Paul Newman’s Long Lost Film’s National Debut In Doubt
Jack Garfein, who holds what is believed to be the only print of a recently rediscovered film directed by Paul Newman, has pulled out of a deal shaped in over a year of talks with Turner Classic Movies, the Forward has learned.
The film, whose discovery was first reported by the Forward, was set to appear on March 26 across the country. It has also been scheduled to be part of a “Newman Directs” evening at the Film Society of Lincoln Center on Monday, February 20. Garfein’s representative told me that event is still planned. It would be the first time since 1962 that the film has been seen in public. TCM would have given the film its first national audience.
“On the Harmfulness of Tobacco,” as the film is called, was adapted from a one-man play of the same name by Anton Chekhov — a 25-minute poetic embrace, depicting a long-suffering husband’s search for connection and oblivion. It gives a never-before, never-again starring role to an overlooked, unusually sensitive Russian-Jewish actor born in the Bronx, and was to appear in a TCM night featuring other films directed by Newman.
Those films remain on the TCM schedule, according to Charles Tabesh, TCM’s senior vice president in charge of programming and production, who stated the channel is determined to take part in a reexamination of Newman’s work as a director.
The two films TCM had planned to show were “Rachel, Rachel” and “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the Moon Marigolds.” The Film Society will show the Chekhov film together with “Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds,” which concerns a beleaguered mother’s efforts to raise her two daughters.
Lori Styler, Garfein’s representative, told the Forward that Garfein had made his 11th hour “artistic decision” based on “a very strong feeling” that a TCM airing would somehow hamper his goal of making an independent documentary about the Newman film. Tabesh said he only dealt with Styler in the making, shaping and breaking of the deal and never spoke directly with Garfein. “She told me he feels he has a better chance of getting money to make a documentary if he doesn’t show it on TCM,” he said.
Tabesh said Styler told him that Garfein believed exposing the film to TCM’s wide audience would dilute general interest in it as an alluring center for his eventual film. Yet the TCM official — in a civil yet clearly unhappy tone — said he felt he had a “firm agreement” with Garfein and David Amram, the composer for the Newman film and the only holder of a registered copyright to it. But he also said that the deal was all verbal, that no contracts were signed.
Amram, in interviews with the Forward, sounded divided between loyalty to Garfein and the long-held identification he has with the populist vision he and his friends Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac celebrated. Of the Newman-Chekhov film, he declared in a phone interview: “Get it out there where people can see it! Put it on YouTube! Everyone should see what great work Paul (Newman) and Michael (Strong) did. I so admire Jack and he’s got the only print, but I never broke an agreement with anyone in my life and I am not starting now. I honor my word.”
He stressed in an interview and an email that he’d “never signed anything” with TCM —that a certain clearance document he expected never reached him. He said Garfein was the one who urged him to pull away from the TCM deal in an email. “Jack wrote me, ‘Wait! Don’t sign anything!” — three weeks ago and that he’d heeded Garfein’s urging. “In the end, I’m just the composer. Garfein has the film.”
Amram said he was also partly motivated by rights disputes that he said once complicated the public release of the famous beat film “Pull My Daisy,” on which he collaborated in 1959 with Jack Kerouac, Ginsberg, Robert Frank and the painter Alfred Leslie. “Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie fought about it for years,” he said. “It disgusted me.”
Styler said Garfein’s planned documentary would draw on his deep association with the famed Actors Studio to place the film in the “context in which he believes it belongs.” Garfein’s roots in the Actors Studio wrap through many layers of his life. They include his relationship with his future (now ex-) wife Carroll Baker, whom he directed in Something Wild, his best known film, and his relationship with Paul Newman, with whom he founded the Actors Studio West Coast branch in West Hollywood in the late 1960s.
Garfein had no role in the making of “On the Harmfulness of Tobacco.” He is bound to the film only by the deathbed wish of Michael Strong. Strong, born Cecil Natapoff, was the actor who so enthralled Newman that Newman made him the star of his first film. Strong asked his wife as he lay dying from stomach cancer in Los Angeles that she bring to Garfein after he died because Garfein could be trusted to fulfill his long-held dream to get it seen.
Strong once told a Chicago Sun-Times reporter that he dreamed of a Paul Newman program in which his beginnings as a director would be shown through “On the Harmfulness of Tobacco.” He died in 1980, and it seems that his dream will come true on Monday. Styler said Garfein’s motive is to “honor the work of his friends Michael Strong and Paul Newman,” though Garfein’s main role in the film saga was to put the film into a closet in Paris for 34 years and never looked at it until his Russian-born girlfriend (now fiancé) insisted he do so in 2014. He told me that, until she pressed him, he planned to donate it to an institution for a tax write-off.
Newman saw the Chekhov when Strong performed it in front of Lee Strasberg and other actors in 1959. Strasberg, the discerning deity at the center of the Actors Studio, was said to have been impressed by Strong’s performance at the Actors Studio complex on West 44th Street, as were others in that long-ago summer when John Kennedy and Richard Nixon were vying to be president.
Tabesh, with whom Garfein shared the film through a link, has praised Strong’s acting and said has called the film “eye-opening” for insights it offers about Newman’s distinctly theatrical sensibility behind the camera. He said TCM was preparing to film Garfein speaking about the film with host Ben Mankiewicz in Atlanta later this month when Styler told him two weeks ago that Garfein pulled out.
