John Garfield: Hollywood's First Rebel
January 29, 2021 | by Shannon
John Garfield is a Fighter, Inspires Hollywood’s Future Rebels, Asks for His Man-Maker, and Just May Give You $200.
Be sure to listen to my Classic Hollywood Podcast, Vanguard of Hollywood. Episode 42 is all about John Garfield. Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you like to listen to podcasts!
John Garfield. Have you heard of him?
If not, it’s probably because Garfield’s list of films that made it to classic status, including The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) and Gentlemen’s Agreement (1947), is quite limited.
But John Garfield was one of the most popular and respected actors of his day. A success in his very first film, Garfield is recognized as the first onscreen rebel, inspiring the generation of rebels and anti-heroes that followed, including Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, and James Dean.
John Garfield: Not Your Typical Leading Man
John Garfield wasn’t the typical Classic Hollywood leading man. Aside from his rebel image, Garfield trained in New York with the Group Theatre—often considered the forerunner to the Actor’s Studio and “the Method” style of acting. He was successful on Broadway before he transitioned to Hollywood. And despite his stage and film stardom, John Garfield never forgot his humble beginnings as a kid fighting for survival on the streets of New York.
Like Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, he died tragically young. But unlike Monroe and Dean, John Garfield never attained legendary status, possibly because his death at age 39 was brought on by slanderous accusations of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) during the communist witch-hunts of the 1950s.
John Garfield deserves to be remembered. And this month, it’s all about bringing the tremendous Garfield legacy to life.
Here are a few things about John Garfield you didn’t know:
He Grew Up on the Streets of New York
Julius Jacob Garfinkle was born March 4, 1913. Julie, as the future movie star would always be called by those who knew him best, spent his first years in a two room tenement on Rivington Street in New York’s Lower East Side. His parents, David and Hannah Garfinkle, came to the US in 1919 to escape the religious pogroms against Russia’s Jewish population.
Things were certainly better for the Garfinkles in America, but that didn’t mean life was easy. The Garfinkle tenement had no heating, and there was one bathroom for the whole floor to share. David worked hard as a pants presser by day and a Jewish cantor by night, but it wasn’t enough to provide a comfortable living for his family.
Still, young Julie was a cheerful child, thanks to the optimistic spirit of his mother. Unfortunately, Hannah Garfinkle would die in 1920. Julie’s father, not knowing how to cope, didn’t tell his oldest son of Hannah’s passing until weeks later.
As John Garfield recalled [aff. link],
“They shipped me off to an uncle’s house, telling me only that my mother was ill. When I returned a few weeks later, I naturally expected to find her there. When I finally realized why she wasn’t, the shock was harder to bear because I’d had no preparation for it.”
Tough going for anyone, especially a seven year old kid.
A Fractured Upbringing
After Hannah’s passing, the care of Julie and his younger brother Max was too much for David. The brothers were soon separated. Max went to live permanently in the home of a Garfinkle relative in Brooklyn, but Julie didn’t fair so well. From the age of seven until he became an independent young adult, Julie was passed around the homes of various relatives. Often, he ate at a different home than he slept at.
Understandably, the fractured upbringing and separation meant Julie never got close to his father or his brother.
In reaction to the lack of love and attention at home, Julie Garfinkle turned to the streets. He’d credit his mother with preparing him for this rough life: it was Hannah who taught him how to be a fighter. And to survive the streets of New York, young Julie would literally have to know how to fight. John Garfield remembered that:
“The streets were our playground and our jungle—and you behaved like an animal or you got your block knocked off!”
As a movie star, John Garfield liked to boast that he got so good at using his fists,
“the classier kids crossed the streets when they saw me coming.”
Julie soon joined a gang in one of the Bronx neighborhoods he was shuffled to. Eventually, he became the leader of two different gangs, one of which Julie named the “Arrows,” inspired by Robin Hood, as the boys liked to steal from the rich to give to the poor.
