Obituary: Morris Carnovsky

David Shipman
Thursday 03 September 1992 23:02

Morris Carnovsky, actor, born St Louis Missouri 5 September 1898, married Phoebe Brand (one son), died Easton Connecticut 1 September 1992.

MORRIS CARNOVSKY appeared only once on the London stage, in 1938, when he re-created his role of the prizefighter protagonist's father in Clifford Odets's Golden Boy, which he had played on Broadway. But he was known otherwise as a distinctive supporting actor in movies, and as a name to theatregoers in the United States - a supporting actor for them, most of the time, but an essential player in the two companies which wholly influenced New York theatre until Broadway succumbed to musicals and theatre parties.

This week's edition of Variety lists a number of important talents - including Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Miller - whose new works will be staged off-Broadway. Way back, it was an organisation called the Theatre Guild which set the pace, turning its back on the frivolities which reigned on the Great White Way. The public, encouraged by the critics, was ready - if not eager - for something serious. Carnovsky joined the guild in 1923, just a few months after making his New York stage debut, and he remained with it until 1930, playing, among other roles, La Hire in Saint Joan; Aliocha in The Brothers Karamazov and Dr Schutzmacher in The Doctor's Dilemma. Stardom, of sorts, was his when he played the title-role in Uncle Vanya, but by this time the guild was becoming Establishment and Carnovsky was looking for something more challenging.

He found it with the Group Theatre, the left-wing company whose most eloquent exponent was Odets. Chancing today upon the plays of Odets (Awake and Sing, Waiting for Lefty, Rocket to the Moon), or others by the Group Theatre dramatists (or the films made from those plays) we may be intimidated by their socialist platitudes, but Manhattan's intelligentsia lapped them up.

From the Group came the actor Elia Kazan, who as a director achieved a further transformation of US theatre with A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and Death of a Salesman (1949). Neither Marlon Brando nor Kazan is quite sure what each owes the other; but Kazan owed much of his skills to Carnovsky, even if he did not quite approve of him . 'The image Morris liked for himself was as the (Group's) elder statesman,' he wrote in his memoir, 'setting an example of devotion and discipline to the others.'

Taking time off from the Group, Carnovsky took the Hollywood trail, making his movie debut as Anatole France in The Life of Emile Zola (1937), with Paul Muni as Zola. He stayed with Warner Brothers to play a banker in the enchanting comedy Tovarich, and returned to that studio to be a pastor in one of the better Resistance dramas, Edge of Darkness (1943). He did not have a prolific screen career, but Hollywood sent for him whenever they needed an actor of gravitas: a Jewish director of an art gallery in a well-meant anti-Nazi tract, Address Unknown (1943); the Gershwins' father in Rhapsody in Blue; an evil nightclub owner - perhaps his most effective film performance - in Dead Reckoning (1947), starring Humphrey Bogart; and Hedy Lamarr's all-knowing psychiatrist in Dishonoured Lady (1947).

After playing Le Bret in Stanley Kramer's cut-price Cyrano de Bergerac (1950), with Jose Ferrer in the title-role, Carnovsky was blacklisted as a Communist by the industry, after refusing to disclose any past affiliations with the Party. Most of the others in this position found it impossible to find work, but Carnovsky's reputation in theatrical circles enabled him to keep working. He became, as he had been with the Theatre Guild and the Group Theatre, a cornerstone of another new, innovative, ambitious company, the American Shakespeare Festival, based in Stratford, Connecticut, playing, among others, Shylock, Claudius in Hamlet, Quince in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Feste in Twelfth Night, and Prospero.

After some mufti engagements he returned to Stratford in 1963 to play the title-role in King Lear, which he also played in Chicago and again at Stratford in 1964 and 1965. The cinema reclaimed him twice more: for Sidney Lumet's long-unseen A View From the Bridge (1962), and Karel Reisz's The Gambler (1974), in which he was James Caan's grandfather, acting with the authority which made him a master of his craft.

(Photograph omitted)

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