Tuesday, 5 May 2020


My obituary of the great character actor 
Allen Garfield  went up on the Daily Telegraph's website on 30 April. I missed it at the time, and because trips to the shops are limited, didn't see whether it was in the paper paper. What follows is basically my original piece, written short and succinct to give it a better chance of squeezing in to the paper in these sad times, though I have added a bit about the background to the filming of Chief Zabu. I re-watched The Conversation recently, and was again impressed with how brilliant he is playing Harry Caul's opposite, and how nicely John Cazale is pulled between them. What's interesting to note that Coppola always claimed Gene Hackman had trouble adjusting to the Caul character, as he personally was far closer to Garfield's personality. 


Allen Garfield, who has died aged 80, was one of the finest character actors of his generation, turning supporting parts into memorable roles. Denied leads because his appearance failed to match his talent, his made his characters, often villainous, venal or corrupt seem real because they always seemed to accept who they were. In his own favourite film, Francis Coppola's The Conversation, he played Bernie Moran, a wire-tapping rival to Gene Hackman's Harry Caul, but one without Caul's crippling conscience. He worked with Coppola again in One From The Heart and in Cotton Club as Abbadabba Berman, the mob accountant whose signature line “it's nothing personal, just business” was borrowed to become crucial in The Godfather.

Garfield was born Allen Goorwitz in Newark, New Jersey. In high school he began amateur boxing, while working as a copy boy on the Newark Star-Ledger. “I was going to be a journalist-boxer, the Jewish Hemingway,” he said. But he was drawn to acting, and adapted part of the film Tomorrow The World for his high school's theatre. He studied acting in New York under Anthony Mannino while working as a journalist and editor, but it was a play he wrote in the mid-Sixties that impressed William Devane, who though the same age as Garfield, had already played in Joe Papp's New York Shakespeare Fesitival and Off-Broadway in the hit poliutical spoof MacBird. Devane was head of theatre writing at the Actors Studio, and admitted Goorwitz as a writer/director, telling him to "make some waves". He soon wound up in acting classes under Lee Strasburg and Harold Clurman, and took the stage name Garfield in tribute to Body And Soul star John Garfield. His own first film role came in 'Orgy Girl '69', a film in which, he was quick to point out, “there was no orgy!”

Three of Brian dePalma's early films showed his talent for quirky comedy and began his pattern of repeat performances for appreciative directors. His first lead came in John Avildsen's Cry Uncle, playing a short fat private detective who fancies himself a ladies man. “It was one of a kind,” he explained, when other leads did not materialise. He did much episodic television; later in his career he played in a Faustian episode of Tales From The Dark Side. When a young Bradley Whitfield refuses to believe he is the Devil, saying “you've been watching too much bad TV”, Garfield replies devilishly “I like bad TV'.

Robert Altman cast him in Nashville, as the emotionally fragile singer Ronee Blakely's husband/agent. “It was painful...Altman allowed me to take responsibility for my character: over-bearing, loving, bullying.” After his parents died, Garfield dropped his stage name in their honour; he was billed as Goorwitz in some of his best work, starting with William Fiedkin's The Brink's Job, alongside character actor stalwarts Peter Falk, Peter Boyle and Paul Sorvino. In Richard Rush's The Stunt Man he's the screenwriter foil to Peter O'Toole's ego-maniacal director, “like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza”. Five years later, in Wim Wenders' The State Of Things, he reclaimed his stage name, at the urging of Shelly Winters. “Make life easy for yourself,” she said. “Garfield really suits you”.

He was billed as Garfield in Cotton Club, the overlooked Desert Bloom, and his most familiar part today, the bombastic Chief Lutz in Beverly Hills Cop II. “I love making a ton of money doing big pictures, but if I believe in a film, as I did with Desert Bloom, which we did for hardly anything, I'll do it.”

Garfield suffered a stroke in 1998, just before filming The Ninth Gate, but Roman Polanski rewrote his part to include his part-frozen face. He ceased acting after a major stroke in 2004, and moved into the Motion Picture Home in Woodland Hills. But he had an unexpected final lead role, when Chief Zabu, a film he believed in and made for almost nothing in 1986, was finally shown in 2016. It was the brainchild of another New York character actor, Zach Norman, and was shot on a college campus, with students handling most of the technical duties and the cast bunking in the dorms. Norman was a successful real-estate magnate, and in the movie Garfield plays a brash upwardly-mobile real estate tycoon, caught up in a plot to take over a new Polynesian island nation. Killed by distribution and other problems when it was made, its satirical echoes of Donald Trump brought Chief Zabu back into the public eye, thirty years too late. Garfield died 7 April 2020, when coronavirus spread through his nursing home.

Allen Garfield, actor

born 22 November 1939, Newark, New Jersey

died 7 April 2020, Woodland Hills, California
survived by his sister, Lois 

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