|Intro||Playwright, screenwriter, director, actor|
|Was||Actor Writer Screenwriter Film director Playwright Stage actor|
|From||United States of America|
|Field||Film, TV, Stage & Radio Literature|
|Birth||18 July 1906, Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.|
|Death||14 August 1963, Glendale, Los Angeles County, California, U.S.A. (aged 57 years)|
Clifford Odets (July 18, 1906 – August 14, 1963) was an American playwright, screenwriter, and director. Odets was widely seen as successor to Nobel Prize-winning playwright Eugene O'Neill as O'Neill began to retire from Broadway's commercial pressures and increasing critical backlash in the mid-1930s. From early 1935 on, Odets' socially relevant dramas proved extremely influential, particularly for the remainder of the Great Depression. Odets' works inspired the next several generations of playwrights, including Arthur Miller, Paddy Chayefsky, Neil Simon, David Mamet, and Jon Robin Baitz. After the production of his play Clash by Night in the 1941-42 season, Odets focused his energies on film projects, remaining in Hollywood for the next seven years. He began to be eclipsed by such playwrights as Miller, Tennessee Williams and, in 1950, William Inge.
Except for his adaptation of Konstantin Simonov's play The Russian People in the 1942-43 season, Odets did not return to Broadway until 1949, with the premiere of The Big Knife, an allegorical play about Hollywood. At the time of his death in 1963, Odets was serving as both script writer and script supervisor on The Richard Boone Show, born of a plan for televised repertory theater. Though many obituaries lamented his work in Hollywood and considered him someone who had not lived up to his promise, director Elia Kazan understood it differently. "The tragedy of our times in the theatre is the tragedy of Clifford Odets," Kazan began, before defending his late friend against the accusations of failure that had appeared in his obituaries. "His plan, he said, was to . . . come back to New York and get [some new] plays on. They’d be, he assured me, the best plays of his life. . . .Cliff wasn't 'shot.' . . . The mind and talent were alive in the man."
Odets was born in Philadelphia to Louis Odets (born Gorodetsky) and Pearl Geisinger, Russian- and Romanian-Jewish immigrants, and was raised in Philadelphia and the Bronx, New York. He dropped out of high school after two years to become an actor. In 1931, he became a founding member of the Group Theatre, a highly influential New York theatre company that utilized an acting technique new to the United States. This technique was based on the system devised by the Russian actor and director Constantin Stanislavski. It was further developed by Group Theatre director Lee Strasberg and became known as The Method or Method Acting. Odets eventually became the Group's primary playwright.
Odets pursued acting with great passion and ingenuity. At the age of 19 he struck out on his own, billing himself as "The Rover Reciter." Under this moniker he procured bookings as a radio elocutionist. He moved away from his parents, to Greenwich Village, where he acted with the Poet's Theatre under the direction of Village legend Harry Kemp. Odets claimed to have become America's first real disc jockey at about this time, at radio station WBNY, as well as a drama critic. In this capacity he saw the 1926 Broadway production of Seán O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock. O'Casey's work would prove to be a powerful influence on Odets as a playwright.
The young Odets spent several summers as a dramatics counselor at camps in the Catskills and the Poconos. He toured extensively with stock companies, playing a large variety of roles. Odets got his Broadway break in 1929, when he was cast as understudy to Spencer Tracy in Conflict by Vincent Lawrence. Odets landed his first job with the prestigious Theatre Guild in the fall of 1929, as an extra playing bit parts. He acted in small roles in a number of Theatre Guild productions between 1929 and 1931. It was at the Theatre Guild that he befriended the casting director, Cheryl Crawford. Crawford suggested that Harold Clurman, then a play reader for the Guild, invite Odets to a meeting to discuss new theatre concepts they were developing with Lee Strasberg. Odets was mesmerized by Clurman's talks, and became the last actor chosen for the Group Theatre's first summer of rehearsals in June, 1931, at Brookfield Center in Connecticut.
From the start, Odets was relegated to small roles and understudying other actors. He understudied lead actor Luther Adler during the Group Theatre's production of John Howard Lawson's Success Story, during the 1932-33 season. Much to Odets' frustration, Adler never missed a performance. With the extra time on his hands and at Clurman's urging, Odets began to write plays. Like Lawson, a member of the Communist Party, Odets was influenced by Marxism and his writing became overtly political. Odets credited Lawson with giving him an understanding of the power of colloquial language. Odets wrote two early plays, an autobiographical piece entitled 910 Eden Street, and one about his hero, Beethoven, entitled "Victory." Clurman dismissed these two plays as juvenilia, but encouraged his friend to continue writing while steering him towards familiar milieus. In late 1932, Odets began writing a play about a middle-class Jewish family in the Bronx, initially called I Got the Blues. He worked diligently on this play, sharing drafts of it with Clurman and promising parts to his fellow actors – often the same parts. While at Green Mansions, their 1933 summer rehearsal venue in Warrensburg, New York, the Group performed Act II of the play, now retitled Awake and Sing!, for other camp residents. The audience was enthusiastic, but the Group's leadership, Lee Strasberg in particular, was still, at this point, opposed to producing it.
