled to Hungary, but in 1944 the Nazis occupied that nation as well and the family was deported to Auschwitz.

Later he recalled the prisoners being divided into two lines: one for men and boys 16 and older, one for women and children. Although he was only 13, his mother shoved him into the men’s line. At the time he took that as rejection, but in hindsight he realized it was her way of saving him.

In the line, another unexpected turn helped him survive. Infamous Nazi doctor Josef Mengele himself was reviewing the male prisoners. After young Jakob gave his age as 16, a skeptical pause hung in the air until the stranger next to him in line, an old man, said Garfein was his apprentice and both were master mosaic artists. That got them sent to the forced-labor group rather than to the gas chamber.

“This god came down in the guise of an old man,” Garfein said in “A Journey Back,” a 2010 documentary about his return to Auschwitz, “because I never saw that old man again.”

Garfein said he was shuttled among 11 different camps. At the end of the war in 1945, he was taken with other survivors to Sweden, where a museum had been converted into a hospital and recuperation center.

There some of the survivors presented a stage performance for their hosts, reenacting scenes from life in the labor camps. He was cast as a cabin boy, serving a capo, a Jewish prisoner in a low-level administrative position. In the performance, the man playing the capo unexpectedly lighted a cigarette, took a few puffs, then flipped it aside, and Garfein reacted instinctively.

“Without a second’s hesitation, I was on my feet running with the speed of a leopard toward a fallen prey,” he wrote in “Life and Acting: Techniques for the Actor” (2010), a combination memoir and textbook.

“I felt myself back at the camp,” he continued, “where a cigarette stub had the value of a perfectly cut diamond. Even the fetid odor of the camp and the hunger pains around my stomach became as they had once been.”

Pouncing on the cigarette butt in that unrehearsed moment, he had unknowingly tapped into a technique of internalized acting, one he would soon be helping up-and-coming stars to perfect in New York.

He came to the city in 1946 under foster care sponsored by a charity, and was soon accepted into a dramatic workshop run by Erwin Piscator at the New School; Gazzara, Tony Curtis, Walter Matthau, Marlon Brando and other future household names went through the same program.

Garfein did some acting but was soon gravitating toward directing. Among his first jobs, in 1950, was directing a production of “Home of the Brave,” a drama by Arthur Laurents, at the Boro Park Young Men’s Hebrew Association in Brooklyn. Lee Strasberg, artistic director of the Actors Studio, offered him an opportunity to observe there.

In November 1952, Garfein met Willingham at a party and persuaded him to send him a copy of the script he had adapted from his novel “End as a Man,” which had come out in 1947. Garfein shared the script with Strasberg, who said, as Garfein recalled it later: “This is Broadway material. I don’t understand why nobody has done it.”

Strasberg made Garfein a member of the studio — rare for a director — and had him direct the play. In 1956, Garfein directed his second Broadway production, “Girls of Summer,” a drama by N. Richard Nash that starred Shelley Winters, Pat Hingle, Arthur Storch and Peppard, among others. Later in the 1950s, he directed “The Sins of Pat Muldoon” and “The Shadow of a Gunman” on Broadway.

Garfein had married actress Carroll Baker in 1954, and she starred in his second film, “Something Wild,” playing a rape victim. Based on a novel by Alex Karmel, with a script by him and Garfein, it was strong stuff for the period.

“The film, with intense performances from Carroll Baker, Ralph Meeker and Mildred Dunnock, was a method acting showcase,” Hirsch said. “Widely dismissed at the time, the film has come to be recognized as a brilliant analysis of the psychology of a rape victim. Its story of psychological and physical confinement resonated with Garfein’s own personal history as a Holocaust survivor.”

In the 1960s, Baker’s expanding film career took the couple to the West Coast, where in 1966 the Actors Studio opened a Hollywood branch with Garfein as its first executive director. After he and Baker divorced in 1969, Garfein made his way back to New York. In the 1970s and ’80s he was artistic director of the Clurman and Samuel Beckett theaters. A friend of Samuel Beckett’s, he brought a number of his plays to those theaters.

In 1979 he produced Arthur Miller’s “The Price” on Broadway; it ran for 144 performances. The next year he had less success producing Miller’s “The American Clock” on Broadway; it lasted only 12 performances. It was his last Broadway credit.

Garfein taught acting all over the world, and in the mid-1980s he founded his own studio in Paris, living there for a number of years before returning to New York. He lived most recently in Brooklyn.

In 1998 he married Anna Larreta; they divorced in 2005. In August he married Natalia Repolovsky, a technical writer, whom he had met in 2012.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by two children from his first marriage, actress Blanche Baker Magill and composer Herschel Garfein; two children from his second marriage, Rela Garfein and Elias Garfein; six grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Garfein, as he himself admitted, could be difficult to work with, but he also knew when he had overstepped. In his book he told of reprimanding James Dean during a work session when the actor, in a minor role in a trial scene, seemed not to be listening to the courtroom proceedings.

“Furious,” Garfein wrote, “he produced the steno pad he used in the scene, showing me each word uttered in the courtroom put down in his own shorthand. I apologized.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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