John Garfield: Hollywood’s Forgotten Hero

When most people think of a hero, they think of a combat soldier, or an ancient mythological Greek or Roman god, or even a DC or Marvel Comic strip superhero.  Very few people think of an actor as a hero. This post is a tribute to John Garfield: An actor, artist, Hollywood star and hero. Even though he did not win an Oscar, he was nominated twice, once for Best Supporting Actor (Four Daughters, 1938) and once for Best Actor (Body and Soul, 1948).

Was he robbed or stubbed? I don’t think so. I think he just ran out of time and had too many obstacles in his way. However, this tribute goes beyond praising his work and contributions to the Arts.  It is also a tribute to him as a great human being who stood strong when most of those around him faltered, failed, and at times betrayed him and others. In life, Garfield performed heroic deeds.


I am so happy that KG at KG’s Movie Rants is hosting the Unsung Hero Blogathon. It  celebrates various actors who should at least be praised for their contribution to their craft and Art, especially if they did not win an Oscar. You can read more about other deserving actors using the following link:

Announcement: The Unsung Hero Blogathon

I think of Garfield Even Though 

His name and image is unrecognizable by most audiences today and very little credit is given to him for much of his work.  Despite this,  John Garfield’s contributions to movie making and acting are still felt around the world today.  He was one of the trail blazers for removing the rigid controls of the old Hollywood studio system. On screen, he introduced new acting techniques that are still practiced by actors and appreciated by audiences today.  Possibly, and more importantly, his life emphasized the importance that all artists should be  “citizens of the world.” They should not be silent when confronted with inhumane or immoral actions by people or governments. Especially, those who disregard Constitutional rights or even the human rights of others. An example of how relevant this is today, think of Meryl Streep’s moving speech at the 2017 Golden Globe awards.  In case you missed it, I put the link of the video in the References.

I thought of Garfield After Streep’s Golden Globes Message

There were conflicting opinions about her message. Some praised her for her courage to speak out; and, there were others who complained that her job is to entertain and keep quiet. On Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc…, you will find artists and actors exercising their freedom of speech. While at the same time you will still find people, under the delusion, that they own these outspoken celebrities and can control them because they are fans and buy tickets to see them. Some even go so far as to personally threaten them or a love one if they continue to speak out. Unfortunately, actors, from the 1920s though 1960s,  were controlled and silenced by the old studio system using tactics similar to these.

What Does This Have to do With Garfield?  Like One of His Noir Films, Let’s Start at The End

On May 21, 1952, Garfield passed away in a two room apartment while sleeping in a friend’s bed. A robust, charismatic mega-star in the prime of his life. He was 39 years old.  Ironically, he once said, that an actor doesn’t mature until they reach the age of 40. Previously, the HUAC (House of American Activities Committee), blacklisted him. This ban forbidden him from working in Hollywood for over a year. Instead of working in Hollywood, he landed the lead part in Broadway play. This is a part that he had badly wanted for years. Even before he became a Hollywood star, he believed this was the part that he was born to play.

His friend, Clifton Odets, who came from the same Jewish neighborhood, wrote a play “The Golden Boy,” for him.  This happened years ago, when Garfinkle was still a struggling actor in New York City. Odets’ play was centered on a talented violinist and boxer, Joe Bonaparte, who must make a fateful decision between money or integrity. This decision will alter his life forever. Tragically, in 1951, John Garfield  will also make a decision that will irreversibly change the course of his life.

Although, Odets pushed for Garfinkle to play the lead, he failed to secure that part for his friend, Julie (Julius Garfinkle). Many believe that the disappointment of not getting the lead part in Golden Boy is what drove Julie to sign a contract with a major Hollywood studio.  When Garfinkle signs a seven-year contract with Warner Brothers, they will change his name from Jacob Julius Garfinkle to John Garfield.  The studio thought Garfinkle sounded too Jewish.  Considering his parents are Jewish; and, they immigrated to the United States from the Ukraine to escape the Russian pogroms, it is safe to say; his name sounded Jewish. By the time Julie (Jack Or Dutch were his other nicknames) reached his 20s, the world was struggling through the Great Depression, The Great Dust Bowl, Hitler’s rise to power, segregation, and anti-Semitism (which was the norm of the day, even in America).

What was Garfield really like?

The contract that Garfield signed with the studio had a surprising and extremely rare option added to it.  The option allowed Garfield time off from making movies to do stage work.  Garfield believed that work in the theater is creating Art; while work in Hollywood was simply making money. The studio did not want to add this option; but, Garfield proved to be a strong negotiator.

