Phoebe Brand Carnovsky, one of the first actresses to join the Gotham’s Group Theatre, died of pneumonia July 3 in New York. She was 96.
An acting teacher as well as an actress and director, Brand, originally from Ilion, N.Y., used her maiden name professionally.
Brand joined the Group Theatre’s team that included director and teacher Lee Strasberg, resident playwright Clifford Odets, actors John Garfield and Stella Adler as well as Brand’s future husband, thesp Morris Carnovsky. Their goal was to stage plays that mirrored the difficult times in the 1930s.
Brand appeared in a number of plays that Odets wrote for Group Theatre. Odets’ “Waiting for Lefty,” about corruption in a trade union, was first performed in 1935 at a union hall for striking New York taxi drivers.
That same year, Brand married Carnovsky, and they soon moved to Los Angeles, where he pursued a film career while she continued her stage work and work in fundraising programs.
Through the 1940s, Brand and her husband were members of the American Communist Party. In the early ’50s, they were blacklisted after being named as communists in testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
The exposure was a setback to Carnovsky’s film career, but the couple returned to theater work in Gotham, starting with a production of “The World of Sholem Aleichem.” The play ran for two years at the Barbizon-Plaza Theater. From there, Brand became a founding member of the Round Table Review in Gotham, where she also directed several works including a stage adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel, “The Idiot.”
In the early 1960s, she was a co-founder of Theater in the Street and directed plays with free admission in Gotham’s less affluent neighborhoods. She worked with several up-and-coming actors at the time, including Billy Dee Williams and the late Raul Julia.
After decades of stage work, Brand made her movie debut at age 86. She had a small role in “Vanya on 42nd Street” directed by Louis Malle.
Most recently, she taught private lessons to small groups of students in her home. She held her last classes in her hospital room.
Brand is survived by her son and by a niece.