John Berry, a blacklisted director whose career spanned from working with Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater Troupe in the 1930s to his upcoming film adaptation of Athol Fugard’s “Bosman and Lena,” died Monday in Paris after a bout with pleurisy. He was 82.
Berry was born Jak Szold in the Bronx, N.Y. His father emigrated from a part of Poland ruled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. (Coincidentally, this is the same Polish region where Billy Wilder was born and in 1943 Berry was Wilder’s assistant on “Double Indemnity.”)
Though Berry performed in public at age 4 and was a standup vaudeville comedian before his teens, his big break was joining the Mercury Troupe when he was 20 in 1937.
Berry became so close to Welles that he later remembered the actor-director as his “spiritual father.” He acted in the Mercury’s modern-dress version of “Julius Caesar,” played Poins to Welles’ Falstaff in “Five Kings” and stage-managed Richard Wright’s “Native Son.” When Welles went to Hollywood to direct “Citizen Kane,” Berry remained in New York to manage the theater company.
Berry soon came West himself and, after working with Wilder, was hired by another Mercury alum, John Houseman, to replace Howard Clurman as director on Par’s “Miss Susie Slagle’s” with Lillian Gish and Veronica Lake. After this came “From This Day Forward” with Joan Fontaine and “Cross My Heart” with Betty Hutton.
In 1951 Berry directed John Garfield’s last film, the film noir “He Ran All the Way,” whose title has a certain real-life parallel, as at almost the same time Berry fled the United States for France to avoid testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Years later, Berry said he thought he’d be gone three or four months. In fact, he and Garfield were planning to team next on “The Man With the Golden Arm.”
However, Garfield died of a heart attack the night before he was to testify before HUAC and it would be 11 years before Berry returned to the United States.
Not speaking French when he arrived, Berry was more or less obliged to take whatever work he could get and his output was understandably variable. Among the films he directed were “Tomango” with Dorothy Dandridge, “Ca va Bardar” and “Je Suis un Sentimental” both with Eddie Constantine and “Don Juan.”
When Berry returned to the United States, he directed major New York dramatic television series, including “Eastside Westside” and “The Defenders.”
In film, his biggest critical hit was 1974’s “Claudine,” which starred Diahann Carroll, who won an Oscar nomination, and James Earl Jones. Unfortunately he followed this with two pics that did not turn out well: “Thieves” with Marlo Thomas and “The Bad News Bears Go to Japan,” which ended the series.
At the time of his death, Berry was in the late-editing stages on “Bosman and Lena,” which was lensed in South Africa in May and June and stars Danny Glover and Angela Bassett. Berry directed the original American production of the play in New York in 1970. Over the past two decades, he also directed many theater productions in Paris and London.
Berry is survived by his first wife, Gladys; his second wife, Myriam Boyer; his sons, Dennis and Arnie; and his daughter, Jan.