(b. 5 September 1897 in St. Louis, Missouri; d. 1 September 1992 in Easton, Connecticut), character actor, director, and teacher who survived the Hollywood blacklist of the 1950s to thrill audiences with his Shakespearean portrayals.
Carnovsky was the son of Isaac Carnovsky, a grocer, and Jennie Carnovsky, a homemaker. As a child, his father took him to the Yiddish theater. “There was such richness in their portrayals of Jewish life,” he recalled in a 1975 interview. “I could savor it. Once I smelled greasepaint, I was committed.” In his first acting role, he played the title role of Disraeli in a 1916 production at Yeatman High School in St. Louis. In 1920, after graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Washington University in St. Louis, he moved to Boston. There, he made his professional debut with the Henry Jewett Players, an established company at the city’s historic Copley Theater.
Carnovsky made his New York stage debut at the famed Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village in December 1922. He played Reb Aaron in Sholem Asch’s The God of Vengeance. Although the play itself was denounced by critics, the young Carnovsky received favorable reviews. He joined the most celebrated acting group in New York, the Theatre Guild, in 1923. Although he concentrated on supporting roles, in the next seven years Carnovsky became an increasingly visible member of the company. He appeared in such varied parts as Brother Martin in the world premiere of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan (1924), Alyosha, the youngest of The Brothers Karamazov (1927), and the judge in Volpone (1928). Finally, in 1929, he achieved stardom in the title role of Uncle Vanya in which he was described as “an actor to be reckoned with.”
Carnovsky gravitated to one of several splinter groups that formed within the Guild in 1930 and 1931. The new group was led by directors Lee Strasberg and Harold Clurman, who held radically different views about acting and theater. It was a soul-searching experience for Carnovsky, who recalled in 1980, “I’d always had a nagging sense that I wasn’t altogether the craftsman I wanted to be.” He realized that acting was more than just inspiration: “Listening to Lee, I was eager to reduce this all to a science of acting of the highest degree. This new thing was exciting.” Eventually, the informal groups evolved into an ensemble known as the Group Theatre. Carnovsky appeared in the Group’s inaugural production of The House of Connally (1931) and in many subsequent naturalistic dramas, particularly the works of Clifford Odets. He was hailed as “one of the most knowing actors in this or any other theatrical group.” In 1937, when the company was on hiatus, he was enticed to Hollywood to play Anatole France in The Life of Emile Zola and a supporting role in Tovarich. He soon returned to New York to play the father of the young prizefighter in Clifford Odets’s Golden Boy (1937), the Group Theatre’s greatest box-office hit. One critic commented: “Morris Carnovsky beautifully conveys the silent grief of the affectionate father.” Other roles included that of the eccentric landlord in the smash comedy My Sister Eileen (1940).
Later that year, he moved to Los Angeles, where he became a leading member of the Actors’s Lab, an ensemble made up of former Group Theatre members. In addition to acting, he directed several Actors’s Lab productions. In 1941 he married Phoebe Brand, an actress, teacher, and director he met in the Group Theatre. They had one son. Although Carnovsky claimed that he did not like filmmaking, because it did not provide enough time to develop a character, he did appear in a number of films in the mid-1940s. These included roles in the anti-Nazi Edge of Darkness (1943), the war dramas Address Unknown and The Master Race (1944), the part of George Gershwin’s father in Rhapsody in Blue (1945), the malicious gangster adversary of Humphrey Bogart in Dead Reckoning (1946), and, finally, Cyrano de Bergerac (1950).
By that time, the cold war anti-Communist frenzy had taken hold of Hollywood. Alumni of the left-leaning Group Theatre came under attack. Called before the House Un-American Activities Committee as a member of “Communist-front” groups, Carnovsky refused to provide the committee with the names of others. As a result, he was blacklisted by Hollywood. “As an experience,” he recalled later, “it was revolting, injurious, hurtful. But… in an odd way it nurtured me, strengthened me, made me hard, objective…. And to that degree I think it fed me as an actor.” With some fellow Hollywood outcasts, he returned to New York and launched a successful two-year off-Broadway run of The World of Sholem Aleichem (1953).
In his long, distinguished career, Carnovsky had never played Shakespeare. John Houseman of the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut, a director who “did not give a damn about the blacklist” or Carnovsky’s age (almost sixty), recruited him in 1956. By 1957 he had moved from supporting roles to Shylock in a production of The Merchant of Venice, which featured Katharine Hepburn as Portia. Critics praised the “dignity” he brought to the part. Carnovsky later admitted that he was able to use the bitterness he experienced during the McCarthy era “and poured into that portrayal.” He continued to appear in a variety of Shakespearean productions, culminating in King Lear (1963), a role he reprised in Chicago and Los Angeles. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Carnovsky continued to tour the United States in Shakespearean roles and as Galileo in Lamp at Midnight (1975).
In 1966 he accepted an appointment in the Theater Arts Department of Brandeis University, enabling him to direct two professional productions a year. As late as 1989, at the age of ninety-two, Carnovsky directed a production lvanov in Wisconsin. He was elected to the Theater Hall of Fame in 1979. Carnovsky died of natural causes at his home, at the age of ninety-four.
Morris Carnovsky’s wide range of professional experiences could be equaled by very few actors of his time. In his book, The Actor’s Eye, Carnovsky noted: “The very examination of our capabilities as actors in the Group Theatre was an act of love. And fundamentally, that’s how I think about everything that an actor does with all his truth and depth. An act of love.”
Carnovsky’s views about acting and his approach to various roles can be found in his The Actor’s Eye (1984), written with Peter Sander. References can be found in Cindy Adams, Lee Strasberg: The Imperfect Genius of the Actors Studio (1980), and Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television (1986). An obituary is in the New York Times (2 Sept. 1992).
Louise A. Mayo