Maybe, this skill developed while he was still on the debate team in a special school: He came in 2nd in the City Wide Debate Completion sponsored by the New York Times. While growing up in poverty and living from house to house, he also developed a stammer; but, that didn’t stop him from taking drama and speech classes at this special school (P.S. 45). Nor did the stammer, keep him from becoming a Leader of a street gang.   As Garfield explained: Growing up in a place where there is a gang on every street, you learn that safety is in numbers.

When Julie was seven years old, his mother passed away  from complications of a childbirth, two years earlier. This is when his only sibling, Max, was born.  They were basically raised by relatives in three different city Burroughs: Lower east side of Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn. Their father was indifferent to the boys when they were little. He did remarry and fortunately, they placed Julie in a school for troubled teenagers.  Before these classes, his only positive outlet for his frustrations was in a boxing gym. He was quite good at it and even boxed professionally for a short awhile.  Eventually, he will replace boxing with a new and different kind of excitement. An experimental acting class. This class used unique techniques which later became known as The Method.

How did he seem to others?

He was  a friend, a husband, a father, a son, an athlete, and a wonderful story-teller.  To some people, he could be abrasive at times; yet, for others they remember his soft, soothing voice, and his completely disarming smile. Some, who knew him better, would describe him as funny, adventurous and definitely loyal. Many would say he was  passionate about anyone or anything that he cared about. Others would say he had a wonderful imagination and a creative mind. Regardless of his skills in negotiating deals or charming people, his passion was in acting; and, with the spirit of a true artist, he found himself at odds with the poorly written scripts and/or produced movies that the studio would forced upon him.

Hollywood And So Much More

Before he left the New York stage to go to Hollywood, he took a year off to ride the rails as a hobo and working his way across America doing various jobs.  He met all kinds of people and learned about their lives and surviving the Great Depression.  Many of his tales of that adventurous time would later be depicted in a movie by a friend, Preston Sturges’Sullivan’s Travels (1940).

In Garfield’s first movie, Four Daughters(1938), movie goers had a new experience.  They seen something they had never seen on-screen before.  They did not see an actor pretending to be a character; but, an artist who was the character. For the first time on screen “The Method” is explored and successfully utilized on film.  His craft and his skill as an actor did not go unnoticed. He received a nomination for Best Supporting Actor from the Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Movie clip of Garfield’s break out movie: Four Daughters

In a similar way that Garfield was influenced by James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson, many actors will be influenced by his performances. Actors like James Dean, Marlon Brando, Montgomery Cliff, Harvey Keitel, Robert Di Nero, Al Pacino, Sean Penn and many more followed his lead and learn The Method. If it were possible to combine all their faces together into one face; I imagine that I would still see John Garfield’s face.


A Dream Deferred, Again

Later, as a Hollywood star, John Garfield, had the opportunity again to play the part that he knew he was born to play, Joe Bonaparte.  This opportunity came not on stage; but, as a movie based on the play. Again, the fates refused to smile upon his desire to play his dream role.  Warner Brothers refused to loan him to Columbia Pictures to make the movie. Due to artistic disagreements, Garfield refused to make movies that he deemed as crap.  So, he cheerfully endured 11 suspensions. Warner Brothers found a way to add salt to the wounds of his suspension by not allowing him to have his dream role. In fact, it went to newcomer William Holden.  It became his break out picture which  earned him the nicknames of Golden Boy or Golden Holden.  Eventually, the studio won out and forced Garfield to make some “B” movies that turned out to be much better than they were intended, thanks to his talents; but still, they were “B” movies.

Patriotism And WWII

When WWII began, Garfield tried to enlist.  He was turned down because it was discovered that he had a damaged heart. As a child, he became ill with Scarlet fever which was not diagnosed at that time. Disappointed but still not giving up, he wanted to help in the war effort. So, he, fellow film star Bette Davis and Jules Stein (president of the Music Corporation of America) opened the Hollywood Canteen. It fed and offered entertainment for all Allied soldiers (women and men). It had signed up over 3000 Hollywood volunteers who waited tables, worked the kitchen, danced with or just performed a little show for the servicemen and women.  Most military personnel stopped by just before they “shipped out.”  He also toured with the USO to entertain troops overseas and promoted the buying of War Bonds to support the war effort.  In addition, he also made some very impressive war movies that praised the American soldier during the war.

After The War: A New Independence

In 1946, just after WWII ended and the Cold War begun, Garfield’s contract with Warner Brothers ended.  Instead of signing another contract with another Studio, he decided to go independent and start his own production Company called Enterprise Studio.  He was one of the first actors to do this.  Maybe not so ironically, the first film project was a boxing movie, Body and Soul (1947).