Of his years with the gangs, Julie later said that [aff. link]:
“Being the boss of a gang was important. It compensated for the attention I wanted at home, and missed.”
Life on the street may have taught young Julie to steal, but it also taught him loyalty, an admirable character trait John Garfield would live, and, quite literally, die by.
Tough But Sweet
Looking back, friends and classmates of Julie’s would say that as a Hollywood star, John Garfield often exaggerated the delinquency of his youth. They remember a boy who was tough, but never really a “bad kid,” thanks to Julie’s kind heart and underlying sweetness, both of which were apparent even as a gang boss.
Journalist Sam Shaw confirmed this:
“I never felt Julie was a fighter…There was no meanness in him. He didn’t have that streak of killer in him.”
Though he probably wouldn’t have ever become Public Enemy Number 1, as Julie later liked to say, given the rough circumstances of his early years, another Garfield prediction about his life path may not have been too far fetched:
“I suppose it was a fifty-fifty chance then which I would achieve—Sing Sing or Hollywood.”
Thanks to a good teacher, the course of Julie Garfinkle’s life veered away from Sing Sing, and towards acting.
A Good Teacher Changed the Course of John Garfield's Life
Angelo Patri, an Italian immigrant to the United States, ran PS 45 in the Belmont section of the East Bronx. Patri was a firm believer that each child had a unique talent just waiting to be discovered, and that it was the teacher’s duty to guide his or her students towards finding that talent.
And for a student like Julie Garfinkle, who didn’t have all that much parental support, Patri believed the guidance of a good teacher was even more crucial. So when young Julie transferred to PS 45, Angelo Patri was indeed a lifesaver. As a thankful John Garfield later shared,
“For a lost boy to be found, someone has to do the finding. Dr. Patri found me, and for reaching into the garbage pail and pulling me out, I owe him everything. The good things that came my way would not have been possible but for that sweet, funny man.”
Angelo Patri provided for Julie’s physical health, even buying him a mattress when Patri discovered that Julie’s bed was nothing more than a pile of old coats in the hallway of his uncle’s home. But more importantly, Patri guided Julie to acting. He believed a speech class would improve Julie’s confidence by eliminating his stammer.
John Garfield Discovers Acting
Well, speech classes not only eliminated the stammer, they showed that Julie Garfinkle had a flair for the dramatic. His recitations were flawless, and soon Julie began acting and performing. He featured prominently in school plays, and even became a champion debater, winning second prize in a citywide contest.
Acting became Julie’s passion, and in 1929 he left high school to study with New York’s prestigious American Laboratory Theatre, commonly referred to as the Lab.
From here, things continued to look up for young Julie in his chosen career. And it was all thanks to the support of an insightful, dedicated teacher who believed in him.
He Married His Childhood Sweetheart
Teenage Jules Garfield—he believed the name change was necessary for his stage career—met Roberta Seidman at the home of one of his girlfriends during his first year of training at the Lab. He was immediately taken with the petite beauty. Roberta, or Robbe as she preferred to be called, was impressed with Julie’s Lab membership and promising acting career, but not particularly interested in him.
And she still wasn’t interested when the two met a year later at a party. But she let him take her home. As Robbe remembered,
“He wanted to take me home, but my girlfriend gave me the ‘no’ signal because he was known around the neighborhood as a wolf. But I said yes anyway…and he didn’t even try to kiss me good night.”
So, maybe he was a respectful wolf. At least where Robbe was concerned.
"Not Even a Tumble!"
It seems Julie knew from the start that the beautiful and intelligent Robbe Seidman was different. And he was willing to wait for her to to feel the same way about him. Julie hoped that telling her about his plans to hitchhike with a buddy across the country would help Robbe recognize her love for him. Or at least get him a little action before he left. But neither happened.
As John Garfield later shared,
“It was a warm day and we were up on the roof of Robbe’s house. I said I was going away because I felt it was my need, and all she said was ‘Everybody knows his need.’ There I was, shoving off, and she wouldn’t give me a tumble.”
