Morris Carnovsky was one of the more prominent victims of the Hollywood blacklist, being named as a Communist party member by both Elia Kazan — the most infamous of the informers who sang before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the era blacklistee Lillian Hellman called the “Scoundrel Time” — and Sterling Hayden. However, he had been effectively blacklisted — unofficially banned from appearing in Hollywood films — since 1950, two years before Kazan sang before HUAC, when Carnovsky himself refused to “name names” before the Committee. Carnovsky did not make any more movies for the better part of a decade — in fact, his movie acting career essentially was over — but he did have a thriving career on the Broadway stage, the venue where he established his reputation as a thespian back in the 1930s.
Morris Carnovsky was born in St. Louis, Missouri on September 5, 1898, the son of a grocer. Upon graduation from high school he attended St. Louis’ Washington University.
Like most actors of his generation, he worked his way up the ladder by first appearing with traveling stock companies. Eventually, he landed in New York City, where he became a member of the Theatre Guild, the legendary theatrical company appearing as Kublai Khan in Nobel Prize winner ‘Eugene O’Neill’s play “Marco Millions’ (I)’. Subsequently, he became one of the founding members of the left-wing Group Theatre.
Founded in 1931 by Lee Strasberg and Harold Clurman, and Cheryl Crawford, The Group Theatre contained Luther Adler, Stella Adler, Elia Kazan, and playwright Clifford Odets; the latter three were major forces in transforming American theater and acting, a process that began with the Provincetown Theatre. Stella Adler, Elia Kazan and Lee Strasberg, including their students/latter Group Theatre members like Bobby Lewis, were instrumental in making “The Method” — a variation of Konstantin Stanislavski’s acting theories, based on finding and cultivating “motivation” — revolutionized American acting on stage and in the movies, most famously through Adler’s student Marlon Brando. Kazan and Strasberg later founded the Actors Studio, America’s premier acting school that promulgated “The Method” via such alumni as James Dean, Paul Newman and hundreds of others.
Carnovsky was a member of the Group Theater until it broke up in 1940. He appeared prominently in Odets’ plays “Awake and Sing” and Golden Boy (1939). Carnovsky’s talents were in demand by other theatrical troupes, and he appeared on Broadway in the 1930s in multiple non-Group Theatre productions.
Eventually, Hollywood beckoned and Carnovsky made his screen debut in The Life of Emile Zola (1937), playing Anatole France in support of Paul Muni. Settling in Los Angeles after the Group Theatre breakup, Carnovsky was one of the founders of the Actor’s Laboratory and became involved with the the Hollywood Communist Party, whose cultural apparatchik, screenwriter John Howard Lawson, was later one of the Hollywood Ten, the first group of leftists blacklisted by the film industry. While Carnovsky was never involved in espionage or any overt acts against the interests of the United States (as were none of the Hollywood Ten or other blacklistees), he led Marxist study groups in his home, as Sterling Hayden testified to before HUAC.
In his 1952 testimony before HUAC, Elia Kazan named Carnovsky as a member of the Communist Party cell he had belonged to in the Group Theatre. Other members included Lee Strasberg’s wife, Paula (best known as Marilyn Monroe’s acting coach). Kazan had quit the cell in the mid-1930s, he said, when it was ordered by the Party to undermine Harold Clurman and Lee Strasberg (who did not know his wife was a communist) and take over the Group Theatre. The attempted coup was never launched.
In 1950, Carnovsky was hailed before HUAC, where he refused to “name names.” This resulted in his blacklisting, not Kazan’s testimony. (Kazan said that Carnovsky, like others he named, already were known by the Committee.) The blacklist did not exist on Broadway, and producer (and future Osar-winning actor) John Houseman cast Carnovsky in the Broadway production of Henrik Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People,” whose script was written by future HUAC target Arthur Miller. He acted in many Broadway productions throughout the 1950s and into the ’60s.
A part in Sidney Lumet’s film version of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge (1962) did not revive his movie career, and he continued to act on stage. He died on September 1, 1992, at the age of 94.