Many critics and Garfield fans hail this movie as a masterpiece.  It is considered by some critics as the best boxing movie ever made.  Garfield portrays a boxer, Charley Davis, who battles to the top while losing his values, principles, and integrity. This is a classic Noir film.  It begins with Charley reminiscing about his past and the his regretful decisions.  This film will influence future movie makers of boxing movies like Martin Scorsese of Raging Bull and Sylvester Stallone of Rocky.

To make the gritty, in your face, realistic boxing sequences, James Wong Howe, cinematographer, used a hand-held camera and moved around the actors on roller skates. It is no wonder why Francis Lyon and Robert Parrish won the Oscar for Best Cinematography, Editing. The movie was also nominated for two other Academy Awards: Best Screenplay (Abraham Polonsky – later blacklisted) and Best Actor (John Garfield). This will be Garfield’s second Academy nomination.

For the casting of this movie, Garfield pushed and demanded that a black actor, Canada Lee, portrayedBen Chaplin. Lee added authenticity to his role as a boxer; since, he used to professionally Box and had 13 KOs (Knock Outs) to his credit. Hiring Lee was a bold and controversial move at a time when segregation was still Law and the cultural norm; and, the Civil Rights Movement will not begin for another eight years.

Modern Day Witch-hunt, HUAC: A Bit of History.  For those of you, who know all about this part of American History, please feel free to scroll pass

Although this was the beginning of the Cold War, before and during World War II, many Americans and intellectuals were bedazzled by the ideology of socialism.  Socialist Russia was our ally who fought with us against Fascism. In defense of these people, socialism does sound attractive, in theory. So, if someone offered an open-minded individual a Socialistic petition to sign, during the war years, which promised some working class equality: Most artist and college students would sign it; however, this does not make them a communist.

Once WWII is over and the fear of Fascism is defeated, another fear will take its place, the Red Scare. This Cold War with the Soviet Union will mostly be fought overseas and with spy hunts everywhere. Fear does very weird things to people who otherwise would never dream of lying or hurting another human being.

Even Shakespeare would be shocked by the “Web of Lies” that were weaved in order to deceive and protect oneself from the accusations of “Being Red!”

There were over 300 names Blacklisted from the Entertainment Industry.  Of those names listed as having communist connections, only one, used to be, a communist party member.  It is interesting to note, most of them were in fact, Jewish (70%).

If there had been a real threat, they should have been arrested as spies. The only people arrested and sent to prison were the few who refuse to lie or who refuse to “cooperate.” For this, they were, ironically, charged with contempt of the law Congress.

The Hollywood Ten: a bit more History

The Hollywood Ten (9 writers and 1 director/producer) were convicted and sent to Federal prison for not being spies; but, because they did not admit to it.  They refuse to name names and cut a deal like Chambers, a real spy.  To protest this miscarriage of justice by Congress, an action group, Commitment For The First Amendment, was formed by Hollywood’s A- listers.  The membership for this group was around 300 people. Garfield was one of those people. They flew to D.C. and protested the HUAC hearings.  It only backfired on them.  It was found out that one of their members used to be in the Communist party, Stanley Hayden. As a result, all members came under suspicion. Then, it was found out, 3 of the Hollywood 10used to be members of the Communist party. None of the members of the Committee For The First Amendment were communists.  Nearly all were New Deal, Liberal Democrats.

Why did President Truman allow this travesty against the law and to the American people happen? According to a television bio-movie, Truman (1995), he didn’t think the America people would be so stupid to buy into HUAC’s brand of patriotism (This must have happened during an election year).

In reality, a 1946 poll, I snicker, claimed 78% of the American people believed Soviet agents infiltrated the United States Government.  As a matter of fact, the United States Justice Department was investigating the Senior Editor of Time Magazine, Whittaker Chambers. Chambers had been a spy for the Soviets. He would testify to HUAC that an underground Communist Network had been working within our government since the 1930s. Then, he started naming names in order to cut a deal.  One of those he named was Alger Hiss. He was an official in the State Department. Truman claimed Hiss was not a spy but a “Red Herring” to protect Chambers.

I am going out on a limb, and suggest, that Hollywood was perhaps a “Red Herring” too. It is like a magic show, distract them here while the trick is played there. This would take the focus off the United States Government. If it could have been proven true, it would have shaken the very foundation of this country, especially after suffering the effects of two World Wars. It is interesting to note that no spies were actually found in the government. As a matter of fact, the hearings tapered off after Senator McCarthy accused the United States Army of being communists. As a result, it is only in Hollywood that the accusations of “Being Red” still continued.

