[Philadelphia 1906 - Los Angeles 1963]
Odets was born of Jewish immigrant parents and raised in the Bronx, New York. He dropped out of high school to pursue acting. He helped found the Group Theatre, an influential left-wing theatre company that specialized in experimental acting. He joined the Communist Party in 1934, although he left it after eight months.
After briefly trying acting, Odets decided to become the Group Theatre's first original playwright. At the urging of Group co-founder Harold Clurman, he wrote Awake and Sing! in 1935. Although his first play, it is often considered his masterpiece. It follows the story of a large Jewish family in New York, with the conclusion that Marxism is the only way for the working class to find any dignity.
Mainly due to misgivings from Group leader Lee Strasberg, Awake and Sing! was not produced right away. Odets' first play to actually be produced was the one-act play Waiting for Lefty. This is a series of interconnected scenes depicting workers for a fictional taxi company. The focus alternates between the drivers' union meeting and vignettes from their difficult, oppressed lives. The climax is a defiant call for the union to strike. The play can be performed in any acting space, including union meeting halls and on the street. The wild success of this play brought Odets unexpected fame and fortune. Odets would soon move to Hollywood to begin writing for the screen as well as the stage.
These plays, along with Odets' other major Group Theatre plays of the 1930s, are harsh criticisms of the capitalist class in the Great Depression. They have been dismissed by some critics as mere propaganda, but Odets asserted that all of his plays deal with the human spirit persevering in the face of all opponents, whether they be the capitalist class or not. In later years, Odets' plays became more reflective and autobiographical, although class consciousness was ever in the background.
In 1953, Odets was investigated by Joseph McCarthy and called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). He disavowed his communist affiliations and cooperated by "naming names"; as a result, he did not share the fate of many of his colleagues who were blacklisted.
Odets' dramatic style is distinguished by a kind of poetic, metaphor-laden street talk, by his socialist politics, and by his way of dropping the audience right into the conflict with little or no introduction. Often character is more important than plot, which Odets attributed to the influence of Anton Tjechov. In general, Odets' political statements show a rather naive view of Marxism that might be expected in the 1930s.
His first wife was actress Luise Rainer; his second wife was actress Bette Grayson, and he also had a relationship with actress Frances Farmer.
He died of cancer at the age of 57 in 1963.