Sinking Into Success: Playwright Clifford Odets

Fishko Files on Odets’ conflicted journey from Broadway to Hollywood

« previous episode | next episode »

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Previews for The Big Knife begin on March 22nd. It opens April 16th. Click here for more information.


By 1940 the playwright Clifford Odets already had a Broadway hit (Awake and Sing!), a Hollywood screen credit (The General Died at Dawn) and his face on the cover of Time Magazine. In February of that year he wrote a note to himself in his journal: “Do you know I’m beginning to think you are a very ordinary fellow. You are vain, dishonest, morally lax, you are proud, you are lazy and self-indulgent. Aren’t you really sinking deeper every week into the feather bed of a successful career? Read this again in a week. In another week, again.”

At 19 Odets was in Greenwich Village trying to make it as an actor. After playing bit parts in the Theater Guild he fell under the spell of Harold Clurman and the legendary Lee Strasberg, soon joining the Group Theater. It was there that he was inspired to write his own plays. In 1935 Odets’ rousing, one-act labor drama Waiting for Lefty became an instant hit.

That same year Awake and Sing! hit Broadway, and Hollywood came calling in earnest.  The conflicted Odets wrestled with his commitment to New York theater and progressive politics, and decided to go west.

After years of working on screenplays in Hollywood, Odets wrote the play The Big Knife in 1949 – taking Hollywood as his subject and creating a memorably-villainous studio head. Odets wrote the scathing play at the height of McCarthyism during which he, and the star of The Big Knife John Garfield, were eventually called in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Later Odets’ screenplay for Sweet Smell of Success depicted another despicable villain in the notorious J.J. Hunsecker.

Odets died in 1963, torn to the very end.


WNYC Production Credits...

Mix Engineer: Paul Schneider
Associate Producer: Laura Mayer
Enterprise Editor, WNYC News: Karen Frillmann

Produced by:

Sara Fishko

Comments [4]

wade bracken from Freeport, IL

Clifford odensky was a piece of SHIT that used and abused frances farmer. I hope he rots in HELL for eternity. And all his filsm and plays were over rated. Am SO glad he is DEAD !!!!!!!!!!!!!

May. 08 2013 04:12 PM

@Ted from West New York: Yes, we see now it is going to be the first BROADWAY revival since 1949. Thanks for the correction.

Mar. 14 2013 03:37 PM
Ted from West New York

Ooops, sorry, I meant to write Blogdanovitch.

Mar. 14 2013 11:02 AM
Ted from West New York, NJ

I am looking forward to this revival as well; but just FYI, a very young Peter Bogdanovitch co-produced and directed a production of the 1949 Odets play off-Broadway in 1959. From his Blogdanovitz: "In 1959, as my first directorial effort, I co-produced The Big Knife in New York, the only Odets play performed off-Broadway in his lifetime. This production, by the way, introduced Carroll O’Connor—-as the studio-head--to American audiences." When O'Connor left the show the nascent director took over his role of the tyrannical studio chief, Marcus Hoff.

Mar. 14 2013 10:43 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.