John Garfield (1913-1952) was “the precursor to Brando and Dean,” says actress-filmmaker Lee Grant. Actor James Cromwell takes it even further, stating there is a “direct line between Garfield and Pacino and De Niro.”
Garfield’s resume dazzles with unforgettable performances in classics such as Body and Soul (1947) Humoresque (1946) and the original The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). It’s an interesting exercise to compare Garfield’s adulterous killer in Postman with Jack Nicholson’s in the steamy 1981 remake. Nicholson’s characterization is erotic and highly charged, whereas Garfield’s Postman is stamped with a much more subtle type of sexuality. Even so, his indelible performance pushed the envelope in 1946.
Born Jacob Julius Garfinkle, he grew up tough and poor on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. His early years played like an episode of The Dead End Kids, and adolescent troublemaking landed him in a public school for problem children. Fortunately, a nurturing teacher took an interest and channeled the boy’s energies into boxing, public speaking and the stage.
Post-graduate studies included stints with method-acting gurus Richard Boleslavsky and Maria Ouspenskaya. With their help, he began to make a name for himself on stage and perfected what Grant calls his “smoldering, somber, troubled, street-guy kind of presence.”
At 18, he and a buddy hopped freight cars and hitchhiked their way to the West Coast, where a few years later Garfield made his 1938 big-screen debut in Four Daughters. His scene-stealing, star-making turn as a disaffected drifter nabbed him his first Academy Award nomination. Although he lost the Best Supporting Actor Oscar to Walter Brennan in Kentucky, he displayed a vulnerability and toughness that would be a hallmark of his screen career.
Regrettably, Garfield died at age 39 from coronary thrombosis, which many of his colleagues believe was exacerbated by bouts with Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee.