Abraham Polonsky

Director, Screenwriter, Novelist
Blacklisted for refusing to name any fellow Communists before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1951, writer-director Abraham Polonsky still managed to compile an impressive array of screen credits in ... Read more »
Born: 12/04/1910 in New York City, New York, USA

Filmography

Writer (11)

Body and Soul 1999 - 2000 (TV Show)

From Story

Body and Soul 1982 (Movie)

("Body and Soul") (From Story)

Monsignor 1982 (Movie)

(Screenplay)

Avalanche Express 1978 (Movie)

(Screenplay)

Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here 1969 (Movie)

(Screenplay)

Madigan 1968 (Movie)

(Screenplay)

I Can Get It For You Wholesale 1951 (Movie)

(Screenplay)

Force of Evil 1948 (Movie)

(Screenplay)

Body and Soul 1947 (Movie)

(From Story)

Body and Soul 1947 (Movie)

(Screenplay)

Golden Earrings (Movie)

(Screenwriter)
Director (3)

Romance of a Horse Thief 1971 (Movie)

(Director)

Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here 1969 (Movie)

(Director)

Force of Evil 1948 (Movie)

(Director)
Actor (3)

Blacklist: Hollywood on Trial 1995 - 1996 (TV Show)

Actor

American Cinema 1994 - 1995 (TV Show)

Actor

Biography

Blacklisted for refusing to name any fellow Communists before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1951, writer-director Abraham Polonsky still managed to compile an impressive array of screen credits in a career interrupted nearly 20 years. Strongly influenced by his pharmacist father's socialist ideals, he practiced law for a few years and taught at NYC's City College before leaving the law behind in 1937 to devote himself to writing, first for radio. After joining the American Communist Party in the late 30s, Polonsky established and edited a local newspaper, The Home Front, then published his first novel, "The Goose Is Cooked", written with Mitchell A Wilson under the joint pseudonym Emmett Hogarth. Before signing a screenwriter's contract with Paramount, he published another novel, "The Enemy Sea" (1943), and his politics did not preclude his service behind enemy lines during World War II as part of the OSS (after all, Joseph Stalin was our ally).

Polonsky hit a home run with his Oscar-nominated script for Robert Rossen's boxing classic "Body and Soul" (1947), starring John Garfield as a pugilist who works his way up by nefarious means to become the champ. Its credits read like a litany of McCarthy-era witch-hunt victims: Garfield, who refused to name names and died of a heart attack at 39; Anne Revere (blacklisted), who played his mom; Rossen, who ultimately underwent the purification ritual of ratting on his friends; and Garfield's trainer Canada Lee (also blacklisted). Polonsky was present on the set exercising nearly the influence of Rossen and earned his first directorial assignment, "Force of Evil" (1948), a taut noirish drama about the numbers racket, which he co-wrote with Ira Wolfert from Wolfert's novel "Tucker's People". One of the most eloquent experiments in American film and a vastly underappreciated classic, the picture employed blank verse without preciosity throughout, the veiled formalism of the language offsetting the hard-boiled subject and clipped coldness of Garfield as a know-it-all crooked lawyer.

Though Polonsky had chucked his interest in Communism and the Soviet Union by the end of World War II, "Body and Soul" and "Force of Evil" strongly dramatized and questioned the priority of material gain, and in the paranoid Cold War climate of the early 50s, such sympathies flew in the face of the American dream. Refusing to knuckle under to the strong-arm tactics of HUAC, he made a perfect sacrificial lamb for the Hollywood altar, another provocateur blacklisted in order to keep the movies safe for democracy. Polonsky shared credit for the screenplay of "I Can Get It for You Wholesale" (1951), which was his last under his own name for 17 years. Ironically, he made almost as much money while blacklisted as he did at his Hollywood peak ($2000 a week), moving to NYC and working for the new medium of TV. Selling through a "front", he wrote for the CBS series "Danger" (1950-55) and "You Are There" (1953-57), not to mention his efforts as a novelist and uncredited doctor of screenplays. He also reportedly did uncredited direction on Tyrone Guthrie's film version of "Oedipus Rex" (1957) and scripted (through the front John O Killens) Robert Wise's "Odds Against Tomorrow" (1959).

Long after the rehabilitation of such peers as Dalton Trumbo, Joseph Losey and Carl Foreman, Polonsky finally saw his name on screen again as the writer of Don Siegel's detective drama "Madigan" (1968). The following year, he helmed his second feature (21 years after his debut), "Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here" (1969), the story of a rogue Indian tracked down by a callous society, bearing more than just a little resemblance to his own persecution. His third and final directing turn, "Romance of a Horse Thief" (1971), returned to his ethnic roots, the Polish border region his father had fled at the turn of the century. Screenplays for "Avalanche Express" (1978) and "Monsignor" (1982) rounded out his film career, but he remained vital, still teaching a course at USC film school at the time he shared the Los Angeles Film Critics Career Achievement Award with Julius Epstein in 1999. Evidence on screen reveals Polonsky as a better writer than director, but 21 years between directing assignments begs the question: What would he have done in those two decades? He could write using fronts, but the director's chair remained absolutely off limits.

