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Manny Fried: 1913-2011

The great Manny Fried passed away last night at the age of ninety-seven. His work was legendary, and so was his personality—this was evident in Jana Eisenberg's Forever Young interview with Fried in 2008. He was 94 at the time. —Chris Schobert

Life, Love, Labor and Theater: Manny Fried at 94

By Jana Eisenberg

Even at 94, and recovering from hip replacement, Emanuel “Manny” Fried gives the impression of being a rough and ready fellow, full of salty talk and as fiery in his opinions as ever. A lifelong labor activist, actor, playwright and teacher, Fried has lived in Buffalo most of his years.

He talked recently about his life, and his first new play in almost a decade, an autobiographical one-man piece called Boilermakers & Martinis.

Early on, as a result of his New York City stage-acting career, he had the chance to go to Hollywood. But he ended up coming back to Buffalo, starting a theater, folding a theater, meeting his wife, going to work in factories, and eventually getting deeply involved in the labor movement. He was persecuted by the F.B.I. and refused to give testimony to the House Un-American Activities Committee, telling them they were the un-American ones.

He continued to write plays, and began teaching others how to do it, too. He has a Ph.D. in English literature and is a professor at Buffalo State College. He still teaches playwriting. His wife died in 1989; he remains close with his family of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

This epic life has the excitement and intrigue that only seems to happen in the movies. Boilermakers & Martinis, he says, is “strictly autobiographical” — covering both his career as a union/civil liberties activist and his 48-year marriage to Rhoda Lurie, the daughter of a prominent Buffalo family. It addresses the challenges that the differences between the two worlds presented.

He recounted meeting his wife. “At my first production in Buffalo, a sort of review, I was introduced to Rhoda. After the show, which I had to stop, and start over, she invited me for a drink,” he says. “We went to a sleazy bar. I didn’t have any money, but the barmaid let me get away with buying a couple of beers. Rhoda decided from that, she would marry me.” Fried had recently returned from New York City; he had acted on and off Broadway, but was “fed up with being a court jester.” He had founded a theater company here, but it didn’t last. The marriage, however, did.

“She thought she was marrying an actor/director,” he says. “But the theater came apart, and I went to work at Curtis Aircraft, and then DuPont … She wanted me out of the labor movement. But I believe in the rank and file. When I was being attacked, they stood with me. I took the heat out front. This was a source of tension between my wife and me. She didn’t disagree [with the ideals], but wanted someone else to do it.”

Fried was born in 1913 in Brooklyn. His parents moved him and his eight siblings here when their small manufacturing business burned down. Lacking insurance, they were broke. “We lived on Division Street, in an old shack of a place,” Fried recalls. “We slept on piles of Osh Kosh overall samples.”

Fried’s politics were influenced by his father’s dedication to Socialist labor leader Daniel de Leon. Fried’s experience solidified these leanings. “I came to know the people in the factory,” Fried says. “Although many had no college education, they were smarter; they dealt with the real world.

“When I came out of the army, [director Elia] Kazan told me he was going to start my film career. But my friend Johnny Cooper pleaded with me not to abandon the union. I had to make the choice between going back to be an organizer or my film career: I stayed in the union, and never regretted it. Karl Malden got the part.”

It wasn’t long before he started to make a name for himself as an activist. “[Noted Socialist editor and publisher] Angus Cameron urged me to continue writing truthfully, despite pressure from the F.B.I. It was hard,” Fried says. “I was a real power at that time; the F.B.I. didn’t like it. They got me blacklisted, fired by every employer who hired me. Finally, I worked for a Canadian company.”

He is also proud of the work he has done within Buffalo’s theater community, understandably. “One of the things that came out of my long-running Playwrights Workshops is that, unlike before, Buffalonian playwrights can get their work produced in Buffalo,” he says.

After Scott Behrend, artistic director of Buffalo’s Road Less Traveled Productions, and Fried met in 2005, Behrend decided to present a retrospective of Fried’s plays. The third installment has just been announced for November/December of this year. Not bad for a 94-year old rabble-rouser.

Illustration by Josh Flanigan.

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