Jack Garfein tribute at Billy Wilder Theater

Director’s ’The Strange One’ and ’Something Wild’ will screen.

September 17, 2010|By Susan King, Los Angeles Times

Renowned acting teacher and director Jack Garfein learned survival instincts as a teenager in the Auschwitz concentration camp.

"In my case, one night I lost everybody," says the 80-year-old as the memories of the horrific night are reflected in his eyes. "I was 13. My first love — my mother, my sister, my grandparents and aunts and uncles …. I was the only one who survived."

But he didn’t know then what had happened to them. "The people already in the camp said they went to the ’old age home.’ They didn’t want to tell us what was going on."

Years later, famed theatrical director Harold Clurman asked him how he survived his year in the concentration camp. "I said, ’I can’t tell you how you survive because there are so many impossible circumstances, but I can tell you how you don’t survive.’ And Harold said, ’How, Jack ?’ I said, ’If you feel sorry for yourself.’ I think the survival instinct throughout my life has kept me going.’"

Now at the end of his eighth decade, Garfein is still going strong. Based for the last several years in Paris, he teaches acting and directing there as well as in London. He’s written a new book, "Life and Acting : Techniques for the Actor," just finished a screenplay about his mother and is directing a production set to open in Paris of his adaptation of Kafka’s short story "A Report to an Academy."

He’s in Los Angeles this week for a salute Saturday and Sunday by the UCLA Film and Television Archive at the Billy Wilder Theater, which will feature screenings of the two feature films he directed, 1957’s "The Strange One" and 1961’s "Something Wild," which stars his ex-wife Carroll Baker, as well as the documentary "A Journey Back," in which he returned to his childhood home and revisited Auschwitz.

Film professor, writer and historian Foster Hirsch will chat with Garfein at the screenings. "He probably knows as much as anyone about the early days of the Actors Studio," Hirsch says. "He was right alongside Lee Strasberg. He knew everybody. And being at the studio had enormous influence on his work."

Garfein also founded the Actors Studio West.

Garfein was one of the theatrical wunderkinds of the 1950s, scoring a big hit at age 25 off and on Broadway with "End as a Man," which starred Ben Gazzara, Pat Hingle and Arthur Storch, among others. Garfein and several actors from the stage production did the feature film, which was now called "The Strange One." The end result is an exceptionally acted, sophisticated drama revolving around a sadistic bullying cadet at a military academy (Gazzara).

Producer Sam Spiegel had approached Elia Kazan, the Actors Studio founder who had just directed "On the Waterfront," for Spiegel to helm "The Strange One." But Kazan told the powerful producer that Garfein would be the best man for the job. He was just 26 when he began working on the film on location in Florida.

But problems ensued when Garfein stuck to his guns and shot the ending he wanted against the wishes of Spiegel and studio head Harry Cohn. "It stayed in, but my contract at Columbia was canceled," Garfein says.

With a reputation for being "difficult," Garfein found studio doors close to him. So he ended up at United Artists, where he made the low-budget "Something Wild," a poignant, highly charged tale about a young New York rape victim who is rescued from a suicide attempt by a lonely mechanic ( Ralph Meeker) only to discover she is a prisoner in his apartment. The film features starkly beautifully black-and-white cinematographer from Eugen Schufftan and an evocative score from the legendary Aaron Copland.

"You know what happened ?" Garfein asks. "Arnold Picker, the new guy at United Artists, hated this film. He literally threw it away. I couldn’t get a job."

Hirsch believes "Something Wild" is a neglected classic. "In France, they have recognized it as a crucial and important film. It is one of the great unknown films of America. When people see the film with an open mind … surely they will see the artistry. He is a real filmmaker."



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