John Garfield Discovers His Gift
Julie and his friend, with nothing but knapsacks packed with the bare necessities, began their journey. He sent Robbe postcards from the various places they hitched or trainhopped to, including the Pacific Northwest where the boys were lumberjacks, and California, where they picked fruit. Julie may not have known if Robbe had serious feelings for him, but the experience of living in the homeless encampments of the Great Depression solidified his desire to become a professional actor:
“Every railroad junction had its hobo village, and I learned something of the force that keeps a man going when he has nothing to live for. Not all hobos were misfits. There were doctors and lawyers among them, alcoholics, even an occasional ex-actor. One evening we were around the fire putting away some of that delicious hobo stew and Joe [his friend] said something about me being an actor…They wanted a sample, so I did some bits of Shakespeare…and…I got this strange feeling. Every eye and ear was turned on me and I realized that for a moment I was helping these men shut out the rest of the world. You know, there’s nothing like a hobo’s applause. They don’t try to impress anyone with polite custom. If they clap it’s the real thing. That was the first time I thought maybe Angelo Patri was right, that I had a gift.”
Together Through it All
Finally, Julie made his way back to Robbe, stopping to work the wheat harvest in Nebraska along the way, where Julie unfortunately contracted typhoid fever from drinking dirty well water.
But the positive side was that when Julie came home in desperate need of a nurse, Robbe was there for him. The experience of missing Julie and nursing him back to health did the trick: Robbe and Julie were officially a couple.
Robbe Seidman remembered that:
“No Jewish parents wanted their daughter to marry an actor. Because an actor was a bum.”
But Julie, with his charm and steady work, eventually received the blessing of Robbe’s parents, and the two married on January 27, 1935.
Together, they’d weather the happy, but near impoverished years of Julie’s early stage career, as well as the extreme wealth and adulation that came with movie stardom.
Robbe would stick by Julie through his rampant infidelities that began with his success in Hollywood. And Julie in turn would stick by Robbe and refuse to mention her Communist Party membership when he was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951 and expected to “name names.”
It wasn’t a perfect marriage, but there’s no doubt that Robbe and Julie loved each other.
He Was A Member of the Group Theatre
In the theatre world of 1930s America, just about every actor and actress wanted to be a member of the Group Theatre. And Julie Garfield proudly held that hard-earned distinction.
Founded in 1931 by Cheryl Crawford, Harold Clurman, and the “father of Method acting” Lee Strasberg, the goal of the Group Theatre was to present plays that “said something,” plays that were relevant to the times, politically and otherwise. These plays were realistically acted—and sometimes written—by talented actors who basically made the Group their lives. Group members lived together, worked together, and played together.
It’s debatable just how political the Group was. Former member, director Martin Ritt, says it was “definitely not a political group,” while Group actress Phoebe Brand believed that every member of the Group was in some way ‘touched by the communist cause.” Either way, Julie’s Group membership would be used against him by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951.
John Garfield Joins the Theatre's "Flower Children"
Political or not, Group members were, as Elia Kazan put it, the revolutionary “flower children,” of the American theatre. John Garfield forever viewed his membership as one of the greatest accomplishments of his career. He and Robbe wept tears of joy the day he was accepted as an apprentice in 1934. Julie later went so far as to say that:
“I didn’t learn a thing about acting until I joined the Group Theatre.”
In addition to founders Strasberg, Crawford, and Clurman, other noteworthy Group members included Franchot Tone, Luther Adler, Stella Adler, Elia Kazan, and actor-turned-playwright Clifford Odets, who became one of Julie’s best friends for life. Even after achieving Hollywood stardom, Julie held the talent and opinions of his Group colleagues as the highest bar of intelligence, an intelligence Julie believed he could only aspire to.
