Morris Carnovsky

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Morris Carnovsky
Morris Carnovsky as Shylock (right) in "The Merchant of Venice" (1973)
Morris Carnovsky

(1897-09-05)September 5, 1897
DiedSeptember 1, 1992(1992-09-01) (aged 94)
Alma materWashington University in St. Louis
Years active1921-1984
Spouse(s)Florence Lasersohn[1] (1922-33; divorced)
Phoebe Brand (1941-1992; his death); 1 child

Morris Carnovsky (September 5, 1897 – September 1, 1992) was an American stage and film actor. He was one of the founders of the Group Theatre (1931-1940) in New York City and had a thriving acting career both on Broadway and in films until, in the early 1950s, professional colleagues told the House Un-American Activities Committee that Carnovsky had been a Communist Party member. He was blacklisted and worked less frequently for a few years, but then re-established his acting career, taking on many Shakespearean roles at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and performing the title roles in college campus productions of King Lear and The Merchant of Venice. Carnovsky's nephew is veteran character actor and longtime "Pathmark Guy" James Karen.

Early life[edit]

Carnovsky was born in St. Louis, Missouri on September 5, 1897 to Ike and Jennie Carnovsky, both Russian Jewish immigrants.[2] His father, a grocer, took him to performances of the Yiddish theater. In 1975 he recalled: "There was such richness in their portrayals of Jewish life. I could savor it. Once I smelled greasepaint, I was committed."[3] He graduated from Washington University in 1920 and then moved to Boston where he acted in his first professional stage production.[3]

Acting career[edit]

Morris Carnovsky (right) with Phoebe Brand (front row, center) and other members of the Group Theatre in 1938

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. He later explained: "We founded the Group because we were sick and tired of the old romantic theater and the encrusted star system. We weren't interested in stars. We were looking for real, living drama."[3] Many of the Group's members were inspired by the Moscow Art Theatre and several members, including Carnovsky and his wife Phoebe Brand also joined the American Communist Party. Carnovsky summered at Pine Brook Country Club in Nichols, Connecticut, with the Group Theatre in 1936, as he worked with the Group during all their summer rehearsal periods, most of which were spent in the Catskills and upstate New York.[4][5]

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.[citation needed]

He also appeared in the anti-war musical Johnny Johnson, Sidney Kingsley's Men in White, the Elia Kazan-directed Thunder Rock, My Sister Eileen, and Cafe Crown. 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!"[6]

In 1937 Carnovsky, along with several other actors from the Group, went to Hollywood in hopes of raising money to bolster the Group's shaky finances by working in films. 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 more films. In 1939, he provided the narration for a film called The City that was screened at the 1939 New York World's Fair. He continued his stage work by joining the Actors' Lab, an acting troupe much like the Group, serving as its first director.[7]

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.[citation needed]

On Broadway, Carnovsky appeared alongside Fredric March in Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, adapted by Arthur Miller, in the 1950-51 season. Atkinson wrote: "The impact of Mr. March's acting is dramatically balanced by the rich, forceful and accomplished acting of Morris Carnovsky as the cynical mayor of the town."[8]

Hollywood blacklist[edit]

Carnovsky was at one time a member of the American Communist Party. In April 1951, when questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), he refused to answer any questions, citing his rights under the U.S. Constitution. At the same hearing, actor Marc Lawrence testified that he and Carnovsky had attended some of the same Communist Party functions. Carnovsky issued a statement after the hearing which said the committee's work was not really an inquiry, but "an inquisition into the inviolable areas of one's deepest manhood and integrity–the end result is the blacklist, the deprivation by innuendo of one's right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in work."[9]

He and his wife Phoebe Brand, were identified as Communists by Elia Kazan, a Communist Party member himself at one time, in testimony before the HUAC in 1952,[10] along with six other members of the Group Theatre.[11] Actor Sterling Hayden testified before HUAC 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", which ended his film career. In 1975, he assessed the experience:[3]

As an experience, it was revolting, injurious, hurtful. But from the point of view of the entire picture, in an odd way it nurtured me, strengthened me, made me hard, objective, even resigned. And to that degree I think it fed me as an actor.

In 1953, he and his wife, who had also been blacklisted, appeared off-Broadway in The World of Sholem Aleichem[12] as part of a cast of blacklisted actors that were assembled to demonstrate that the New York theater audience would not make them outcasts.[13] It ran for two years.[14]

While Hollywood's lack of interest in him after his dealings with HUAC were unspoken, in one incident he was publicly uninvited from appearing as scheduled in May 1953 at a Jewish Community Center in Queens because he "would not be acceptable to the community".[15]

Return to acting[edit]

In 1955 he returned to Broadway as Priam in Jean Giradoux' Tiger at the Gates.[16]

Then in 1956, Carnovsky recalled, "Shakespeare suddenly discovered me!" "In 1956", he said, "John Houseman, who was then the general director and producer at the American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Connecticut, 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."[6] 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.[citation needed]

Again on Broadway, Carnovsky appeared in 1957 in Noël Coward's Nude with Violin,[17]

