Hollywood's Original Method Actor

John Garfield had an amazing and short career as a Hollywood star. He had many impressive movie roles but his untimely death from a heart attack in 1952 at age 39 meant that his highly successful career was abruptly stopped in its tracks.

Garfield was born as Jacob Julius Garfinkel, the son of David and Hannah Garfinkle, both of whom were Russian Jewish immigrants. Growing up his family called him by the name of “Julie,” which was short for his middle name of Julius.

His childhood was one of poverty in the Bronx, and on a couple of occasions his family life was so hard that he went to live with relatives for periods of time. It is safe to say that his embrace of acting took him off the streets and put him on the right track after his troubles at school and hanging around street gangs.

He received classes from The Heckscher Foundation, as well as individual help from actors in the Yiddish Theatre that took an interest in him. Finally, in 1932 he made his Broadway debut in The Lost Boy, which closed after two weeks but gave the young actor his very first credit. Many other stage appearances followed before he finally agreed to take a screen test; both Paramount and Warners had offered screen tests in the past.

One of his first films was as a young composer in Four Daughters in 1938, which was directed by Michael Curtiz and definitely put Garfield on the map. In fact, Hollywood was abuzz that a non-veteran actor received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. His high-profile film career cannot be done justice in this article. His most prominent films were Body and Soul (1947), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), The Sea Wolf (1941), The Breaking Point (1950), Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), Force of Evil (1948), Humoresque (1946), Pride of the Marines (1945), He Ran All the Way (1951), and Destination Tokyo (1943).

Garfield’s acting was groundbreaking. He is considered the first “method” actor. A New York Times article from January 30, 2003, titled "Recalling John Garfield, Rugged Star KO’d by Fate” began, “Before James Dean and Marlon Brando, before Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, there was John Garfield.” It continued, “Garfield’s chip-on-the-shoulder style and his rugged looks often cast him as a social outsider on the screen: The persona affected actors from the 1950’s onward.”

David Heeley was the co-producer of “The John Garfield Story”, a documentary which aired on Turner Classic Movies in 2003 and was followed by a festival of 25 Garfield films over the course of February 2003. At the time of the documentary’s debut, Heeley said, “He’s a forgotten star. He never lived long enough to become an icon like Humphrey Bogart.”

Body and Soul: The Story of John Garfield, a 1975 biography by Larry Swindell addressed the stuttering of the young Julie Garfinkle, who would shed both his name and his stuttering to become movie star John Garfield.

Garfield’s early education in the New York City publics schools was very troubled and he was expelled several times and hung around with street gangs. When he was set on quitting school after the fifth grade, his family was successful in having him transfer to another Bronx school that had the reputation of being an innovative school in which troubled students might be turned around. In September 1926 Garfield was enrolled in P.S. 45, which was run by principal Dr. Angelo Patri. The Garfinkle family hoped that this school that had a good record of specializing in the rehabilitation of troubled students would work a miracle and get the young Julie on the right track.

Throughout his life, Garfield would praise Dr. Patri for turning his life around. The actor once said, “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.”

Swindell’s biography states that in Garfield’s later years, his every reference to Angelo Patri had a ceremonial tone.

Patri himself later said about his famous pupil, “He seemed full of antagonism, as if everybody – all grown people- were against him. But there was really nothing wrong with Julie, and I liked him. He had a nice embarrassed smile, and because he lacked confidence, he had that bad stammer …..”.

Garfield did not acknowledge his stuttering until Dr. Patri brought it to his attention that he should try some type of a speech program. It is said that by enrolling the youngster in a corrective speech class, Patri delivered Garfield to the person who would have the biggest influence in his life. Mrs. Margaret O’Ryan taught a “corrective speech class”, which was the terminology of that time for speech therapy. 

Larry Swindell wrote, “She was the first teacher he ever liked, and it amounted to a schoolboy crush. Mrs. O’Ryan thought she could build Julie’s confidence by getting him to recite in front of the class, and she assigned Thomas Paine’s words about the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot, ‘These are the times that try men’s souls ……’ He memorized the text flawlessly and Mrs. O’Ryan noticed he didn’t stammer when he knew what he wanted to say.”

Mrs. O’Ryan was also the dramatics instructor and made the decision to further Garfield’s fluency in front of audiences by casting him in one act plays that were performed at student assemblies. From his earliest acting exercises in Margaret O’Ryan’s classroom, he extracted an earnest and clearcut will to become an actor.

Another biography, He Ran All The Way: The Life of John Garfield by Robert Knott, also addressed the actor’s stuttering.

“Through O’Ryan’s patient work, Julie began to lose his stutter, though he would sometimes draw upon it to imbue his screen portrayals in later years. With O’Ryan pushing him, he joined the school’s debating team. She sensed that Julie had talent and cast him in several school assembly plays.”

Playing in the school plays The Division of Sir Launfal and A Christmas Carol, he definitely loved the applause and caught the acting bug. Dr. Patri would say later, “He found himself in that acting class. The moment he started to play a part he forgot himself. He was the king or the beggar – or whatever part.”

Acting definitely allowed the young Garfield to get lost in the world of make-believe. His childhood friend Arnold Forster elaborated on the situation, “Julie became obsessed with the stage. His only concern and thought was for acting. Everything he did was tied to that central focus. If I were a psychiatrist, I might say he was trying to escape the real world.”

Knott’s biography explored in detail the early examples of the acting techniques which later would make Garfield famous. He wrote: “O’Ryan and Patri were surprised and impressed with Julie’s ability to grasp direction and develop character. Once during an acting exercise, O’Ryan ordered him to stand in the corner until he understood what it was like to be blind. He amazed her by returning fully immersed in character, as if he had been born blind. Patri said of this ability, “He would go off and stand alone for a few minutes. Then you could actually see him shed his own self.”

In his theatre and film performances, there was never a sign of stuttering. During his years of fame, he never forgot how Dr. Patri and Mrs. O’Ryan had the strong intuition that speech and acting classes would help both his stuttering and self-image.

Unfortunately, Garfield’s career and life faced obstacles towards the end of his life. Always a promoter of liberal politics, the actor in 1951 was called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. While Garfield expressed that he opposed communism, he refused to name Communist Party members or followers. His forced testimony to this committee is largely viewed as having harmed both his reputation and career. His early death by heart attack at age 39 on May 21, 1952, was attributed to the actor’s history of heart problems. However, friends and family knew that the severe damage done to his reputation after his testimony to the House Committee on Un-American Activities definitely took a toll on his heart issues and overall health.

While a brilliant life and awesome career were cut short at age 39, John Garfield serves as a striking example of a person who stutters who overcame his speech difficulties to have an amazing career which revolved around speaking. Of course, he joins many actors who used acting a tool to free them from their stuttering bonds. One of the most unique actors in the history of Hollywood was a member of the stuttering community.

From the Fall 2023 Magazine