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Proud defender of the American 'waterfront'

Culture | MAN KNOWS NOT HIS TIME: Farewell toex-communist-turned-patriot Elia Kazan-and to other notables who passed away

Issue: "Beyond the nightly news," Oct. 11, 2003

Enduring the scorn of his peers even as he cranked out classic works, ex-communist-turned-pro-America director Elia Kazan died late last month at age 94.

One of the fathers of "method acting," in which actors recreate the emotions of the characters they are playing, Kazan in the 1940s and 1950s was responsible for putting on the stage some of the most important American plays of the 20th century: Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Thorton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, and Archibald MacLeish's rendition of the Book of Job, J.B.

When he took his talents to motion pictures, Kazan directed some of Hollywood's greatest films: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, East of Eden, Splendor in the Grass, A Face in the Crowd.

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But Kazan not only added to American culture; he defended it (WORLD, March 29, 1999).

A Greek-Turkish immigrant, Kazan, like many artists and intellectuals during the Depression, became a communist. Unlike many of his colleagues, he repudiated Marxism when he saw its effects in the regime of Joseph Stalin, including the party's attempt to control his work.

In 1952, Kazan cooperated with a congressional committee that was investigating Soviet attempts to infiltrate the film industry, with the purpose of shaping the values of Americans by manipulating what they took into their minds through their entertainment. Kazan "named names," exposing the communists he knew in Hollywood.

In return for this service to his country and to his industry, Kazan was vilified by his peers. To this day, despite new evidence from the former Soviet Union that proves the direct involvement of Soviet agents in attempting to take over America's means of cultural production, Hollywood-still unrepentantly leftist despite the fall of their masters-hails the "blacklisted" communists exposed by Kazan and others. (Another important player in the affair was the head of the actors union who battled Soviet attempts to take over his organization: a young star named Ronald Reagan, who thus began his political career and his life-long crusade against communism, which would eventually bring down the Soviet Union itself.)

After his testimony, the playwright he had mentored, Arthur Miller, blasted him through the play The Crucible, which attacked the effort as an anti-communist "witch hunt." Kazan answered with a movie, his masterpiece On the Waterfront. It portrayed a dock worker, played by Kazan's discovery Marlin Brando, who had to stand up against his peers to prevent his union from being taken over by violent, corrupt conspirators.

Steadfast in his anti-communist, pro-American stands, Mr. Kazan responded to his critics in an op-ed piece for The New York Times: "We must never let the communists get away with the pretense that they stand for the very things which they kill in their own countries. I am talking about free speech, a free press, the rights of property, the rights of labor, racial equality and, above all, individual rights."

Kazan was himself blacklisted by the Hollywood social scene until 1999, when, despite organized protests outside and inside the hall, he received a belated Oscar for lifetime achievement.

Althea Gibson (Sept. 28), 76, the athlete who broke the color barrier in tennis in the 1950s and in golf in the 1960s, and who paved the way for other African-Americans and women to compete in professional golf and tennis. Three years after Jackie Robinson integrated baseball, Gibson became the first black athlete to play for a national tennis championship; by 1956 she won the French Open, by 1957 Wimbledon, and by 1958 the U.S. Open.

Yukichi Chuganji (Sept. 28), 114, until last month the world's oldest man. A retired silkworm breeder, Chuganji died at his home in Japan after he had finished drinking some apple juice and family members noticed he wasn't looking well. He was born in 1889 on the island of Kyushu, which is home to the world's oldest person, a 116-year-old woman named Kamato Hongo. Japan's life expectancy is the longest in the world for both sexes-85.23 years for women and 78.32 for men in 2002.

George Plimpton (Sept. 25), 76, the literary editor, socialite friend of politicians, and early practitioner of "participatory journalism." He penned riveting first-person accounts of boxing with Archie Moore, pitching to Willie Mays, performing as a trapeze artist, and playing quarterback during an NFL training-camp scrimmage.

Plimpton's brief stint with the Detroit Lions in 1963 became the basis for the book Paper Lion: "It verified the assumption that the average fan would have about an amateur blundering into the brutal world of professional football," he wrote. "The outsider did not belong, and there was comfort in that being proved."

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