He also appeared in a few more pictures: In 1962, he went to Paris to appear in Sidney Lumet's A View from the Bridge, an adaptation of Arthur Miller's play of the same name. In May 1966, he appeared in the title role of Bertolt Brecht's "Galileo Galilei"[18] at the Goodman Theater in Chicago. He played Creon in a TV play of Medea, and in 1974 appeared in The Gambler, playing James Caan's grandfather. Public TV's Hollywood Television Theater. He played Judge Hoffman in the 1975 PBS tv two‐and‐a‐half hour dramatization of "The Chicago Conspiracy Trial." Culled by Christopher Burstall and Stuart Hood from 23,000 pages of the original transcript, the program is a 1970 co‐production of the British Broadcasting Corporation and Bavarian Television. Mr. Burstall also served as producer and director.(NYT July 10-1975)

He was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1979.[19]

In 1980, he served on the artistic advisory board of the Yiddish National Theatre, a nonprofit effort to promote awareness of an increasingly forgotten part of stage history.[20]

A highly acclaimed performance at Stratford 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 roles of Lear, Falstaff, and Shylock in the Shakespeare classics with supporting casts made up of college students.[21]


In 1984, he wrote a book The Actor's Eye with friend and colleague Peter Sander that distilled his theory of acting.[22]


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.[23]


Year Title Role Notes
1937 The Life of Emile Zola Anatole France
1937 Tovarich Chauffourier Dubieff
1943 Edge of Darkness Sixtus Andresen
1944 Address Unknown Max Eisenstein
1944 The Master Race Old Man Bartoc
1945 Rhapsody in Blue Morris Gershwin
1945 Our Vines Have Tender Grapes Bjorn Bjornson
1945 Cornered Manuel Santana
1946 Miss Susie Slagle's Dr. Fletcher
1947 Dead Reckoning Martinelli
1947 Dishonored Lady Dr. Richard Caleb
1947 Joe Palooka in the Knockout Howard Abbott
1948 Saigon Alex Maris
1948 Man-Eater of Kumaon Ganga Ram
1949 Siren of Atlantis Le Mesge
1949 Thieves' Highway Yanko Garcos
1950 Gun Crazy Judge Willoughby
1950 Western Pacific Agent Joe Wicken
1950 The Second Woman Dr. Hartley
1950 Cyrano de Bergerac Le Bret
1962 A View from the Bridge Mr. Alfieri
1974 The Gambler A.R. Lowenthal
1983 Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads


  1. ^ "New York, New York City Marriage Records, 1829-1940," database, FamilySearch (
  2. ^ 1900 United States Federal Census
  3. ^ a b c d Barron, James (September 2, 1992). "Morris Carnovsky Is Dead at 94; Acting Career Spanned 60 Years". New York Times. Retrieved April 1, 2015.
  4. ^ Wendy Smith, Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931–1940, New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990, pp. 264–65.
  5. ^ Images of America, Trumbull Historical Society, 1997, p. 123
  6. ^ a b French, Lawrence (May 1977). "Interview with Morris Carnovsky". Groundswell Magazine of the Arts. University of Bridgeport.
  7. ^ "Coast Theatre to Open" (PDF). New York Times. January 18, 1950. Retrieved April 5, 2015.
  8. ^ Atkinson, Brooks (December 29, 1950). "First Night at the Theatre" (PDF). New York Times. Retrieved April 5, 2015.
  9. ^ "Being a Red Called 'Hideous Mistake" (PDF). New York Times. April 25, 1951. Retrieved April 5, 2015.
  10. ^ Trussell, C.P. (April 12, 1952). "Elia Kazan Admits He was Red in '30s" (PDF). New York Times. Retrieved April 1, 2015.
  11. ^ Barranger, Milly S. (2008). Unfriendly Witnesses: Gender, Theater, and Film in the McCarthy Era. Southern Illinois University Press. p. 124. ISBN 9780809328765. Retrieved April 1, 2015.
  12. ^ Atkinson, Brooks (September 12, 1953). "Group of Short Plays about Jewish Life" (PDF). New York Times. Retrieved April 1, 2015.
  13. ^ Barranger, Milly S. (2008). Unfriendly Witnesses: Gender, Theater, and Film in the McCarthy Era. Southern Illinois University Press. p. 126. ISBN 9780809328765. Retrieved April 1, 2015.
  14. ^ Barron, James (September 2, 1992). "Morris Carnovsky Is Dead at 94; Acting Career Spanned 60 Years". New York Times. Retrieved April 1, 2015.
  15. ^ "Actor Banned in Queens" (PDF). New York Times. June 6, 1953. Retrieved 5 April 2015.
  16. ^ Atkinson, Brooks (October 4, 1955). "Theatre: The men of Troy Cry Peace" (PDF). New York Times. Retrieved April 5, 2015.
  17. ^ Atkinson, Brooks (November 15, 1957). "Theatre: Coward's 'Nude With Violin'" (PDF). New York Times. Retrieved April 5, 2015.
  18. ^ " search". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 2017-11-28.
  19. ^ "Morris Carnovsky". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved February 7, 2014.
  20. ^ Shepard, Richard F. (July 21, 1980). "New Yiddish Troupe to Open Oct. 16" (PDF). The New York Times. Retrieved April 5, 2015.
  21. ^ Banham, Martin (1998). The Cambridge Guide to Theatre. Cambridge University Press. p. 174. ISBN 9780521434379. Retrieved April 5, 2015.
  22. ^ Carnovsky, Morris; Dander, Peter (1984). The Actor's Eye. Performing Arts Journal Publications.
  23. ^ Miller, Lia (July 12, 2004). "Phoebe Brand, 96, Actress and Group Theater Co-Founder". New York Times. Retrieved April 1, 2015.

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