Allen Garfield, a great character actor in 1970s American films, passed away recently at the age of 80 from the dreaded Corona Virus. I was a fan of his work and thought he was terribly under appreciated. In fact, a recent obit read as if he’ll be remembered as barely a blip in film history. He may not be as revered as say a Walter Brennan or Ed Asner, but he certainly left his mark of versatility on some great films.
Some personal favorites are his media savvy consultant who shows up idealistic Robert Redford in Michel Ritchie’s The Candidate by smilingly smashing up a bag of lollipops with a tiny hammer. He was also Oscar-worthy as Peter Falk’s not-too-bright brother-in-law in William Friedkin’s underrated The Brinks Job.
I had the privilege of a chance meeting with him outside the Virgin Record Store on Sunset in the early 1990s. He was walking down the street with a pretty young woman when I recognized him and introduced myself.
He was warm and cordial and was in the mood to talk. When I told him what I was working on at the time, he told me what a great idea a biography on Lee Marvin would be as he had always been a fan. I should add that even though he was older than myself, he peppered his conversation with many hip phrases, like “Right on,” and “Far out,” and “I can dig it.” When I mentioned the Lee Marvin bio he told me he always wanted to work with the man and almost did…once. He heard that The Iceman Cometh was going to be made into a film and desperately wanted the role of Rocky, the night bartender. As I recall, he said he got a reading with director John Frankenheimer, thought he nailed it and waited anxiously for a call back. Alas, it was not to be as Frankenheimer went with long-time veteran character actor Tom Pedi, who had played the role many times on stage, TV, radio, you name it.
Rather ironic considering Frankenheimer purposely didn’t want Jason Robards to play Hickey as he thought Robards too familiar with the role and directing him would be like, ‘Directing him how to go the bathroom.” You could see the disappointment on Garfield’s face as he recounted the story. I felt for him but also knew it was the lot of an actor’s life. He did as well so instead of dwelling on it mournfully, we began talking about the films and performances he did make and loved doing. I also asked him why he made the risky move of changing his name to Goorwitz and he told me it was in honor of his mother who had recently passed away. He did of course go back to Garfield shortly thereafter. Before parting he gave me his card and said to call him any time as he loved talking about movies. I kept it in my wallet for years but never did call him. My loss, I’m afraid. I did toy with the idea of including his little anecdote in the chapter about Iceman in Lee Marvin Point Blank but my exclusive interviews with Frankenheimer, Jeff Bridges and the children of Robert Ryan abundantly filled it out.
I often wondered why I had stopped seeing him in projects as much as I used to until I read about his health issues. He suffered a series of strokes and spent the last 15 years in the Motion Picture Retirement Home. Damn shame as we should have seen him in a lot projects. Farewell Mr. Garfield and fear not. As long as there are classic movie fans, you will always be remembered.
– Dwayne Epstein