Though Julie earned full membership after his stellar performance in the Group’s production of Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing, he was often treated with something less than respect by the other Group members, largely because of his youth, lack of formal education, and more instinctual acting approach. Julie’s success in more commercial Broadway productions and eventually, in Hollywood, added jealousy to the list of reasons why his Group colleagues treated him poorly: just about every member of the Group tried for a film career in Hollywood, usually with minimal to zero success, while Julie on the other hand, became a superstar.
It Took John Garfield Five Years to Say Yes to Hollywood
John Garfield was first approached by the major Hollywood studios for a film contract in 1931, after shining in a small Broadway role. Feeling he had more to learn about acting, and that the New York stage, not Hollywood, was the place to do it, Julie said no.
But Hollywood came calling again after Julie landed the starring role in a non-Group Theatre production, the light and very commercial Having Wonderful Time. The play became one of the hit Broadway shows of 1937, thanks in large part to the critically praised performance of Jules Garfield.
Initially, Julie took the advice of Robbe and his Group Theatre colleagues, and said no to this latest batch of Hollywood contract offers. But one studio in particular persisted: Warner Bros. would not take no for an answer. The studio agreed to meet Julie’s request that any contract he signed would allow him the freedom to return to Broadway for stage work each year.
The attractive Warner’s contract, coupled with the Group’s increasingly condescending attitude towards him for finding commercial success in Having Wonderful Time, made Julie reconsider the offer. Most likely, the final straw that pushed Julie to sign with Warners was the Group’s refusal to cast him in the lead role of Clifford Odets’ latest play, Golden Boy, even though Odets wrote the role expressly for Julie.
So Julie signed with Warner Bros. Afterwards, many of his Group Theatre friends refused to speak to him for the remaining run of Golden Boy as punishment for his great transgression. (Also known as jealous beyond words. !!!!) But Robbe’s discovery that she was pregnant proved confirmation for Julie that he made the right choice. As Julie himself put it, with his $750 a week salary, at the very least, he’d earn a generous amount of “diaper money” during his time in Hollywood.
He Went to Hollywood to Fail
Julie went to Hollywood fully expecting to find himself back home in New York after making the two films his new contract required. He never expected Warner Bros. to renew his option, and keep him at the studio for seven years. As John Garfield remembered,
“I went to Hollywood to be a failure. I wanted to be a failure. My purpose was to earn some money quickly, so that we would be prepared when our child was born.”
On another occasion, Garfield would say he went to Hollywood “all set for the kick in the pants I felt sure I would get.”
Things certainly didn’t look promising when studio head Jack Warner informed Julie that his new name would be “James Garfield”…
As in, the same name as a former US President…!
John Garfield: Julie Forever
Luckily, when Julie pointed this out, Warner agreed it probably wasn’t the best name for his latest star investment. But Warner also thought that “Jules Garfield,” the name Julie used on the stage and wished to keep in films, was too effeminate. The two men eventually settled on “John Garfield.”
After he became a movie star, the name would always be Julie’s litmus test of who his true friends, past and present, were:
“My friends still call me Julie. And Julie I’ll always be.”
He Got An Oscar Nomination for His First Film
Despite the rocky start at Warner Bros., John Garfield was a hit in his first film role. As struggling musician Mickey Borden in Four Daughters (1938), Julie introduced what many film historians consider to be the first onscreen rebel. Garfield’s Mickey, with his rumpled suit and disheveled, long—at least for the time—hair, is always ready with a downer one-liner, constantly sasses off to his elders, and seems convinced that he’s born to lose. And yet, thanks to the Garfield charm, evident even in this, his very first screen role, we love him.
The role made John Garfield a star—and a heartthrob—overnight, and earned Julie his first Oscar nomination in the Best Supporting Actor category.
Not bad for your first film role!
The downside of starting off with a successful film was the discovery Julie soon made that Warner Bros. wouldn’t always offer him such plum roles, or allow him much room for growth and character experimentation. He loved being a star, but John Garfield found his seven years at the studio, and the Hollywood environment in general, stifling:
“When an actor doesn’t face a conflict, he loses confidence in himself. I always want to have to struggle because I believe it will help me accomplish more. Hollywood is a marvelous medium, but you can’t take many chances there and I believe the more successful an actor becomes, the more chances he should take. An actor never stops learning.”
His contractual right to return to New York for stage work—which Julie actually took advantage of, unlike most Hollywood stars with similar arrangements—and his dreams to one day have his own production company, helped Julie get through these years on the Warner Bros. “production line.”
He Loved Women
Julie’s friend Clifford Odets was one of the few Group Theatre members who, right from the start, knew Julie would find success in Hollywood. But Odets had a warning for his young friend:
“Julie, if you stay in pictures a year, you’ll stay in them always. Failure isn’t in you. You’ll succeed, go up, whatever…better than anyone who’s been in the Group or is in it now. The big challenge is in handling it [success] when you get it.”
For the most part, Julie remained his sweet, lovable self, even after he became a movie star. But he did have a weakness: women. And with Hollywood success came easy access to the most beautiful women in the world. Unfortunately, after years of remaining faithful to Robbe in New York, Julie couldn’t resist the temptation to stray in Hollywood. As friend Gerry Schlein put it,
“He would have had to be made of iron to withstand it.”
Another of Julie’s friends would say that
“This town [Hollywood] got a little the best of him. It wasn’t any one girl. It was GIRLS. To be fair about it, he didn’t chase them, not at the start. They chased him. Trouble was, he had married young…Julie was easy pickings.”
Hollywood folklore says John Garfield’s success with the ladies was prolific, even legendary. Some would even call it an addiction. And since he truly loved his wife, Julie felt guilty every time he strayed. There’d be separations over the years—and the Garfields were quite possibly on the verge of divorcing for good at the time of Julie’s death—but something made Robbe stick by her husband for nearly 17 years of marriage, no matter what.
He Was Generous
John Garfield wasn’t perfect, but he possessed many admirable traits, one of which was his generosity. Perhaps his generosity stemmed from the fact that Julie had known poverty first hand, but it was also just his natural inclination to give.
Even after finding success in Hollywood, Julie never forgot his roots, or the people who helped him along the way. Angelo Patri was Julie’s greatest—and perhaps only—supporter in his youth, and Julie, forever grateful, made a point of speaking at the PS 45 graduation ceremonies over the years, inspiring young high school graduates to reach for the stars, just as Patri had inspired him.
What a sweet man, I love that.
As a wealthy star of stage and film, Julie was always a soft touch when asked to lend his name to a cause, or if a friend needed money. Sometimes, you didn’t even have to be a friend to be the recipient of the Garfield generosity.
$200 for a "Friend"
Conductor Lehman Engel remembered an incident in 1940 when Julie starred in the Broadway production of Heavenly Express. A man came backstage, said ‘Hello John,” and introduced himself as an old friend from P.S 45. The two exchanged pleasantries.
Then the man asked for $200.
Without hesitating, Julie gave him the money, and the man left.
Engel asked Julie if he really had any memory of the guy.
“’No,’ Julie said. ‘He was a phony. Whenever somebody calls me John instead of Julie, I know that they’re phonies.’”
But as Julie’s generous heart saw it, if the man needed money desperately enough to spin such a yarn, he probably really needed the money, and Julie was happy to help.
He Wasn’t a Communist
John Garfield would be one of the many Hollywood stars whose reputation and career were severely damaged by the communist witch hunts of the late 1940s-early 1950s. Julie was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and expected to “name names” when he appeared as a “friendly witness” before HUAC on April 23, 1951.
To set the record straight, John Garfield was never a communist.
He supported countless liberal causes over the years, and he certainly had close friends and associates who were party members and “fellow travelers”—most notably his own wife—but Julie was a registered Democrat who, in his own words, “voted on the Democratic ticket all the time.”
