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Manny Fried Finally Retires

By ANTHONY CHASE

Buffalo's legendary Playwright, Actor, Union Organizer, Teacher

Manny Fried was a Buffalo original. Author of The Dodo Bird, Brothers for A’ That, Drop Hammer, Elegy for Stanley Gorski, The Second Beginning, Marked for Success, and his recent on-man play, Boilermakers and Martini’s, Manny (Emanuel) Fried died early Friday morning at the age of 97. He would have turned 98 next week.

Born in New York City, Manny grew up here in Buffalo. He raised a family here. He made his career here. His work offers a unique reflection of the story of labor unions and of working people, so central to the history of Western New York. In addition, through his longstanding playwriting workshop, he gave guidance and encouragement to an entire generation of Buffalo playwrights. ARTVOICE named the Artie Award for Outstanding New Play after Manny during the second year of the awards; usually, Manny would present the award himself.

With an amazing capacity to hear a play once and advise a playwright on revisions, Manny was tremendously supportive of young writers. “Never forget to show the audience how the past returns to have an impact in the present,” he would advise his students. It was an observation that was also true of Manny’s life.

His father started as a worker in a cigar factory in New York City, and worked his way up to becoming a dress manufacturer with his own factory and household servants.  The family’s fortunes changed again, however, when the factory burned down and the relative who had been handling the insurance turned out to have pocketed the premium. The Fried family went from being very successful to being broke.

The senior Fried took a job as a salesman for Butler Brothers, a wholesale dry goods company. During his travels, he passed through Buffalo and decided it would be a better place to raise his nine children than Brooklyn, and so in 1918, the Fried family, including five year old Emanuel, moved permanently to Buffalo.

Manny liked to recall the small house in which the eleven Frieds lived on Genesee Street, and playing sports with improvised equipment in his back yard. He liked to recall the Golden Age of vaudeville in Buffalo.

“I worked at Shea’s Buffalo as an usher,” he once told me. “I worked at the Hippodrome. I remember all those different acts, and I used to imitate them when I was a kid. At Shea’s Buffalo we wore the uniform and we did close order drill and all that kind of stuff.”

Fried was educated in Buffalo, except for one year at the University of Iowa.  From the beginning, he pursued his interest in theatre.  In between sports and a variety of jobs, he wrote plays, and he acted.

After his year at Iowa, where he studied theater for a year while on a football scholarship, Fried returned to Buffalo to work for the A&P until a moment of anger, a two by four, and a plate glass store window altered his employment situation.

Figuring he had nothing to lose, Fried applied for an apprentice position at a summer stock theater run by the Ford brothers. George Ford was married to Helen Ford (1894-1982), a musical comedy star. He got the job and continued in the theater, even going to New York City. “I did take a break one spring when things were slow to play football for Canisius, but I went right back to New York again.”

Fried might never have returned to Buffalo had he not seen a notice on the New Theatre League bulletin board. The Buffalo Contemporary Theatre, part of the “Workers Theater” movement, needed a director. He took the job. “The building and the loft are still there at Eagle and Ellicott, above the gin mill there,” Manny told me. “That was in 1939.  But then, what with the war and all, the theater came apart. I figured, ‘I’m going to be drafted soon.’ So I went to work at Curtis Aircraft.”

The job at Curtis Aircraft was to have fateful consequences for Fried. It was here that he became heavily involved in labor union activities.

From the beginning, his involvement with the union brought tumult into Fried’s life. “At one point I was fired from the plant and the company union put a guy named George Poole and me on trial. George was a writer who has since died. They accused George of having associated with communists because he fought in the Spanish Civil War. They held a voice vote and kicked him out. There was a big crowd in the auditorium, and so then they said, ‘Manny associated with George.’ and by voice vote, the chairman ruled that they had voted to kick me out. I yelled, ‘Everyone who wants to kick me out on this side; those opposed on that side!’ It was clear that the overwhelming majority wanted to keep me in, so they had to keep me in.”

Thwarted by Fried’s quick thinking, the company union resorted to more drastic measures; Fried was fired as a subversive. He was reinstated two and a half years later, and awarded back pay. Meanwhile, by firing Fried, the company union unwittingly pushed him into deeper union involvement. He became a union organizer for the United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers.

“I became an organizer in ’41 and then in ’44 I went in the army,” recalled Fried. “I came back in ’46. Now meanwhile I had organized a lot of stuff. I was good as an organizer. First of all, I was naive enough to be honest.”

I vividly recall Manny chuckling contentedly as he told these stories, and he was not hesitant to take great pride in his accomplishments. “I could talk, having been an actor and all that kind of stuff,” he noted. “That was an asset!”

