John Garfield wasn’t the typical Classic Hollywood leading man.
A success in his film debut, Garfield is recognized as the first onscreen rebel. He inspired the generation of rebels and anti-heroes that followed, including Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, and James Dean.
Garfield trained in New York with the Group Theatre—the forerunner to the Actors Studio and “the Method” style of acting. He was successful on Broadway before he transitioned to Hollywood. Yet despite his stage and film stardom, John Garfield never forgot his humble beginnings as a kid fighting for survival on the streets of New York.
Like Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, Garfield died tragically young: at 39 years old, John Garfield suffered a heart attack, brought on by the slanderous accusations of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) during the communist witch-hunts of the 1950s.
Unlike Monroe and Dean, John Garfield never attained legendary status. But this exceptionally talented, niche star deserves to be remembered.
Here are a few things about John Garfield you didn’t know:
He Grew Up on the Streets of New York
Julius Jacob Garfinkle was born March 4, 1913. Julie, as the future movie star would always be called by those who knew him best, spent his first years in a two room tenement on Rivington Street in New York’s Lower East Side. His parents, David and Hannah Garfinkle, came to the US in 1919 to escape the religious pogroms against Russia’s Jewish population.
Things were certainly better for the Garfinkles in America. But that didn’t mean life was easy. The Garfinkle tenement had no heating, and there was one bathroom for the whole floor to share. David worked hard as a pants presser by day and a Jewish cantor by night, but it wasn’t enough to provide a comfortable living for his family.
Still, young Julie was a cheerful child, thanks to the optimistic spirit of his mother. Unfortunately, Hannah Garfinkle died in 1920. Julie’s father, not knowing how to cope, didn’t tell his oldest son of Hannah’s passing until weeks later.
As John Garfield later recalled [aff. link]:
“They shipped me off to an uncle’s house, telling me only that my mother was ill. When I returned a few weeks later, I naturally expected to find her there. When I finally realized why she wasn’t, the shock was harder to bear because I’d had no preparation for it.”
Tough going for anyone, especially a seven-year-old kid.
A Fractured Upbringing
After Hannah’s passing, the care of Julie and his younger brother Max proved too much for David. The brothers were soon separated. Max went to live permanently in the home of a Garfinkle relative in Brooklyn.
But Julie didn’t fair so well.
From the age of seven until he became an independent young adult, Julie was passed around the homes of various relatives. Often, he ate at a different home than he slept at.
Understandably, the fractured upbringing and separation meant Julie never got close to his father or his brother.
In reaction to the lack of love and attention at home, Julie Garfinkle turned to the streets. He credited his mother with preparing him for this rough life: it was Hannah who taught him how to be a fighter.
And to survive the streets of New York, young Julie would have to know how to fight.
John Garfield remembered that:
The Latest in Stars and Recipes, Sent Directly to Your Inbox Weekly!
“The streets were our playground and our jungle—and you behaved like an animal or you got your block knocked off!”
After attaining stardom, John Garfield often boasted that as a kid, he got so good at using his fists that:
“the classier kids crossed the streets when they saw me coming.”
Julie soon joined a gang in one of the Bronx neighborhoods he was shuffled to. Eventually, he became the leader of two different gangs, one of which Julie named the “Arrows.” The name was inspired by Robin Hood, as the boys liked to steal from the rich to give to the poor.
Of his years with the gangs, Julie later said that [aff. link]:
“Being the boss of a gang was important. It compensated for the attention I wanted at home, and missed.”
Life on the street may have taught young Julie to steal, but it also taught him loyalty, an admirable character trait John Garfield would live, and, quite literally, die by.
Tough But Sweet
Looking back, friends and classmates of Julie’s would say that as a Hollywood star, John Garfield often exaggerated the delinquency of his youth. They remember a boy who was tough, but never really a “bad kid,” thanks to Julie’s kind heart and underlying sweetness, both of which were apparent even as a gang boss.
Journalist Sam Shaw confirmed this:
“I never felt Julie was a fighter…There was no meanness in him. He didn’t have that streak of killer in him.”
Though he probably wouldn’t have ever become Public Enemy Number 1, as Julie later liked to say, given the rough circumstances of his early years, another Garfield prediction about his life path may not have been too far fetched:
“I suppose it was a fifty-fifty chance then which I would achieve—Sing Sing or Hollywood.”
Thanks to a good teacher, the course of Julie Garfinkle’s life veered away from Sing Sing, and towards acting.