“We’d jumped through a lot of hoops to do this and then we heard two weeks ago that he thinks he can get money for a documentary,” Tabesh told me. “And he wants to produce this documentary and thinks he has a better chance if it doesn’t appear on TCM. I’m very disappointed because we were really very far down the line with this and had done so many things to accommodate him,” he added. Though he said he’s “not a grudge-holding type,” he called it “very unlikely that we will want to work with him again” on any similar TCM event.
The Forward recently reported the March 26 screening’s date, which appeared on TCM’s on-line schedule for March, and remains in its printed program. Garfein, in the past, has appeared with popular TCM host Robert Osborne to talk about, “Something Wild,” the 1961 film on which his reputation mainly rests. His other, lesser-known film, is “The Strange One.” Tabesh said, “MGM owns the rights to those films, and we may show them again if they fit into our plans, but I don’t have to deal with him again.”
People around the country who had looked forward to the screening included Nell Newman, Paul Newman’s daughter, and members of the family of Michael Strong, the actor. Paul Strong, the actor’s son, who had said for a previous piece that three generations of the family were eagerly awaiting the TCM showing, declined to comment when told that Garfein has pulled out. Michael Strong, the actor’s grandson, has said he plans to attend Monday’s screening to honor his grandfather and has bought 20 tickets to distribute among his friends. Nell Newman, Paul Newman’s daughter, who told the Forward for a previous story that she hoped to watch on TCM, also did not respond to requests for comment about the cancellation.
Meanwhile, the Film Society of Lincoln Center screening seems to be still on track. Styler told me that Garfein will appear on a Q & A panel afterwards with Amram and Lee Grant, who won an Oscar for her supporting role in the film “Shampoo,” and who had never known the Newman-Chekhov film existed until the Forward showed it to her last summer. She then called it “beautiful.”
The Q & A will be hosted by Nicolas Rapold, the editor of Film Comment Magazine, who curated the “Newman Directs” program and placed it into an on-going Film Comment Selects series. According to Styler, she and Garfein have known Rapold since he once wrote about Garfein, but that he’d contacted her about the Film Society screening after the Forward’s piece appeared last November. Rapold told me last week that he was so impressed by the story’s account of the film’s “evident historical value” that he’d reached out to Garfein to ask if he could show it.
However, he also told me that he’d taken the “unusual move” of accepting the film for a Film Comment Selects program without watching it first. Rapold told me he plans to place the film in a critical context of Newman’s work as a director, while also interviewing his panel about their relationships to Newman and other elements of the film’s history.
Styler said Garfein’s documentary will also explore Garfein’s relationship with Paul Newman. Indeed, Garfein told me a number of stories about that relationship. Not all of them were warm, and he described how their friendship ultimately ended in a break so painful that Garfein’s voice became strained when he spoke of it. He told me that he had ” really admired Paul a lot,” and told stories about how he and Newman spent time together to found the Los Angeles branch of the Actors Studio in the late 1960s. Garfein’s connection to that project soon came apart over certain differences among Actors Studio members.
Still, Garfein often speaks vividly about his times with Newman. One day, it seems, as the two explored possibilities for a house the new Actors Studio West might occupy, Newman said it was his 50th birthday. I said, “Your 50th birthday? And you’re sharing it with me?” And he said he wasn’t happy about his birthday and declared: “How could anty man who is serious about acting reach the age of 50 without playing Hamlet?”
The Forward’s story recounted how Michael Strong had asked on his deathbed that his second wife, Diane Shalet, carry the film he’d made with Newman to Garfein in Paris and place it in his hands.
When I wrote the story about the Newman-Strong film, it was not possible to explore every nuance of Garfein’s relationship to the globally-recognized star of “The Sting” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”
He told me that he and Newman had tried repeatedly to work together on certain projects. Both had Jewish themes. One was a film based on a John Hersey novel called, “The Wall,” about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. It got considerable interest, it seems, but the producer Sam Spiegel, who produced Garfein’s “The Strange One,” a film that drew heavily on Actors Studio talent, turned it down, saying: “Who wants to see a bunch of Jews fighting Nazis?”
But the story that apparently ended Garfein’s friendship with Newman is a sadder one. Garfein wrote a screenplay about his family and the coming of the Holocaust, in which his parents, a sister and 16 other relatives would perish. Garfein’s screenplay was titled, “The Rose in the Field,” and he sent it to Newman with the hope that his friend would take an active interest in getting the film made or would possibly even act in it.
“I shouldn’t have sent it to him,” he added. “It wasn’t my idea. It was the idea of my wife at the time. But I did. I have that note here somewhere, in this apartment.”
I asked him: “Was that the last contact you had with him?”
“I never spoke to him again.”
I asked: “Is it possible that your anger or a feeling of wanting to get even with him for rejecting your screenplay was also behind your having left his movie in your closet for 34 years?”
Garfein reacted strongly: “No! That had nothing to do with it. I was hurt. But I told you, I was afraid that the film with Michael (Strong) wasn’t up to the highest standards. I was afraid of being disappointed the way Paul was disappointed. That he didn’t like my screenplay didn’t come into it.”
There’s another note that Garfein says he keeps in his Upper West Side apartment, written by another actor whose famous name is inextricably bound to the Actors Studio. It was written by Marilyn Monroe, who Garfein knew and whom he repeatedly states deserves more respect for her intelligence.
It seems Marilyn once showed up at the apartment of the playwright William Inge (his picture hangs on the wall of Garfein’s apartment) and left a piece of paper on which she wrote: “I came to visit you but you weren’t lnge.”