American actor John Garfield, when judged by looks and attitude alone, seemed more the pugnacious, defiant urban thug than one of Hollywood's most respected dramatic actors of the '30s and '40s. As evidence of his popularity, despite the fact that many insiders considered Garfield's personal ways and beliefs a bit radical, the attendance at his funeral in 1952 broke the records set at Rudolph Valentino's funeral.
He was born Julius Garfinkle, the son of poor Jewish immigrants from New York's Lower-East-Side ghettos. Poverty was the norm there, and life was tough. Young Garfield's juvenile delinquent tendencies landed him in a special school for problem children. Still, it was almost inevitable that he would get involved with neighborhood street gangs. He may have remained on those streets struggling to survive, had Garfield not had a special gift for debate, a talent that won him a state-wide contest sponsored by the New York Times. The ensuing scholarship gained him entrance into the Ouspenskaya Drama School and an apprenticeship in repertory theater. Afterward, Garfield hit the road and became a freight-train-hopping hobo and transient worker, but by the late 1930s he returned home to join the Group Theater.
Following a role in Odet's production of Golden Boy, Garfield landed a contract with Warners and made his film debut in the melodramatic tragedy Four Daughters (1938). He played a cynical, embittered piano prodigy who finds redemption through a young woman's love, and for her well-being he makes the ultimate sacrifice. It was a powerful multi-textured performance that led to his receiving a nomination for "Best Supporting Actor." Following that success, he appeared in a brief series based on the film and then continued playing assorted angry young men and ill-fated outsiders in such films as Dust Be My Destiny. Though his appearance and demeanor locked him into playing tough outsiders and anti-heroes, Garfield was a versatile actor who unsuccessfully fought with studio heads to play different kinds of roles to demonstrate his true range. Glimpses of it can be seen in such powerful films as Pride of the Marines (1945) in which he plays a real-life war hero who must cope with his battle-caused blindness back home.
Beginning with MGM's classic The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Garfield began to establish himself in film noir. He is still considered one of the best actors in that genre, with one of his best films being Force of Evil in which he played a corrupt attorney. Following the end of his Warner's contract, Garfield founded Enterprise Productions and began free-lancing. His distinctly leftist views and staunch support of the working class lead to his being labeled a communist sympathizer by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He did not cooperate at the official hearings and suddenly found it difficult to find work. Though he returned briefly to the theater, Garfield did not flourish. At the age of 39, he died of coronary thrombosis, a condition that some have attributed to the stress the Committee placed upon him. His two surviving children, Julie Garfield and David Patton Garfield (aka John David Garfield or John Garfield Jr.), both became actors during the 1960s.