A Good Teacher Changed the Course of John Garfield's Life
Angelo Patri, an Italian immigrant to the United States, ran PS 45 in the Belmont section of the East Bronx. Patri was a firm believer that each child had a unique talent just waiting to be discovered, and that it was the teacher’s duty to guide his or her students towards finding that talent.
For a student like Julie Garfinkle, who didn’t have all that much parental support, Patri believed the guidance of a good teacher was even more crucial. So when young Julie transferred to PS 45, Angelo Patri was indeed a lifesaver.
As a thankful John Garfield later shared:
“For a lost boy to be found, someone has to do the finding. Dr. Patri found me, and for reaching into the garbage pail and pulling me out, I owe him everything. The good things that came my way would not have been possible but for that sweet, funny man.”
Angelo Patri provided for Julie’s physical health, even buying him a mattress when Patri discovered that Julie’s bed was nothing more than a pile of old coats in the hallway of his uncle’s home. But more importantly, Patri guided Julie to acting. He believed a speech class would improve Julie’s confidence by eliminating his stammer.
John Garfield Discovers Acting
Speech classes not only eliminated the stammer, they showed that Julie Garfinkle had a flair for the dramatic. His recitations were flawless. Soon Julie began acting and performing. He featured prominently in school plays, and even became a champion debater, winning second prize in a citywide contest.
Acting became Julie’s passion.
In 1929 he left high school to study with New York’s prestigious American Laboratory Theatre, commonly referred to as the Lab.
From here, things continued to look up for young Julie Garfield in his chosen career. And it was all thanks to the support of an insightful, dedicated teacher who believed in him.
He Married His Childhood Sweetheart
Teenage Jules Garfield—he believed the name change was necessary for his stage career—met Roberta Seidman at the home of one of his girlfriends during his first year of training at the Lab. He was immediately taken with the petite beauty.
Roberta, or Robbe as she preferred to be called, was impressed with Julie’s Lab membership and promising acting career. But she wasn’t particularly interested in him.
And Robbe still wasn’t interested when the two met a year later at a party.
But she let Julie take her home. As Robbe later remembered:
“He wanted to take me home, but my girlfriend gave me the ‘no’ signal because he was known around the neighborhood as a wolf. But I said yes anyway…and he didn’t even try to kiss me good night.”
So, maybe Julie was a respectful wolf. At least where Robbe was concerned.
"Not Even a Tumble!"
It seems Julie knew from the start that the beautiful and intelligent Robbe Seidman was different.
And he was willing to wait for her to to feel the same way about him.
Julie hoped that telling her about his plans to hitchhike with a buddy across the country would help Robbe recognize her love for him. Or at least get him a little action before he left. But neither happened.
As John Garfield later shared:
“It was a warm day and we were up on the roof of Robbe’s house. I said I was going away because I felt it was my need, and all she said was ‘Everybody knows his need.’ There I was, shoving off, and she wouldn’t give me a tumble.”
John Garfield Discovers His Gift
Julie and his friend, with nothing but knapsacks packed with the bare necessities, began their journey. He sent Robbe postcards from the various places they hitched or trainhopped to, including the Pacific Northwest where the boys were lumberjacks, and California, where they picked fruit.
Julie may not have known if Robbe had serious feelings for him, but the experience of living in the homeless encampments of the Great Depression solidified his desire to become a professional actor:
“Every railroad junction had its hobo village, and I learned something of the force that keeps a man going when he has nothing to live for. Not all hobos were misfits. There were doctors and lawyers among them, alcoholics, even an occasional ex-actor. One evening we were around the fire putting away some of that delicious hobo stew and Joe [his friend] said something about me being an actor…They wanted a sample, so I did some bits of Shakespeare…and…I got this strange feeling. Every eye and ear was turned on me and I realized that for a moment I was helping these men shut out the rest of the world. You know, there’s nothing like a hobo’s applause. They don’t try to impress anyone with polite custom. If they clap it’s the real thing. That was the first time I thought maybe Angelo Patri was right, that I had a gift.”
Together Through it All
Finally, Julie made his way back to Robbe, stopping to work the wheat harvest in Nebraska along the way, where Julie unfortunately contracted typhoid fever from drinking dirty well water.
The positive side of the sickness was that when Julie came home in desperate need of a nurse, Robbe was there for him. The experience of missing Julie and nursing him back to health did the trick: Robbe and Julie were officially a couple.
Robbe Seidman remembered that:
“No Jewish parents wanted their daughter to marry an actor. Because an actor was a bum.”
But Julie, with his charm and steady work, eventually received the blessing of Robbe’s parents.
Julie and Robbe married on January 27, 1935.
Together, they’d weather the happy, but near impoverished years of Julie’s early stage career, as well as the extreme wealth and adulation that came with movie stardom.
Robbe stuck by Julie through his rampant infidelities that began with his success in Hollywood. Julie in turn stuck by Robbe and refused to mention her Communist Party membership when he was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951 and expected to “name names.”
It wasn’t a perfect marriage, but there’s no doubt that Robbe and Julie loved each other.
John Garfield Was A Member of the Group Theatre
In the theatre world of 1930s America, just about every actor and actress wanted to be a member of the Group Theatre.
Young Julie Garfield proudly held that hard-earned distinction.
Founded in 1931 by Cheryl Crawford, Harold Clurman, and the “father of Method acting” Lee Strasberg, the goal of the Group Theatre was to present plays that “said something,” plays that were relevant to the times, politically and otherwise. These plays were realistically acted—and sometimes written—by talented actors who made the Group the center of their lives. Group members lived together, worked together, and played together.
It’s debatable just how political the Group was. Former member, director Martin Ritt, says it was “definitely not a political group,” while Group actress Phoebe Brand believed that every member of the Group was in some way ‘touched by the communist cause.” Either way, Julie’s Group membership would be used against him by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951.
John Garfield Joins the Theatre's "Flower Children"
Political or not, Group members were, as Elia Kazan put it, the revolutionary “flower children,” of the American theatre. John Garfield forever viewed his membership as one of the greatest accomplishments of his career. He and Robbe wept tears of joy the day he was accepted as an apprentice in 1934. Julie later went so far as to say that:
“I didn’t learn a thing about acting until I joined the Group Theatre.”
In addition to founders Strasberg, Crawford, and Clurman, other noteworthy Group members included Franchot Tone, Luther Adler, Stella Adler, Elia Kazan, and actor-turned-playwright Clifford Odets, who became one of Julie’s best friends for life.
Even after achieving Hollywood stardom, Julie held the talent and opinions of his Group colleagues as the highest bar of intelligence; an intelligence Julie believed he could only aspire to.
Though Julie earned full membership after his stellar performance in the Group’s production of Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing, many of Julie’s Group colleagues didn’t respect him or his talent.
The lack of respect shown Julie was largely due to his youth, lack of formal education, and more instinctual acting approach. Julie’s success in commercial Broadway productions and eventually, in Hollywood, added jealousy to the list of reasons why his Group colleagues treated him poorly: just about every member of the Group tried for a film career in Hollywood, usually with minimal to zero success, while Julie on the other hand, became a superstar.
It Took John Garfield Five Years to Say Yes to Hollywood
John Garfield was first approached by the major Hollywood studios for a film contract in 1931, after shining in a small Broadway role. Feeling he had more to learn about acting, and that the New York stage, not Hollywood, was the place to do it, Julie said no.
But Hollywood came calling again after Julie landed the starring role in a non-Group Theatre production, the light and very commercial Having Wonderful Time. The play became one of the hit Broadway shows of 1937, thanks in large part to the critically praised performance of Jules Garfield.
Initially, Julie took the advice of Robbe and his Group Theatre colleagues, and said no to this latest batch of Hollywood contract offers.
But one studio in particular persisted: Warner Bros. would not take no for an answer.
The studio, anxious to sign Julie, even agreed to meet his request that any contract he signed must allow him the freedom to return to Broadway for stage work each year.
The attractive Warner’s contract, coupled with the Group’s increasingly condescending attitude towards him for the commercial success of Having Wonderful Time, made Julie reconsider the offer. Most likely, the final straw that pushed Julie to sign with Warners was the Group’s refusal to cast him in the lead role of Clifford Odets’ latest play, Golden Boy, even though Odets wrote the role expressly for Julie.
So Julie signed with Warner Bros.
Afterwards, many of Julie’s Group Theatre friends refused to speak to him for the remaining run of Golden Boy. The silent treatment was meant as punishment for Julie’s commercial success and Hollywood opportunity, which they viewed as transgressions. (Also known as jealous beyond words.)
Robbe’s discovery that she was pregnant proved confirmation for Julie that he’d made the right choice.
As Julie himself put it, with his new $750 a week salary, at the very least, he’d earn a generous amount of “diaper money” during his time in Hollywood.
He Went to Hollywood to Fail
Julie went to Hollywood fully expecting to find himself back home in New York after making the two films his new contract required. He never expected Warner Bros. to renew his option, and keep him at the studio for seven years. As John Garfield remembered:
“I went to Hollywood to be a failure. I wanted to be a failure. My purpose was to earn some money quickly, so that we would be prepared when our child was born.”
