GARSON KANIN (Playwright) A 20th-century American renaissance man, Garson Kanin had a rich and diverse career in theater, film, and television. Despite not being a household name today, his remarkable, far-reaching accomplishments include five plays, two musicals, eight screenplays, and six novels. He was also an actor, comedian, musician, and directed for both stage and film.
Kanin was born in Rochester, NY on November 24th, 1912. In his youth, his father, a real estate developer, acquired a movie theater where Kanin took it upon himself to meticulously study silent films that played there. He quickly developed a fascination with show business. While he had to drop out of high school during the Great Depression to work as a sales clerk at Macy’s, he kept his passion for the arts alive by forming his own band featuring himself on the clarinet.
Kanin also worked as a comedian in New York City where he eventually landed at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Shortly after graduating he got his first Broadway role in 1933 in Little Ol’ Boy. He was cast in George Abbott’s 1935 play Ladies’ Money and developed a close relationship with Abbott, then a major Broadway producer. Abbott quickly hired him as his assistant. In 1936, Kanin met Thornton Wilder while performing in the short-lived production Star Spangled. This marked the beginning of Wilder’s mentorship of the young playwright which continued until Wilder’s death forty years later.
In 1964 he directed Funny Girl on Broadway and would discover another young leading lady, Barbra Streisand, in her first leading role. That same year he created the CBS television series, Mr. Broadway featuring Liza Minnelli in her first dramatic TV role, and in 1978 he and his wife co-wrote Hardhat and Legs, a CBS TV movie based on his novel. Another novel, Smash from 1980, was adapted into a musical dramedy on NBC in 2012, starring Broadway actress Megan Hilty.
1985 was an eventful year in which Kanin was inducted into The Theater Hall of Fame in 1985, wrote and directed Peccadillo starring Christopher Plummer on Broadway and lost his wife and artistic partner of 40 years, Ruth Gordon. Kanin remarried in 1990 to actress Marian Seldes.
In 1997 he came full circle when he was honored by the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers with the Mr. Abbott Award for lifetime achievement.
He died in 1999 in New York City and his words are commemorated on a bronze plaque across from the New York Public Library. It features one of his most-remembered quotes from Born Yesterday, and his firmest belief:
“I want everybody to be smart. As smart as they can be. A world of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in.”
These introductions helped the 24 year old Kanin gain the confidence to direct his first Broadway play in 1936, Hitch Your Wagon. Hollywood got wind of his success and he was hired as a production assistant by Samuel Goldwny soon after. By 1938, he was RKO’s youngest director with his first feature film, A Man to Remember.
He directed seven more films including Tom, Dick and Harry with Ginger Rogers before he was drafted. During World War II he directed training and patriotic films for the Army. One of his greatest accomplishments during the war was co-directing a documentary called True Glory, featuring General Eisenhower's official address on the Allied Invasion. The film went on to win an Academy Award. During his service he also married actress Ruth Gordon who would go on to win an Oscar of her own for her performance in Rosemary’s Baby in 1968. She is perhaps best remembered for playing Maude in Harold and Maude and would become both Kanin’s writing partner and the muse for his strong female leads.
After the war, Kanin directed The Rugged Path with Spencer Tracy who was performing in his first Broadway show in 15 years. It proved to be a difficult collaboration for the two and the show closed prematurely. But, Kanin had gained another powerful Hollywood connection in Tracy who quickly introduced him to Katharine Hepburn. The three would collaborate multiple times in the coming years.
On February 4th, 1946 Born Yesterday opened at The Lyceum Theater on Broadway. Along with directing the premiere, he allegedly discovered Judy Holliday just weeks before opening night. She was an instant hit with audiences and the show ran for four years and 1,649 performances.
Kanin wrote four screenplays with his wife, Ruth Gordon, while Born Yesterday was running in New York. A Double Life (1948), Adam's Rib (1949) and Pat and Mike (1952) all received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. In 1949 and 1950 he returned to Broadway to write and direct The Smile of the World, The Rat Race, and The Live Wire.
In 1950, Born Yesterday was adapted into the now-beloved film starring Judy Holliday and William Holden. Kanin also wrote the screenplay for It Should Happen To You for Holliday in 1954.
In 1955 he directed the London and Broadway premiere of The Diary of Anne Frank which ran for 717 performances. That year also marked a shift in his writing towards books and short stories. His most well-known are Remembering Mr. Maugham and Tracy and Hepburn: An Intimate Memoir from 1966. One of his novels, Do Re Mi, was adapted into a 1960’s musical which he directed with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green.
Remy Bumppo Field Guide @ 2014