After the war, Manny expected to return to the theater. “When I came back, I stopped off in New York on the way, and I saw Elia Kazan [the noted director associated with The Group Theatre]. He had directed me when I had the lead in The Young Go First when I was with the Theatre of Action in New York. It was the first play he had directed. He and I had become good friends. He told me he was going to launch me again in a theater career. He was shooting a film called Boomerang at the time, and he said ‘I need you right away.’ I said ‘I’ve got a wife and a kid back in Buffalo, and I want to go see them.’  He said, ‘Well hurry up and come back, because you’ve got to do this.’”

Fried went home, and while he was here, he visited an old time union man named Charlie Cooper, who was in the hospital.

“Charlie was the guy on whom the national labor relations act was established—the Wagner Act. He had one leg, and they had just cut off another piece of it. He asked me when I was coming back to work, and I said, ‘Charlie, I don’t think I’m coming back. I’m not a union organizer anymore. I’m an actor! It’s all a mistake.’  He said, ‘You redheaded son of a bitch! Don’t abandon us! We need you. We’ve been waiting for you. Come back!’”

And then, proving that he had a sense of the theatrical himself, Charlie Cooper died that night. Needless to say, Fried followed his conscience and stayed in Buffalo to work as a union organizer.  Karl Malden got the part that Elia Kazan had offered Fried.  Still, he says he has no regrets.

“I have had a kind of varied life that otherwise I never would have had. There was no question. I was already directing in New York. I probably would have ended up directing in Hollywood. A lot of guys from the Theatre of Action were out there, and I had already been approached by Universal Studios.” Through various accidents and unconscious choices, Fried stayed with the union. Then, in 1956, he was forced out.

“By then, our union was representing 30,000 workers in this area, and I was the international representative in charge. We had come through the red baiting period and had been forced out of the CIO because our union backed Henry Wallace rather than Harry Truman. And we were in a continual battle of being raided. The FBI visited all our people and did their best to destroy us. I later learned that J. Edgar Hoover had sent in 25 FBI men to try to get me and two other people in town. They trailed us night and day, opened our mail, tapped our phones, trying to get us under the Smith Act. They presented it before the Grand Jury and the Grand Jury did not indict us.”

Fried and his fellow union organizers thought the time was right to bring their union into the mainstream of the labor movement. And so they brought their organization into the machinists union.
“Forces on the rightwing went crazy,” Manny recalled. “Father Healy (1920-1991), the so-called labor priest, demanded that the organizers be fired. I was fired and black listed by one vote!”

Fried’s career in organized labor was over, and he couldn’t get a job anywhere.

“I figured that the best thing for me to do, to stay close to the people I had worked with, was to sell insurance. And the insurance companies wanted me right away. I had contacts. I was hired and fired by seven insurance companies, one right after the other. The FBI went to see them as soon as I got hired.”

Finally, after a year without employment, Manny got a job with the Canada Life insurance company, which, as a foreign concern, was less vulnerable to FBI meddling. With all his contacts in the labor movement, Fried was a remarkable success at selling insurance.

“Very soon I only had to work for a couple of hours a day, and the rest of the time, I’d write. I wrote a whole series of plays between’57 and ’72. In addition, Manny was able to assemble an academic career. He joined Buffalo State as a part-time faculty member in 1972. In 1973, he was appointed assistant professor of English. He became an associate professor in 1978 and a full professor in 1981. He retired in 1983, but continued to teach at the college, part-time, remarkably, until 2008.

“At first, I had my plays done in Canada,” I couldn’t get them done here. Finally, [actor] David Fendrick, [journalist] Terry Doran, and [Buffalo State professor] Tony Lewis got together and produced Elegy for Stanley Gorski. That was the breakthrough. And then Buffalo Ensemble Theatre started to do one play after the other of mine. Then Neal [Radice] did Brothers for A’ That. Drop Hammer was done by Michael Mirand in the back room of Nietzsche’s. In that one, we used mainly union people. We were supposed to run four weeks; we ran six, and then we only closed because these people had other obligations and couldn’t continue.”

The Nietzsche’s production of Drop Hammer is a legend in Buffalo for the power of the production, staged largely with amateur actors.

Opposition to Fried’s union activity was to permeate every aspect of his life. At one point, the FBI tried to Pressure the Jaycees into rescinding a playwriting award they had given him. Friends dropped him, and the FBI advised neighbors not to let their children play with the Fried children.

On the theatre scene, Fried got some flack and lost some friends when he was cast in a Studio Theatre production of Hedda Gabler—he had some history with a couple of the board members.
Fried’s union background also kept his plays from being produced in Buffalo as quickly as they were produced in other places.

“Around the time Dodo Bird was done in Now York,” recalled Fried, “and got rave reviews all down the line—the AFL-CIO started a labor arts program in four cities—I think it was 1976. And Buffalo was one of them. I was contacted and asked to do a play. At the meeting where they were to decide who was to run the program, Father Healey showed up and said it was too important a project to be under anybody’s control but the church’s. So he named a guy who was an English teacher out in South Park. Well the program faltered. All they tried to do was get audiences for the existing stuff—nothing related to labor.

“The fellow who had first come to me suggested that we go to the Studio Arena and talk to Neal Du Brock about doing The Dodo Bird. I knew Neal well. I had organized his audience for him when he did The Death of Bessie Smith at the Jewish Center. Since I was politically hot at the time, I didn’t front it, but I laid out the whole plan, and we jammed that place. Neal said, “Manny I’d like to do it, but we can’t lay out that kind of money for a play that is unknown. It’s too risky.”

Fried committed to selling out the entire run before it had even opened. Du Brock still said no, and explained “Our board would never allow me to do a play by you, Manny,” recalled Fried.

With time, the heat on Fried cooled down. In old age he found he was hotly in demand as an actor and able to play whatever roles he wanted without complication. He was among the first people I met in

Buffalo, when he appeared in Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance at The Playhouse on Main Street in 1981.

Although he did appear at Studio Arena, most recently in Tuesdays with Morrie, that theater would never produce one of his plays.

Whereas his early work focused entirely on union issues, Manny’s later work as a playwright made great use of his family conflicts.

Fried’s 1995 book, The UnAmerican, recounts his experiences in trying to handle himself in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1954 while keeping his family together. His wife, Rhoda, from a prominent Buffalo family that owned the Park Lane, had reached the breaking point in the face of all that publicity and its attendant harassment. Fried also recounted this history his play Elizabeth’s Story and in Boilermakers and Martinis. “Rhoda just couldn’t take it anymore, and was going to leave with the kids” said Fried. “At the same time, I felt I had the ethical responsibility to take the committee head on rather than retreat, and so I challenged the constitutionality of the enabling resolution establishing the committee. I tried to get them to indict me so they would have to either throw me in jail or disband the committee. They said they would indict me, but they never did. They wouldn’t risk it.

“My wife stayed; we were married 48 years.   We had our problems, stemming from those kinds of things, and it affected the rest of our married life. It never went away. Not only did her family own the Park Lane, she was one of the stock holders and that’s what caused the problems. She came from that world, and I was from the militant union world. Her world rejected her completely when she refused to leave me.

“Rhoda was a painter, the best artist in western New York, but her career as an artist was hampered by being married to me.”

While Manny’s long life meant he had experienced a great deal of loss – his wife, Rhoda, his protégée, playwright Rebecca Ritchie – but he also managed to live in the present. He developed numerous important friendships and was rewarded with loyalty that crossed generations. A regular Monday lunch bunch would meet him weekly at his home at Wynwood in Kenmore. In fact, a special gathering, honoring Manny’s 98th birthday, was planned for Monday. His daughters Mindy and Lorrie kept close tabs on their father and helped manage the flow of people as his health ebbed and flowed in recent years.

Manny Fried’s life serves as an inspiration and his legacy in Buffalo will endure for many years to come.


  • Mrk LLoyd

    Very nice story. I took one of Manny’s Playwright classes when I first came into the Theater world … over 12 years ago.

  • Bruce Beyer

    There are lots of so called union leaders but what set Manny apart was that he was a “progressive” union leader. He believed in universal health care and workers right to collective bargaining. He supported equal rights, a woman’s right to choose, and at his very core he opposed war. Thank you Anthony for his story well told!

  • Jim Holstun

    For Manny’s testimony to HUAC in 1957 (he comes alive in the reading), see http://www.archive.org/details/investigationofc19571unit. “First and Fifth, All the way!”

    Manny, come back! We need to clone you!

  • Jim Furdell

    I will dearly miss Manny although I was only a some-time actor in the parade of people who interacted with him. I was in the Buffalo Ensemble Theater in the ’80s when we did his “Dodo Bird”. Lots of conflict between him and the director if anybody remembers. I was the bartender to him in his “The Judge” and he did most of the talking of course. But I was honored to be on the same stage. I moved to Florida in the ’90s and wish I had seen more of his later work.

  • Doug Smith

    An incredibly fine and instructive story with a bumper crop of details… As I’ve mentioned in a few other places, one of my most vivid memories is of a Buffalo News city editor shredding a photo assignment and declaring that “no commie (so and so) is ever getting his picture in this paper”… it’s quite a testament, though, that one so once widely despised eventually dies as a Gandhi-esque role model… public enemy to national treasure, made in America, for sure…