On another occasion, Julie would say he went to Hollywood:
“all set for the kick in the pants I felt sure I would get.”
Things certainly didn’t look promising when studio head Jack Warner informed Julie that his new name would be “James Garfield.”
As in the same name as the former US president…
John Garfield: Julie Forever
Luckily, when Julie pointed this name similarity out, Warner agreed it probably wasn’t the best moniker for his latest star investment.
But Warner also thought that “Jules Garfield,” the name Julie used on the stage and wished to keep in films, was too effeminate. The two men eventually settled on “John Garfield.”
After becoming a movie star, his name would always be Julie’s litmus test of who his true friends were, past and present:
“My friends still call me Julie. And Julie I’ll always be.”
John Garfield Received An Oscar Nomination for His First Film
Despite the rocky start at Warner Bros., John Garfield was a hit in his first film role.
As struggling musician Mickey Borden in Four Daughters (1938), Julie introduced what many film historians consider to be the first onscreen rebel. Garfield’s Mickey, with his rumpled suit and disheveled, long—at least for the time—hair, is always ready with a downer one-liner, constantly sasses off to his elders, and seems convinced that he’s born to lose. And yet, thanks to the Garfield charm, evident even in this, his very first screen role, we love him.
The role made John Garfield a star—and a heartthrob—overnight. It also earned Julie his first Oscar nomination in the Best Supporting Actor category.
Not bad for your first film role.
The downside of starting off with a successful film was learning afterwards that Warner Bros. wouldn’t always offer him such plum roles, or allow him much room for growth and character experimentation. John Garfield loved being a star, but found his seven years at Warner Bros., and the Hollywood environment in general, stifling:
“When an actor doesn’t face a conflict, he loses confidence in himself. I always want to have to struggle because I believe it will help me accomplish more. Hollywood is a marvelous medium, but you can’t take many chances there and I believe the more successful an actor becomes, the more chances he should take. An actor never stops learning.”
His contractual right to return to New York for stage work, and his dreams to one day have his own production company, helped Julie get through these years on the Warner Bros. “production line.”
He Loved Women
Julie’s friend Clifford Odets was one of the few Group Theatre members who, right from the start, knew Julie would find success in Hollywood. But Odets had a warning for his young friend:
“Julie, if you stay in pictures a year, you’ll stay in them always. Failure isn’t in you. You’ll succeed, go up, whatever…better than anyone who’s been in the Group or is in it now. The big challenge is in handling it [success] when you get it.”
For the most part, Julie remained his sweet, lovable self, even after becoming movie star.
But he did have a weakness: women.
With Hollywood success came easy access to the most beautiful women in the world. Unfortunately, after years of remaining faithful to Robbe in New York, Julie couldn’t resist the temptation to stray in Hollywood. As friend Gerry Schlein put it:
“He would have had to be made of iron to withstand it.”
Another of Julie’s friends would say that:
“This town [Hollywood] got a little the best of him. It wasn’t any one girl. It was GIRLS. To be fair about it, he didn’t chase them, not at the start. They chased him. Trouble was, he had married young…Julie was easy pickings.”
Hollywood folklore says John Garfield’s success with the ladies was prolific, even legendary. Some would even call it an addiction. And since he truly loved his wife, Julie felt guilty every time he strayed.
There’d be separations over the years—the Garfields were quite possibly on the verge of divorce at the time of Julie’s death—but something made Robbe stick by her husband for nearly 17 years of marriage, no matter what.
He Was Generous
John Garfield wasn’t perfect. But he possessed many admirable traits, one of which was his generosity. This generosity stemmed from the fact that Julie had known poverty first hand. It was also just his natural inclination to give.
Even after finding success in Hollywood, Julie never forgot his roots, or the people who helped him along the way. Angelo Patri was Julie’s greatest supporter in his youth, and Julie, forever grateful, made a point of speaking at the PS 45 graduation ceremonies over the years, inspiring young high school graduates to reach for the stars, just as Patri had inspired him.
As a wealthy star of stage and film, Julie was always a soft touch when asked to lend his name to a cause, or to help out if a friend needed money.
Sometimes, you didn’t even have to be a friend to be the recipient of the Garfield generosity.
$200 for a "Friend"
Conductor Lehman Engel remembered an incident in 1940 when Julie starred in the Broadway production of Heavenly Express. A man came backstage, said ‘Hello John,” and introduced himself as an old friend from P.S 45. Julie and the man then exchanged pleasantries.
Then the man asked for $200.
