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Director and writer Elia Kazan

By Louise Sweeney / November 30, 1983



New York

Yellow bars of light filter through mahogany shutters as Elia Kazan leads the way into his Manhattan study. He sits obscured in darkness, his back almost to the camera, as the interview begins. He is badly lit, a flaw this famous director would not tolerate if the hero of this particular scene were anyone but himself.

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But Kazan is about to be forced into the klieg lights as star of his own life , a life dedicated to directing. He has been selected as one of the honorees of the Kennedy Center Honors of 1983. The Kennedy Center Honors, the American cultural equivalent of being knighted, are awarded for a lifetime contribution to the performing arts. This year the honorees, in addition to Kazan, include dancer-choreographer Katherine Dunham, singer-actor Frank Sinatra, actor James Stewart, and composer-critic Virgil Thomson.

Flashing up on the screen at Kennedy Center the night of Dec. 4 will be a montage of clips from some of the films Kazan has directed with such brilliance: ''On the Waterfront,'' ''Splendor in the Grass,'' ''East of Eden,'' ''A Face in the Crowd,'' ''A Streetcar Named Desire.'' There will also be scenes from some of his plays: Arthur Miller's ''Death of a Salesman'' and ''A View from the Bridge,'' Tennessee Williams's ''Streetcar'' and ''Sweet Bird of Youth,'' Robert Anderson's ''Tea and Sympathy.''

Kazan may watch, bemused, because the spotlight of his mind is focused not on the past but on the now. For this is the night his new play, ''The Chain,'' closes its Stamford, Conn., run before going on to Broadway. It is a measure of his restless genius as an artist that at an age when most men would be basking in a famous past he is sprinting into a new career as playwright.

For Kazan has not only directed but also written ''The Chain,'' which deals with a cast rehearsing an eccentric director's play adapted from ''the Orestia, '' but using it as a springboard for their own conversations. During our interview Kazan mutters darkly about any possibility of the play's going to Broadway. But later his longtime friend Cheryl Crawford, the producer, says this will be the fifth production they've done together and she fully intends to open it on Broadway after Christmas. The play, she says, is ''most extraordinary,'' and she has high hopes for it.

Kazan himself admits that ''I don't want a lot of publicity - the old man coming back to the theater, and all that, and then the play's terrible. I'd just as soon open it quietly.''

When the top shutters in his bay window have been opened a crack, the honoree sits slightly more revealed but still in profile. But we are almost through the first reel of our interview before he relaxes and turns toward the light, allowing the camera to intrude on his face and thoughts. It is a strong face that might have been quarried from the unrelenting rock of a difficult life. Rough-hewn and dramatic in profile, it is dominated full face by a forceful, jutting nose above a wide, expressive mouth.

Below a cliff of forehead grow thick black eyebrows brambled with gray, shading lively eyes of a dark brown sparked with amber. When he turns those headlights on you, you feel as though you're in freeze-frame. His silver hair has a crisp look.

Even when he's sitting in a chair, as he is now, he seems to seethe with energy. There is a bouncy, irrepressible, cocky quality about the way he tussles with life, even now, after four careers (actor, director, novelist, playwright), three wives, 26 plays, 22 films, two Oscars, a series of Tonys, Drama Critics Awards, and the co-founding of the Actors Studio.

He is dressed simply: a black turtleneck sweater, blue jeans, and sneakers. All through the interview he clasps and unclasps a small blue-handled gadget. He is wiry, short, and lithe; his friends point out that Kazan stays in shape. But it can be taken metaphorically, too. He is currently working out, not just on his new play, but on a new novel, a sequel to the best seller ''The Anatolian ,'' to be titled ''Beyond the Aegean.''