"Not Trying to Change the World"
Countless friends over the years would say that Julie’s politics were “surface” level, driven by emotional appeal, and not much else. Writer/director Abraham Polonsky perhaps summarized Julie’s politics best:
“Sure, he supported the liberal causes, but he wanted to be a famous actor. He didn’t want to change the world!”
Often, the only reason Julie signed his name to a petition or gave his support to an organization was because Robbe or a friend asked him to. He didn’t always understand, or care a whole lot, about what he was being asked to support. He trusted the intelligence and integrity of the person asking for his support.
But HUAC wouldn’t see Julie’s politics that way. And unfortunately, the price would be his life.
He Died Young
John Garfield suffered from a weakened heart the majority of his life. A bought with scarlet fever in childhood, coupled with the typhoid fever he contracted as a young man hitch-hiking across the country, may have been the cause. But at the very least, the two illnesses certainly didn’t help Julie’s heart.
Between 1944-1950, John Garfield suffered from at least three known heart attacks. His wife Robbe believed Julie probably endured many more small, undiagnosed heart attacks along the way.
Julie’s heart murmur would lead to his 4-F classification during WWII, barring him from military service. It proved one of his life’s greatest disappointments, but the patriotic Julie would make up for it by entertaining the troops overseas several times during the war years, and by founding the Hollywood Canteen—a club where enlisted men could dance and mingle with movie stars—in 1942.
Jonn Garfield Doesn't Slow Down
Doctors advised him to slow down after each heart attack. But it was advice that the active Julie just couldn’t take. As co-star Geraldine Fitzgerald recalled:
“He had a bad heart. But he still wouldn’t slow down. He was always playing tennis, always doing something strenuous as if he was trying to overcome this limitation.”
Julie’s weakened heart and the vicious accusations of the House Un-American Activities Committee proved a deadly combination. On May 21, 1952, Julie died as a result of the stress defending himself and his friends against HUAC put on his heart. Even more tragically, Julie’s death occurred shortly before HUAC admitted that they never actually had any evidence that he was a communist…
Sending an innocent man to his grave. I can’t imagine living with that guilt.
He Had a Great Sense of Humor
It was one of John Garfield’s greatest regrets that he never had the chance to really show his flare for comedy on screen. Garfield melodramas, gangster flicks, and film noirs were usually moneymakers, so Warners and the other studios he worked for saw no reason to let Julie branch out into comedy. Writer Ted Allan called Julie’s sense of humor “delicious,” and was one of many who admired his friend’s rare ability to laugh at himself.
One of my favorite Garfield anecdotes that underscores both his humor and ability to laugh at himself involves what Julie liked to call his “man-maker.”
Secondary leading man Dane Clark shared that he always enjoyed working with Julie because both men were roughly 5’7”. As Clark shared,
“I was so sick of playing opposite actors who I had to look up to, like Raymond Massey and Cary Grant.”
John Garfield and His "Man-Maker"
So when Clark discovered that he’d be playing a second lead to Julie in Destination Tokyo (1943), he was super excited to not have to look up to the leading man for once.
But Clark was in for a major disappointment. When the two men were about to film their first scene together,
“Julie turned to the prop man and said, ‘Bring me my man-maker.’
‘Man-maker? What the hell is a man-maker,’”
The confused Dane Clark asked. He didn’t have to wonder long. The prop man brought out a small box, which Julie promptly stepped up on. He was now a few inches taller than the greatly disappointed Dane Clark.
As explanation to Clark, and to the amusement of the whole cast and crew, Julie smiled and good-naturedly said,
“One day, when you’re a star, you can have a man-maker too.”
More John Garfield Next Time!
And that’s it for my introduction to John Garfield! Be sure to join me next time as I go behind the scenes of a classic film that paired Julie with one of my very favorite actresses, the lovely and impossibly glamorous Lana Turner. You know the film I’m talking about: 1946’s The Postman Always Rings Twice.