Childhood & Early Life
John Garfield was born on March 4, 1913, in Manhattan's Lower East Side, to Russian Jewish immigrant parents, David and Hannah Garfinkle. His father was a clothes presser and a part-time cantor.
When Garfield was seven, his mother died. As a result, he and his younger brother Max were sent to live with other relatives who were also poor. At school, he underperformed and often missed classes.
Later, he joined a series of street gangs and soon became a gang leader. He began to fight at a boxing gym and was good at mimicking famous performers.
Meanwhile, he caught scarlet fever which remained undiagnosed until adulthood. The illness caused permanent damage to his heart and made him miss school frequently. Finally, his father sent him to a school for problematic children.
The school's principal, educator Angelo Patri noticed his talent and introduced him to acting. His stammering problem was taken care of by a teacher called Margaret O'Ryan.
With his teacher’s support, he took acting lessons at a drama school. He also trained for a short while at the American Laboratory Theatre and the Civic Repertory Theatre.
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In 1932, John Garfield made his Broadway debut in a play called ‘Lost Boy’. It ran for two weeks only but earned him the much needed recognition.
Next, he was featured as an office boy in Elmer Rice's play ‘Counsellor-at-Law’. The play also starred Paul Muni and ran for several months. Around this period, Warner Bros approached him for a screen test but he declined.
His former colleagues from the American Laboratory Theatre had started a new theatre team, named ‘The Group’. He tried hard for an apprenticeship with them and was finally accepted after months of rejection.
Soon, ‘The Group’ announced a production of Clifford Odets’ full length drama ‘Awake and Sing’ and he was cast as Ralph, the sensitive young son. The play opened in 1935 and his performance was appreciated by critics.
Following this, his apprenticeship was officially over and he was voted to full membership by the Company. Odets claimed to the press that Garfield was his “find” and committed to writing a play just for him.
The play written was ‘Golden Boy’ but instead of casting him in the lead, Luther Adler was cast instead. Embittered over this gesture, Garfield began to consider offers made by Hollywood.
When approached earlier for screen tests by Hollywood studios, he had declined on the basis of being refused time off for stage work. When Warner Bros. agreed to his condition, he signed a standard feature player agreement of seven years with options.
Warner Bros. changed his name from Jacob Julius Garfinkle to John Garfield. After some initial delays, he was finally cast in a supporting but vital role in Michael Curtiz’s ‘Four Daughters’ (1938). His performance in the film was critically acclaimed.
Convinced by his acting prowess, Warner Bros. rewrote his contract, this time as a star player for seven years without options. He went on to star in films like ‘They Made Me a Criminal’ and ‘Blackwell's Island’ in 1939.
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Before the year ended, a disagreement between him and the studio erupted. Warner Bros. tried to cast him in crowd-pleasing melodramas whereas he wanted to appear in challenging roles that would highlight his versatility.
Because of this disagreement, he often refused an assigned role and the studio refused him payment. However, a prominent exception in this development was the film ‘Daughters Courageous’ (1939). It was appreciated by the critics but failed to please the audience.
When World War II began, he tried to enlist in the forces. Much to his disappointment, he got rejected because of his poor heart condition.
To show his support, he travelled abroad extensively to amuse the American troops and starred in commercially successful patriotic films such as ‘Air Force’ and ‘Destination Tokyo’ in 1943 and ‘Pride of the Marines’ in 1945.
After the war, he appeared in several successful films like ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’ (1946), ‘Humoresque’ (1946), ‘Body and Soul’ (1947), and the Academy Award winner ‘Gentleman's Agreement’ (1947).
In 1946, his contract with Warner Bros. expired and he chose not to renew it. Instead, as a star he pioneered an independent production house in Hollywood. In 1948, he also went back to Broadway and starred in ‘Skipper Next to God’.
He got involved in the liberal politics of the mid-20th century. He was never a Communist, but before the House Committee he refused to name those from the industry who had been part of Un-American Activities. As a result, he was blacklisted and his Hollywood career was terminated prematurely.
He then returned to Broadway and starred in a 1952 revival of ‘Golden Boy’, finally appearing in the role written for him years ago.
John Garfield is best remembered for his performance opposite Lana Turner in Tay Garnett's ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’ (1946). His other notable performance was in the film ‘Humoresque’ (1947), with Joan Crawford.
In Robert Rossen's film ‘Body and Soul’ (1947), he essayed the role of a poor person who works hard to become a boxing champion, albeit at great personal cost. In Abraham Polonsky's ‘Force of Evil’ (1948), he played the role of a greedy lawyer.
He also played the Jewish buddy of Gregory Peck's character in Elia Kazan's film about anti-Semitism, ‘Gentlemen's Agreement’ (1947).
Personal Life & Legacy
He married Roberta Seidman, a member of the Communist Party, in February 1935. The couple had three children together, Katherine, David and Julie; the latter two also became actors.
He was quite troubled with the imposed Hollywood blacklisting and in 1952, separated from his wife. A few days later, he met actress Iris Whitney for dinner, after having played tennis (much against doctor’s advice). Later, he suddenly fell ill and Whitney took him to her apartment. The next morning i.e., on May 21, 1952, she found him dead.
His funeral was attended by over ten thousand admirers and he was buried at Westchester Hills Cemetery, New York. His estate, valued at “more than $100,000” was left entirely to his estranged wife.