Remembering Jack Garfein

Jack Garfein at his Studio in New York in 2016

Just as we were ringing in the new year, word was getting around that Jack Garfein, the filmmaker, theater director, and acting instructor who discovered Steve McQueen and cast James Dean in his first play, had passed away. He was eighty-nine. Kim Morgan, who presented a revival of Garfein’s second feature, Something Wild (1961), on TCM in 2010 and at the Telluride Film Festival in 2012—and who interviewed Garfein for our 2017 release—has tweeted a couple of solid recommendations: “Watch his movies. Read about his life.”

And Garfein did indeed lead a truly remarkable life. Born to well-to-do Jewish parents in Czechoslovakia in 1930, he lost most of his family in the Holocaust. He was fourteen and weighed just forty-eight pounds when the British liberated Bergen-Belsen in 1945. It was the eleventh concentration camp he’d survived, albeit just barely. Nursed back to health by a nun in Sweden, Garfein was among the first Holocaust survivors to arrive in the U.S. in 1946. Though he spoke no English, he was so determined to become an actor that he learned the language, landed a scholarship, and studied under Erwin Piscator, a renowned German theater director who had worked with Brecht. Tony Curtis, Eli Wallach, and Rod Steiger were among his classmates in the Dramatic Workshop at the New School in New York.

Even as he worked at the Beacon Hotel as a package boy to keep the lights on, Garfein founded his own company, the first of many, and began studying directing under Lee Strasberg. At the age of twenty, two years before he was naturalized as an American citizen, Garfein was directing fifteen-minute dramas for television. Strasberg was so impressed with his production of Dumas’s Camille that he invited him to join the Actors Studio. That was when he cast James Dean in End as a Man, Calder Willingham’s play about a staff sergeant at a southern military college who sadistically bullies incoming cadets. Encouraged by Strasberg and Elia Kazan, Garfein opened the production off-Broadway, a first for the Actors Studio.

End as a Man also became Garfein’s first feature film. Produced by Sam Spiegel, starring Ben Gazzara in his on-screen debut, and eventually retitled The Strange One (1957), the film led to Garfein’s falling out with Columbia Pictures over his refusal to cut a scene with black actors. Columbia cancelled Garfein’s contract and The Strange One was all but forgotten until the Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna presented a new restoration in 2007. In a 2009 review for the A.V. Club, Nathan Rabin wrote that “the film’s long takes, bare sets, and talky scenes end up working in its favor, imbuing Willingham’s darkly comic little drama with pummeling intensity and sweaty claustrophobia.”

For his next, independently financed project, Garfein turned to Mary Ann, a 1958 novel by Alex Karmel about a college student who, unable to cope with having been brutally raped, is about to leap to her death from the Manhattan Bridge when she’s saved by a mechanic—who then holds her captive in his apartment. Something Wild stars Carroll Baker, whom Garfein had met at the Actors Studio and then married—in the essay accompanying our release, Sheila O’Malley calls her performance “a towering achievement”—and Ralph Meeker, playing against type and “burying his sex appeal under the guise of a flabby, seedy slob,” as Imogen Sara Smith points out here in the Current.

Though Something Wild is now admired for Baker and Meeker’s performances, Saul Bass’s opening credits sequence, Aaron Copland’s score, and Eugen Schüfftan’s cinematography—Schüfftan, who had worked with Fritz Lang on the visual effects in Metropolis, not only captures the expanse and bustle of the streets of New York but also the oppressive sense of confinement in the loner’s empty apartment—the film was shunned by audiences and critics alike. “Cinema needed him then (but stupidly resisted),” wrote Kim Morgan in 2012, adding that Garfein was “an artist who beautifully combines expressionistic lyricism with raw naturalism.”

Garfein carried on teaching in New York, and eventually Paris as well. He taught Bruce Dern, Sissy Spacek, Ron Perlman, Irène Jacob, and Laetitia Casta and directed the likes of Elaine Stritch, Shelley Winters, and Uta Hagen in a string of theatrical productions. With Paul Newman, he founded a branch of the Actors Studio in Los Angeles. When Eli Friedberg interviewed Garfein at considerable length for the Film Stage in 2017, he found him to be “a born storyteller and instinctive dramatist: every person he speaks to is an audience, every conversation a stage.” Garfein never dropped names just to leave them there; there was always a story behind each one. Watch what happened, for example, when he entered our closet in 2012:

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