The Fateful Decision

When Garfield was asked to testify before the HUAC on April 23, 1951, he refused to give names or cut a deal like most of the “cooperating” Hollywood witnesses.

Here is Garfield’s final words to the HUAC:

When I was originally requested to appear before the committee, I said that I would answer all questions, fully and without any reservations, and that is what I have done. I have nothing to be ashamed of and nothing to hide. My life is an open book. I was glad to appear before you and talk with you. I am no Red. I am no pink. I am no fellow traveler. I am a Democrat by politics, a liberal by inclination, and a loyal citizen of this country by every act of my life.

Despite his patriotic efforts during the war, he was still Blacklisted for not lying. Congress expected him to lie and admit he was guilty of being a member of the communist party. Then, ask for mercy because he was duped by the “Reds.”  He was supposed to denounce them and cut a deal. He was suppose to lie again on his peers, friends and even on his own family (Roberta, his wife, had an expired Communist party card).  For readers, who are completely at lost about this time in American History, I highly recommend the movie, The Way We Were(1973).  I know it is sappy; but, it helps to understand the mindset of people during this turbulent time; plus, the movie is wonderful to watch.

A Dream, Not Deferred And What Could Have Been

Despite the blacklisting, Garfield fulfilled his dream.  “Golden Boy” was revived on Broadway between March 12, 1952 and April 6, 1952.  He had completed  55 performances. Actor Jack Klugman played his brother, Frank Bonaparte in the play.  In an interview, Klugman describe Garfield’s excitement of doing a future project with his old friend Elia Kazan (another blacklister).  He was going to partly base the story on Garfield.  Klugman later learned the name of that project was On the Waterfront(1954).  The plot included a story of a boxer who made the decision to take a dive and ruin his life. I can only imagine how the iconic Brando scenes could have been done by Garfield. It would have been his “mature” moment as an actor. If only, he could have been permitted to do it. If only, he had lived long enough.  It would have been awesome.

His Last Stressful Days

Ten days before Garfield died, his friend and colleague, Canada Lee (Blacklisted) had died of a heat attack at the age of 45.  Weeks before Garfield died, he was informed, during one of his stage performances, that Federal charges were being bought against him in contempt of court (not naming names) and possibly perjury under oath.  Variety magazine claims Garfield was going to recant his denial under oath to the HUAC in an upcoming interview because he wanted to cut a deal with the government.

If Garfield had went back to court, there would be no deals; and, if found guilty, he would spend time in a Federal prison.  A couple of days before he died, he found out that CBS cancelled a show he had performed before a live television audience. It was a scene from Golden Boy.  Kim Stanley (aka female Brando) performed it with him.  Again the HUAC had intervened and prevented his work. In addition to all these stress factors that week, it was rumored that he separated from his wife, Roberta, of 21 years.  This was not unusual in their long marriage.  The night he died, Roberta was expecting him to come home.

So, on May 2o, 1952, he played a rigorous game of tennis. Then, he and a friend ate a heavy dinner. Later, he complained of not feeling well and just needed to rest. His friend, insisted that he take the bed; and, she would rest on the couch. Why didn’t he call his doctor? He was under a doctor’s care since he had a heart attack the year before.  I can only assume that growing up in poverty creates some life long habits, like not going to the doctor when you feel ill.  Besides, he just didn’t play tough guys in the movies, he was a tough guy.

The following morning she decided to let him sleep in. When she went to wake him, she bought him a glass of orange juice.  When he did not respond, she called his doctor. He died on May 21, 1952, just within a few miles of where he was born on March 4, 1913 and a few hours before his friend, Clifford Odets, would cut a deal with HUAC.

John Garfield deserves a Posthumous Honorary Academy Award. His life and work had a positive, historical impact on Hollywood, the stage, and even on the American political system. By giving him this award, he would be given credit for his achievements and his family and friends could finally receive some justice to his memory. John Garfield is what America is all about: Courageous, creative, hard-working, tenacious, honorable, and defending those who can’t defend themselves. If the Academy honors Garfield’s memory in this way, perhaps, he might finally rest in peace because he will always be remembered.

If you would like to know more about Garfield and his work, check out another Garfield Blogathon that has great reviews of his movies. The link is below:

John Garfield 4

Link to the cancelled television show.  The quality is pretty bad; but, you can still see some of the Garfield Charisma that audiences loved.


