Alan Safier (Gratiano) and Morris Carnovsky (Shylock) in "The Merchant of Venice" (1973)
September 5, 1897
St. Louis, Mo., U.S.
|Died||September 1, 1992
Easton, Connecticut, U.S.
|Spouse(s)||? (1922-1933; divorced)
Phoebe Brand (1941-1992; his death; 1 child)
Morris Carnovsky (September 5, 1897 – September 1, 1992) was an American stage and film actor born in St. Louis, Missouri. He worked briefly in the Yiddish theatre before attending Washington University in St. Louis. Opting for a mainstream acting career, he appeared in dozens of Broadway shows.
Broadway career and the Group Theatre
In 1922, Carnovsky began his long career on Broadway with his New York stage debut as Reb Aaron in The God of Vengeance. Two years later, Carnovsky joined the Theatre Guild acting company and appeared in the title role of Uncle Vanya (by Anton Chekhov). This was followed by roles in Saint Joan (by George Bernard Shaw), The Brothers Karamazov, The Doctor's Dilemma (also by Shaw) and the role of Kublai Khan in Eugene O'Neill's Marco Millions.
In 1931, he helped found the Group Theatre, which specialized in dramas with socially relevant and politically tinged messages. Many of the Group's members were inspired by the Moscow Art theatre and several members, including Carnovsky, also joined the American Communist Party. Among the notable Group Theatre directors were Harold Clurman, Lee Strasberg, Elia Kazan and Cheryl Crawford. It included such actors as Franchot Tone, John Garfield, Ruth Nelson, Art Smith, Luther Adler, Sanford Meisner, Paula Strasberg and Carnovsky's wife, Phoebe Brand. Carnovsky summered at Pine Brook Country Club in Nichols, Connecticut, with the Group Theatre.
Carnovsky appeared in almost every major Group Theatre production, often playing parts that had been written specifically for him by his good friend, the actor and playwright Clifford Odets. Among Carnovsky's major triumphs at the Group Theatre were the Odets' plays Awake and Sing, Golden Boy, Paradise Lost and Rocket to the Moon.
Writing about the Group's production of Awake and Sing, the New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson said, "...Morris Carnovsky as the lonely old sage struggling with ideas he cannot resolve or use, gives a performance worth a mayor's reception on the steps of City Hall. Probably Mr. Carnovsky and Mr. Adler would have become remarkable actors in any case. But the discipline of the Group Theatre has given them a mastery of acting they could never have achieved by themselves. The Group Theatre makes good!"
In 1937 Carnovsky (along with several other actors from the Group) went to Hollywood where they hoped that by appearing in movies, they could raise the money needed to bolster the often shaky finances of the Group. Carnovsky's movie debut came in the Academy Award-winning best picture of 1937, William Dieterle's The Life of Emile Zola starring Paul Muni. It was followed by a supporting role in Anatole Litvak's Tovarich, before Carnovsky returned to New York and a newly re-configured formation of the Group Theatre. After the collapse of the Group Theatre in 1940, Carnovsky returned to Hollywood where he appeared in several films and continued his stage work by joining the Actors' Lab.
In 1943, he played a retired Norwegian school teacher, Sixtus Andresen, in the Warner Bros. anti-Nazi film, Edge of Darkness, which starred Errol Flynn and was directed by Lewis Milestone. Carnovsky portrayed George Gershwin's father in Rhapsody in Blue in 1945, and in Dead Reckoning (1947), he starred as the villainous nightclub owner Martinelli with Humphrey Bogart. In 1950, he portrayed LeBret in Cyrano de Bergerac starring José Ferrer. Later that year, he played Dr. Raymond Hartley in the mystery The Second Woman and the kindly judge who sentences a young boy who likes to play with firearms in Joseph H. Lewis's Gun Crazy. This was to be Carnovsky's last Hollywood film for 12 years, after which he was blacklisted.
Carnovsky was at one time a member of the American Communist Party. He, along with his wife, Phoebe Brand, was one of eight Group Theatre members named by his former comrade Elia Kazan (himself a Communist Party member) before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Actor Sterling Hayden also testified before the committee that he had attended Communist Party meetings that were sometimes held at Carnovsky's house in Hollywood. When Carnovsky was called before the HUAC he refused to "name names", and this effectively ended his career in Hollywood, so he returned to the New York stage.
Return to Broadway
Returning to Broadway in the early 1950s, Carnovsky appeared in Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, adapted by Arthur Miller, Noël Coward's Nude With Violin, The Dybbuk, and Tiger at the Gates. Then in 1956 Carnovsky recalls with delight, "Shakespeare suddenly discovered me!" "In 1956", he said, "John Houseman, who was then the general director and producer at the Stratford (Conn.) American Shakespeare Theatre, called me up and said, 'would you like to do some Shakespeare?' I said, 'Yes, of course!' So that's how I began. The first year I did a part in King John, a part in Measure For Measure and a part in The Taming of the Shrew. Then I proceeded to learn what Shakespeare was all about, in light of the realistic method of acting that I had discovered during my years with the Group Theatre. The following year, I found myself doing Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, and that was really the opening of the can of peas, for me." At Stratford he played many roles, notably Feste in Twelfth Night in a production featuring Katharine Hepburn as Viola, and Prospero in a celebrated production of The Tempest directed by William Ball of the American Conservatory Theater.
He also appeared in a few more pictures: In 1962 he went to Paris to appear in Sidney Lumet's adaptation of Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge. He played Creon in a TV play of Medea, and in 1974 appeared in The Gambler, playing James Caan's father.
He was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1979.
A highly-acclaimed performance at Stratford (CT) Shakespeare Festival in King Lear led to something of a second career for Carnovsky as a mentor of young actors, as he traveled to universities all over the country, playing the leading role in the Shakespeare classic with supporting casts made up of college students. At Connecticut College, Carnovsky taught future film actor Leland Orser. In this way Carnovsky appeared with Shakespearean actor Richard Hauenstein (who played Kent) when he appeared as Lear at West Virginia University in Morgantown. In 1984, he wrote a book The Actor's Eye with friend and colleague Peter Sander that distilled his theory of acting.
Morris Carnovsky died at his home in Easton, Connecticut, on September 1, 1992, four days before his 95th birthday, from natural causes. His wife, Phoebe Brand, died on July 3, 2004, at the age of 96 from pneumonia. The couple had a son, Stephen Carnovsky.
- The Life of Emile Zola (1937)
- Tovarich (1937)
- Edge of Darkness (1943)
- Rhapsody in Blue (1945)
- Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945)
- Cornered (1945)
- Dead Reckoning (1947)
- Dishonored Lady (1947)
- Saigon (1948)
- Thieves' Highway (1949)
- Gun Crazy (1950)
- The Second Woman (1950)
- Cyrano de Bergerac (1950)
- Vu du pont (1962)
- The Gambler (1974)
- Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads (1983)
- Morris Carnovsky at the Internet Broadway Database
- Morris Carnovsky at the Internet Movie Database
- Morris Carnovsky at Find a Grave