Odets trained with the Group at their various summer rehearsal headquarters located in the Connecticut countryside and in the Catskills. In addition to Brookfield Center and Green Mansions, these venues included Dover Furnace in Dutchess County (1932) and a large house in Ellenville, New York (1934). The Group spent the summer of 1936 at Pine Brook Country Club in Fairfield County, Connecticut. Their final summer retreat was at Lake Grove, in Smithtown, New York, in 1939. Odets' Group training under Strasberg's tutelage was essential to his development as a playwright. He stated in an interview late in life that "My chief influence as a playwright was the Group Theatre acting company, and being a member of that company ... And you can see the Group Theatre acting technique crept right into the plays."
Odets' first play to be produced was the one-act Waiting for Lefty, on January 5, 1935, at the former Civic Repertory Theatre on Fourteenth Street in New York City. The piece is a series of interconnected scenes depicting workers for a fictional taxi company, but inspired by an actual taxi strike. The focus alternates between the drivers' union meeting and vignettes from the workers' difficult and oppressed lives. Not all are taxi drivers. A young medical intern falls victim to anti-Semitism; a laboratory assistant's job is threatened if he doesn't comply with orders to spy on a colleague; couples are thwarted in marriage and torn apart by the hopelessness of economic conditions caused by the Depression. The climax is a defiant call for the union to strike, which brought the entire opening night audience to its feet. The play can be performed in any acting space, including union meeting halls and on the street. Waiting for Lefty's unexpectedly wild success brought Odets international fame.
Awake and Sing!, finally produced by the Group Theatre in February 1935, is generally regarded as Odets' masterpiece. It has been cited as "the earliest quintessential Jewish play outside the Yiddish theatre." The play concerns the Berger family, living in the Bronx under the shadow of economic collapse. Odets's choice of opening the play in media res, his dialogue style, and the fact that it was the first play on Broadway to focus entirely on a Jewish family, distinguish Awake and Sing! from other full-length plays of its time.
The 1935 one-acts Waiting for Lefty and Till the Day I Die, along with a number of other plays produced by the Group Theatre, are harsh criticisms of profiteers and exploitative economic systems during the Great Depression. These two early plays by Odets have been dismissed by some critics as left-wing propaganda. More commonly, however, Waiting for Lefty is considered iconic in the agitprop genre, and the piece is widely anthologized. Odets asserted that all of his plays deal with the human spirit persevering in the face of any opponent, whether or not the characters are depicted as struggling with the capitalist system. The highly successful Golden Boy (1937) portrays a young man torn between artistic and material fulfillment. Ironically, it was the Group Theatre's biggest commercial success. From Golden Boy on, Odets' work focused more on the dynamics of interpersonal relationships as affected by the moral dilemmas of individual characters. In 1938 the Group presented Odets' Rocket to the Moon, a more reflective piece. Leftist critics rebuked Odets for abandoning his formerly overt political stance. The playwright George S. Kaufman queried, "Odets, where is thy sting?" Nonetheless, Rocket to the Moon garnered enough attention to place Odets on the cover of Time magazine in December 1938.
Odets' 1950 play, The Country Girl, was a critical and box office success. It was adapted for a film starring Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly. Both actors earned Academy Award nominations for their performances. Kelly went on to win the Oscar as Best Actress for her work in the film, and screenwriter George Seaton received an Oscar for his adaptation. Odets' last play, The Flowering Peach, was produced on Broadway in 1954. The Flowering Peach was the preferred choice of the Pulitzer Prize jury in 1955, but under pressure from Joseph Pulitzer Jr., the prize went instead to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which the jury considered the weakest of the five shortlisted nominees.
Four of Odets' plays – Golden Boy, Clash by Night, The Big Knife and The Country Girl – have been made into films, though Odets did not write the screenplays.
The success of Odets's early plays attracted the attention of Hollywood producers. He first went to Hollywood in early 1936 to write for the screen as well as the stage. From this point on he would spend most of his life in Hollywood. His initial intention was to make money to help subsidize the Group Theatre's run of his late-1935 play Paradise Lost and to help him fulfill his own financial obligations. His first screenplay was produced by Paramount and directed by Lewis Milestone. Starring Gary Cooper and Madeleine Carroll, The General Died at Dawn (1936) received some positive reviews, though Frank Nugent of the New York Times reiterated Kaufman's barb in his article's title.
Like most screenwriters of the time, Odets worked within the studio system until the advent of independent production in the 1950s. Thus Odets would often write drafts for films such as Rhapsody in Blue and It's a Wonderful Life that were handed off to another screenwriter or team for further development. Odets declined to be credited for many of the films on which he worked. He did, however, accept full credit as both screenwriter and director for None but the Lonely Heart (1944), adapted from the novel by Richard Llewellyn, and produced by RKO. The film starred Cary Grant, Ethel Barrymore (who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress), Barry Fitzgerald, and Jane Wyatt.
Odets wrote the 1957 screenplay for Sweet Smell of Success, based on the novelette by Ernest Lehman and produced by the independent company Hecht-Hill-Lancaster. Starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, this film noir depicts the underbelly of the newspaper world. The character of J.J. Hunsecker, played by Lancaster, was voted the 35th most despicable villain in 100 years of film by the American Film Institute. Odets directed one other film, for which he also wrote the screenplay, The Story on Page One (1959).
Odets' dramatic style is distinguished by a kind of poetic, metaphor-laden street talk. Arthur Miller observed that, with Odets' first plays, "For the very first time in America, language itself ... marked a playwright as unique." Odets' use of ethnic and urban speech patterns reflects the influence of another socialist playwright with proletarian concerns, Seán O'Casey. Other hallmarks of Odets' style are his humanistic point of view, and his way of dropping the audience right into the conflict with little or no introduction. Often character is more important than plot, reflecting the influence of Anton Chekhov.
In May 1952, Odets was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HCUA; more commonly, HUAC). He had belonged to the Communist Party for less than a year, between 1934 and 1935 and sponsored many left-wing, progressive groups. He cooperated with the Committee to the extent that he responded to their questions, and reiterated names of Communist Party members who had been previously cited by his friend and former Group colleague, Elia Kazan. Prior to Kazan's final testimony in April 1952, they agreed to name each other. Odets thereby avoided blacklisting, but reactions to his testimony confused him; he did not consider himself a cooperative witness. A partial transcript of Odets' testimony can be found in Eric Bentley's Thirty Years of Treason. Odets was reportedly tormented by public reaction to his testimony until his death in 1963. In his autobiography, Kazan recalls incidents of Odets being accosted in the street and snubbed in Hollywood restaurants after his HUAC appearance. Odets's productivity markedly improved after his 1952 testimony: he had written nothing for the screen in the six years prior to 1952, but in the decade after 1952, over 20 of his scripts reached either the large or small screen.
In the early 1960s, Odets contracted to write four of a proposed total of thirteen teleplays for NBC's new dramatic anthology, The Richard Boone Show, and to act as script supervisor. Two of Odets's finished scripts were aired posthumously: "Big Mitch" (December 10, 1963), and "The Mafia Man" (January 7, 1964). Odets also worked on the libretto for a projected musical version of Golden Boy. He died before the project came to fruition. Playwright William Gibson, a former student of Odets, completed the play's book.
Odets first married two-time Academy Award winning actress Luise Rainer in January 1937. They divorced in May 1940. He married for a second time, in 1943. Odets and actress Bette Grayson had two children, Nora, born in 1945, and Walt, born in 1947. Odets and Grayson divorced in 1951. Nora Odets died at Long Beach, Long Island in 2008; Walt Odets became a clinical psychologist, author and photographer residing in Berkeley, California.
Clifford Odets also had relationships with actresses Frances Farmer, Kim Stanley and Fay Wray, among others.
On July 23, 1963, Odets was admitted to Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles to undergo treatment for stomach ulcers. During surgery, doctors discovered that he had metastatic stomach cancer. He received bedside visits from such movie and theater friends as Marlon Brando, Lee Strasberg and Paula Strasberg, Jean Renoir and his wife, Dido, Elia Kazan, Harold Clurman, Shirley MacLaine, and Danny Kaye, among many others. Renoir dedicated a chapter of his autobiography to his friendship with Odets. On August 14, 1963, Odets died of stomach cancer at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital at the age of 57.
Odets's ashes were interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale in Glendale, California.
Odets has been looked on by many as an icon of the American theatre. According to Arthur Miller, "An Odets play was awaited like news hot off the press, as though through him we would know what to think of ourselves and our prospects." According to Marian Seldes, "Paddy Chayefsky, who felt competitive with Odets, ... told an interviewer, 'There isn't a writer of my generation, especially a New York writer, who doesn't owe his very breath–his entire attitude toward theatre–to Odets.'"