History on the HUAC

A very Brief Bio on Garfield on Facebook

Interview with Jack Klugman about John Garfield

Information about the Committee for the First Amendment

Meryl Streep’s Speech at the 2017 Golden Globe Awards:  Garfield would have been very proud to call her his friend

25 thoughts on “John Garfield: Hollywood’s Forgotten Hero

  1. I had never heard of John Garfield but find it interesting that actors were involved in societal issues back that far. It was certainly much more difficult to do it then. Some things also haven’t changed much.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Another interesting blog. I left reading this sad for a talented and good man. But at the same time I have much admiration for him that he lived a true life and stood by his beliefs and refused to be manipulated. I think about our social and political climate today and can imagine some version of the Red Scare happening. He was ahead of his time in many ways. I look forward to seeing some of his movies, especially Body And Soul. It is such a shame that he died so young and with much unfulfilled promise.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow! That is very insightful comment. I didn’t mean to make anyone sad; but, I agree that it was sad that he left us so early. Whenever, I see Garfield on film, I feel like I was given a special treat 😊💖 Enjoy his movies xx


  3. This blog is very interesting ,I enjoyed reading it so much.I have to admit I have heard the name John Garfield before but knew nothing of him,now after all your comments on him and telling of this story,I see he had a very hard life, I have never seen any of his movies but am going to try and find some now especially 4 daughters,prob. it,s on the old movie channel.I do remember all the stuff with actors and actress being blacklisted and it destroyed many of their lives ,so sad.Reading this blog I can truly say he was such a courageous man standing up for societal issues and staying true to his beliefs and not letting any1 sway him from them especially way back then I have so much admiration for him ,defending the underdog till the end, to bad there weren,t more people like him to stand up for those who can,t defend themselves.I loved Meryll ,s speech at globes.Loved this Great job as usual.xx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow! Sharon you paid me the best comment if you watch Garfield movies. He was great and his movies like “The Postman Always Rings Twice” or “Body and Soul” are perfect. Four Daughters is just so charming and fun. I hope you check out all of his films. I plan to..I haven’t seen them all. He makes a wonderfully villain to, “Out of the Fog” Enjoy and thank you again for the read and comment😊


    1. Hi Phyl
      I tried to sign up for your blogathon too. Obviously, it didn’t work out. Long story…. I would love for you to include it. It was my intent to do a review of “Out of the Fog”… for your Blogathon. Maybe, I will be allowed to do it for your next Garfield Blogathon. I hope😊
      Thank you for asking. Have a wonderful day 🌈


      1. Oh dear!! Sorry you weren’t able to comment!! I’ve included my email in past Blogathons but started getting spam. If I ever host another Garfield one, I’ll check back with you 😊


      1. Wow, just got to read this. I learned so much in this post! Garfield certainly had an interesting and eventful (and sad) life. It could definitely be made into a movie, yet there is no one that could play him. Oh, if the Academy would give him an award!! Not only would it honor his amazing film career, but it would bring him to the attention of the public again, when sadly many don’t know him.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I so heartedly agree with you, if only…I know his daughter Julie has tried to get the Academy to do so. I really hope they do in the near future. It may not be a bad time now given the political climate. Thanks again for catching my blog and putting this post in the Garfield Tribute xx


  4. WOW!!! This is amazing! I had never heard of John Garfield before you chose him as the subject of your post. He sounds like he was truly a wonderful man with a strong sense of integrity and remarkable love for his craft. I’m going to put Body and Soul and Four Daughters on my watch list.

    Thank you for contributing to my blogathon. This post was incredibly informative and written with real passion.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You, my friend, are extremely kind and generous. I so happy that you have discovered him. He is truly memorable and you will love his movies. Thank you for hosting this blogathon and letting me really rant 😊

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi KG
      Sorry to respond so slow…I thought this was sent already. I do have a Twitter acct. but I use it mostly to retweet…. it is KatrinaNeenie…if you have one too, I would love to follow you as well😊
      Happy Belated Saint Patrick’s Day 🍀💚🍀💚


  5. Katrina, I’m late to your Garfield tribute, but having long been a fan of his, I found your piece very well done. I’ve always been partial to his 1946 film The Postman Always Rings Twice, and since Mr. Garfield received a mention in Kill Bill: Vol 2, we can assume Tarantino was also a fan.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi David 😊
      Thanks for commenting. Anyone who has seen Garfeild’s work must appreciate how he made each character come to life. When he was on the screen, I was completely lost in the story. Tarantino knows a good thing when he sees it…
      I hope you Have a great day xx

      Liked by 1 person

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