Relationships

Rebecca Polonsky

Mother

Susan Polonsky Epstein

Daughter

Sylvia Polonsky

Wife
married from 1937 until her death in 1993

Henry Polonsky

Father
Russian-Jewish immigrant who spoke and wrote several languages graduate of Columbia University

b Polonsky

Son
was 2nd unit director on "Romance of a Horse Thief"

EDUCATION

Columbia University Law School

New York , New York 1935
(LLB)

City College of New York

New York , New York 1932

Milestones

1998

Interviewd for the documentary, "Hollywoodism: Jews, Movies, and the American Dream"

1998

Taught a philosophy class at USC film school called "Consciousness and Content"

1995

Appeared in PBS' "American Cinema" series

1982

Last feature credit as screenwriter for "Monsignor"

1978

Wrote screenplay for Mark Robson's "Avalanche Express"

1970

Helmed "Romance of a Horse Thief", scripted by David Opatoshu; set on the Polish border in 1904, it revisited the director's roots

1968

Resumed career as writer-director with "Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here", starring Robert Redford

1968

First American credit under his own name, as screenwriter for Don Siegel's "Madigan"

1965

Served as story editor for the Canadian series "Seaway"

1959

Co-wrote script (using John O. Killens as a front) for Robert Wise's feature "Odds Against Tomorrow"; credit restored by Writers Guild of America in 1996

1957

Reportedly did uncredited direction on Tyrone Guthrie's film version of "Oedipus Rex"

1951

Subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee; blacklisted by Hollywood when he refused to 'name names'; Congressman Harold Velde calling him "the most dangerous man in America"

1951

Last credit for 17 years, as screenwriter (with Vera Caspary) for "I Can Get It for You Wholesale"

1948

Directorial debut, "Force of Evil"; also co-wrote with Ira Wolfert from Wolfert's novel "Tucker's People"

1947

First feature screenwriting credit, "Body and Soul"; received Oscar nomination

1947

Received a credit as screenwriter for "Golden Earrings", though none of his material made it into the final cut

1940

Published his first novel, "The Goose Is Cooked", co-written with Mitchell A. Wilson under joint pseudonym Emmett Hogarth

Signed screenwriter's contract with Paramount before leaving USA to serve in Europe in the OSS during WWII (from 1943 to 1945)

Wrote early drafts of the script that became Irwin Winkler's "Guilty By Suspicion" (1991), a project about the McCarthy era that had Bernard Tavernier as its director at the time of Polonsky's involvement

Taught at City College in NYC

Wrote for the CBS-TV shows "Danger" (1950-1955) and "You Are There" (1953-1957), among other writing outlets; fronted by his neighbor, public relations executive Jeremy Daniel (who either took no money or received a 10 percent commission, depending on wha

Joined the American Communist Party in the late 1930s, establishing and editing a local newspaper, The Home Front

Bonus Trivia

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"In a strange way 'Romance of a Horse Thief' is attached closely to the films of my childhood long before I heard of fine art. For me, movies are irrevocably and richly rooted in kitsch, in childhood, in storytelling, in the rubbish of paperbacks and sitting under the streetlights while off in the zoo across the lots flowering with burdock, lions roared out their fantasy of freedom ... It was a great pleasure to make a movie again. Nothing is better; perhaps revolution, but there you have to succeed and be right, dangers which never attach themselves to making a movie, and dreaming." --Abraham Polonsky, quote reprinted in David Thomson's "A Biographical Dictionary of Film" (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1994)

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Remembering the two studio chiefs he respected most, Lew Wassreman and Darryl Zanuck: " ... if they said they'd do something, they'd do it. And if you wrote something, they'd read it themselves, not give it to a secretary. Lew didn't tolerate any [expletive]. When I started shooting 'Willie Boy', [Robert] Redford kept showing up late to work. So I called Lew, who was running Universal, and I told him, 'I want to fire the SOB--he's coming late.' Lew said, 'Let me take care of it.' And the next day, Redford showed up on time and apologized. I don't know what Lew said to him, but he was never late again.

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"[Zanuck] did everything he could [to keep Polonsky working after being blacklisted]. The trade papers kept saying if I was blacklisted, why was I still under contract? So he finally told me, 'We're going to have to let you go.' Although he gave me the rest of my salary, which was nice. There was just too much pressure to fight it. My daughter would come home from private school and tell me, 'All my friends are saying you're going to jail.' So I told my wife, Sylvia, 'Let's go to New York. Everybody's father is going to jail there.' And when my daughter went to private school there, her father was a hero." --Abraham Polonsky to the Los Angeles Times, January 20, 1999.

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The Univerisity of California at Riverside has a fiction prize named for Polonsky that is given to the writer of the best short-story in their annual literary magazine. Harry Lawton, an instructor at the university, wrote a non-fiction book called "Willie Boy: A Desert Manhunt" which was the inspiration for a script by Jack Soward and purportedly the inspiration for Polonsky's "Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here". In an interview with Soward at the WGA Web site, he claims that years after he'd given up on the script he wrote, Polonsky came by his office at Universal asking what time it was. When Soward asked what was wrong with his watch, Polonsky said "There's nothing wrong with my watch. I just wanted to meet the man who wrote MY script." Apparently people who had read Soward's script years back were complimenting Abe on his decision to direct it, not realizing/knowing Abe wrote an original screenplay for the movie.

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"About (Elia) Kazan (who was receiving an Honoray Oscar), I put it three ways: One, I wouldn't want to be buried in the same cemetary with the guy. Two, if I was on a desert island with him I'd be afraid to fall asleep because he'd probably eat me for breakfast. Three, we've already given him the Benedict Arnold award, which is usually reserved for presidential assassins. Except he didn't kill a president, just his friends. All those people with the Group Theatre, they were his best friends." --Polonsky quoted in the Village Voice, March 23, 1999.

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