Golden Boy was made into a 1939 film and became the basis for a 1964 musical of the same name. The Flowering Peach became the basis for the 1970 Broadway musical Two by Two, which starred Danny Kaye. Odets's screenplay for Sweet Smell of Success became the basis for the 2002 musical of the same name.
Lincoln Center celebrated the centennial of Odets's birth with their 2006 production of Awake and Sing!, directed by Bartlett Sher. It won that year's Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play and sparked a revival of interest in Odets's work. Another centennial production, Rocket to the Moon, directed by Daniel Fish, was produced by Long Wharf Theater. Golden Boy, also produced by Lincoln Center with Bartlett Sher again directing, opened on December 5, 2012 to enthusiastic reviews, subsequently garnering 8 Tony Award nominations. John Lahr declared, "In this distinguished, almost symphonic production, Sher and Lincoln Center have done a great thing: they have put Odets finally and forever in the pantheon, where he belongs."
Odets's early, more left-wing plays, such as Waiting for Lefty, Awake and Sing!, and Paradise Lost, have enjoyed numerous revivals since the 2008 economic crash. The Roundabout Theatre Company presented the first revival of Odets's 1949 play, The Big Knife, in the Spring of 2013 at the American Airlines Theatre in New York, with Doug Hughes directing Bobby Cannavale in the lead role of Charlie Castle. The role was originated by Odets's former Group Theatre colleague, John Garfield. The National Asian American Theatre Company (NAATCO) mounted a highly acclaimed production of Awake and Sing! in September 2013 with an Asian cast. Performed in a small downtown theatre space in New York's Soho area, the limited run played to sold out houses. According to New York Times reviewer Anita Gates, "the production easily makes the point that ethnicity is transcended by the humanity of frightened, imperfect people facing unpleasant realities."
Joel and Ethan Coen's 1990 film Barton Fink contains a number of indirect visual and historical references to Odets's personal appearance, background and career. A minor character in the 1982 film Diner speaks only lines from Odets' screenplay for Sweet Smell of Success. The Odets character was played by Jeffrey DeMunn in the film Frances, and by John Heard in the 1983 biography, Will There Be A Morning?, both about Frances Farmer.
Odets's name is mentioned in an episode of the NBC series Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, "The Wrap Party." The episode's subplot dealt with The Hollywood Ten.
Odets was the subject of a psycho-biography by psychoanalyst Margaret Brenman-Gibson, wife of playwright William Gibson: Clifford Odets – American Playwright – The Years from 1906–1940. It was one component of an umbrella project undertaken by Brenman-Gibson on the subject of creativity. The biography was intended to be a three-volume work, with the second and third volumes to cover the final twenty-three years of Odets's life. Brenman-Gibson died in 2004, leaving the project unfinished. A new, full-length biography of Odets is currently in progress with the cooperation of the Odets Estate, to be published by Random House Doubleday Knopf.
Apart from Brenman-Gibson's work, six critical biographies have appeared by the following authors: R. Baird Shuman (1962); Edward Murray (1968); Michael Mendelsohn (1969); Gerald Weales (1971); Harold Cantor (1978); and Christopher J. Herr (2003).
Clifford Odets is a member of the American Theater Hall of Fame.
- Midnight (1930)
- 1931– (1931)
- Big Night (1933)
- They All Come to Moscow (1933)
- Men in White (1933)
- Gold Eagle Guy (1934)
- Waiting for Lefty (1935)
- Waiting for Lefty (1935)
- Awake and Sing! (1935)
- Till the Day I Die (1935)
- Paradise Lost (1935)
- I Can't Sleep (1935, monologue)
- The Silent Partner (1936, unproduced)
- Golden Boy (1937)
- Rocket to the Moon (1938)
- Night Music (1940)
- Clash by Night (1941)
- The Russian People (1942, adaptation)
- The Big Knife (1949)
- The Country Girl (1950)
- The Flowering Peach (1954)
- Deadline at Dawn (1956)
- The Country Girl (1950, original Broadway production)
- Golden Boy (1952, revival)
- The Flowering Peach (1954, original Broadway production)
- Sarah Bernhardt (1936)
- The General Died at Dawn (1936)
- None but the Lonely Heart (1944)
- Humoresque (1946, screenplay adaptation, with Zachary Gold)
- Notorious (1946, dialogue: love scenes; uncredited)
- Deadline at Dawn (1946)
- Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
- Wild in the Country (1961)
- None but the Lonely Heart (1944)
- The Story on Page One (1959)