Without hesitating, Julie gave him the money. And the man left.
Engel, baffled by the whole situation, asked Julie if he really had any memory of the guy.
“’No,’ Julie said. ‘He was a phony. Whenever somebody calls me John instead of Julie, I know that they’re phonies.’”
But as Julie’s generous heart saw it, if the man needed money desperately enough to spin such a yarn, Julie was happy to help.
John Garfield Wasn’t a Communist
John Garfield was one of the many Hollywood stars whose reputation and career were severely damaged by the communist witch hunts of the late 1940s-early 1950s.
Julie was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and expected to “name names” when he appeared as a “friendly witness” before HUAC on April 23, 1951.
But John Garfield was never a communist.
Julie supported countless liberal causes over the years. And he certainly had close friends and associates who were party members and “fellow travelers,” most notably his wife. But Julie was a registered Democrat who, in his own words:
“voted on the Democratic ticket all the time.”
"Not Trying to Change the World"
Countless friends over the years would say that Julie’s politics were “surface” level, driven by emotional appeal, and not much else. Writer/director Abraham Polonsky perhaps summarized Julie’s politics best:
“Sure, he supported the liberal causes, but he wanted to be a famous actor. He didn’t want to change the world!”
Often, the only reason Julie signed his name to a petition or gave his support to an organization was because Robbe or a friend asked him to. He didn’t always understand, or care a whole lot, about what he was being asked to support. He trusted the intelligence and integrity of the person asking for his support.
But HUAC wouldn’t see Julie’s politics that way. And unfortunately, the price was his life.
John Garfield Died Young
John Garfield suffered from a weakened heart the majority of his life.
A bout with scarlet fever in childhood, coupled with the typhoid fever he contracted as a young man hitch-hiking across the country, may have been the cause. The two illnesses certainly didn’t help Julie’s heart.
Between 1944-1950, John Garfield survived at least three known heart attacks. His wife Robbe believed that Julie probably endured many more small, undiagnosed heart attacks along the way.
Julie’s heart murmur led to his 4-F classification during WWII, which barred him from military service. It proved one of his life’s greatest disappointments. So instead, the patriotic Julie entertained the troops overseas multiple times during the war years.
He also founded the Hollywood Canteen—a club where enlisted men could dance and mingle with movie stars—in 1942.
Jonn Garfield Doesn't Slow Down
Doctors advised Julie to slow down after each heart attack.
It was advice that the active Julie just couldn’t take. As co-star Geraldine Fitzgerald recalled:
“He had a bad heart. But he still wouldn’t slow down. He was always playing tennis, always doing something strenuous as if he was trying to overcome this limitation.”
Julie’s weakened heart and the vicious accusations of the House Un-American Activities Committee proved a deadly combination. The stress of defending himself and his friends against HUAC was too much.
John Garfield died of a heart attack on May 21, 1952.
Sadly ironic, Julie’s death occurred shortly before HUAC admitted that they never had any evidence that he was a communist.
He Had a Great Sense of Humor
It was one of John Garfield’s greatest regrets that he never had the chance to show his flare for comedy on screen.
Garfield melodramas, gangster flicks, and film noirs were usually moneymakers. As a result, Julie’s studios saw no reason to let him branch out into comedy. Writer Ted Allan called Julie’s sense of humor “delicious,” and was one of many who admired his friend’s rare ability to laugh at himself.
An anecdote that underscores this humor and humility involves what Julie liked to call his “man-maker.”
Secondary leading man Dane Clark always enjoyed working with Julie, in part because both men were roughly 5’7”. As Clark shared:
“I was so sick of playing opposite actors who I had to look up to, like Raymond Massey and Cary Grant.”
John Garfield and His "Man-Maker"
When Clark discovered that he’d play second lead to Julie in Destination Tokyo (1943), their first film together, he was thrilled at the prospect of not having to look up to the leading man for once.
But Clark was in for a major disappointment.
When the two men were about to film their first scene together, as Clark recalled:
“Julie turned to the prop man and said, ‘Bring me my man-maker.’
The confused Dane Clark then asked:
‘Man-maker? What the hell is a man-maker,’”
He didn’t have to wonder long.
The prop man brought out a small box, which Julie promptly stepped up on. He was now several inches taller than the greatly disappointed Dane Clark.
As explanation to Clark, and to the amusement of the whole cast and crew, Julie smiled, and, acknowledging his own shorter stature, replied:
“One day, when you’re a star, you can have a man-maker too.”
More John Garfield
That’s it for my introduction to John Garfield.
Read the rest of my John Garfield series in the articles below: