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Elia Kazan, Starmaker

by Legacy Staff

In the 1950s and ‘60s, there were few better stepping stones to movie stardom than getting the attention of director Elia Kazan.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, there were few better stepping stones to stardom than getting the attention of one talented moviemaker. That man was Elia Kazan, and a part in one of the visionary director’s films was a special kind of blessing for an aspiring movie star. When Kazan introduced you to the world, the world took notice.

It happened again and again – Kazan discovered a young actor, perhaps with a few stage roles or a small film part to his or her credit. Kazan put the actor in his next film and ta-da! A star was born. From Marlon Brando to James Dean and beyond, Kazan nurtured many of the talents that defined mid-century acting.


Kazan died 10 years ago today. The legacy he leaves as a filmmaker is huge, but equally impressive is the talent he gave the world when he developed new stars. In his honor, we’re remembering a few of the great debut performances Kazan directed.

Marlon Brando

In 1947 Kazan co-founded the Actors Studio, a school with a new approach to teaching acting. The Method approach would soon become legendary, but when Brando enrolled as one of Kazan’s first students, it was still new and unusual. As Kazan worked with Brando, he soon discovered the depth of the young actor’s talent and drive. Brando, determined to play Stanley Kowalski in Kazan’s upcoming stage version of A Streetcar Named Desire, sought out Kazan at his summer home to request an audition. Kazan was impressed and cast Brando in the play – and again in the film version in 1951. It wasn’t Brando’s first movie, but it was a stunning performance that catapulted him to fame.

Eva Marie Saint

Kazan and Brando worked together again three years later, when Kazan directed On the Waterfront. In it, Kazan introduced a bright new star, Eva Marie Saint. Saint played Brando’s love interest in her film debut, and Kazan coaxed an Academy Award-winning performance out of the newcomer. Saint later recalled the director’s method: “Kazan put me in a room with Marlon Brando. He said ‘Brando is the boyfriend of your sister. You’re not used to being with a young man. Don’t let him in the door under any circumstances.’ I don’t know what he told Marlon; you’ll have to ask him – good luck! [Brando] came in and started teasing me. He put me off-balance. And I remained off-balance for the whole shoot.”

James Dean

In 1955 Kazan introduced a young actor who was even more obscure and untried than Brando and Saint, but whose brief screen career left an enduring legacy. When Kazan found him, Dean was acting on the New York stage. Kazan knew he would be perfect for the character of Cal Trask in his upcoming adaptation of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. He flew Dean to Los Angeles – it was the actor’s first time on a plane and he carried his clothes in a brown paper bag – and made him a star. Before Dean’s untimely death less than a year after East of Eden’s release, Kazan sent him to his friend, director Nicholas Ray, to star in another classic, Rebel Without a Cause. But it was Kazan who nurtured the young actor to his first great performance.

The list of actors Kazan introduced includes Warren Beatty, Julie Harris, Andy Griffith, Fred Gwynne, and many more. What drove Kazan to work with these newcomers? It wasn’t just altruism or friendliness, though the young actors he worked with were surely appreciative of the leg up he gave them. More to the point for Kazan were the extraordinary results he found he could get working with actors who were still learning their craft. He loved to teach actors as they worked together. He once remarked, “Big stars are barely trained or not very well trained. They also have bad habits … they’re not pliable anymore.” Conversely, new talent could be molded into the image Kazan sought – and helped make his movies the unforgettable classics they remain to this day.

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