Actors such as Marlon Brando, James Dean, Carroll Baker, Karl Malden, Patricia Neal, Terry Moore and Andy Griffith blossomed under his direction. The actors who worked with him adored -- and still adore -- him.
But not everybody adores him, because of his appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952, when he informed on eight of his friends from his Group Theatre days in the 1930s who, like him, had once belonged to the Communist Party.
When Kazan received an honorary Oscar in 1999, four years before his death, the wounds from his testimony opened once again.
Film historian and Brooklyn College professor Foster Hirsch hopes people can put aside their political feelings toward Kazan to explore the brilliance of his talent.
"I think his films from the 1950s, the good ones, are the best-acted films I have ever seen," said Hirsch. "I don't think there is an expiration date on this great acting. 'Baby Doll' and 'On the Waterfront' are like the best-acted films ever made."
Both of those movies are included in the American Cinematheque's "Waterfronts and Streetcars: An Elia Kazan Retrospective," which begins Thursday and concludes Sunday evening at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.
"He created virtually a new acting style, which was the style of the Method," Hirsch said of Kazan. "The Method allowed for the actors to create a great depth of psychological realism. It just went deeper than acting had done before."
Hirsch will be conducting discussions with actors from Kazan films at each program, which opens Thursday with 1957's dazzling "A Face in the Crowd," starring Griffith in his film debut as Lonesome Rhodes, an Arkansas derelict who becomes a TV sensation while crushing everyone around him. The second feature is the rarely seen 1960 drama "Wild River," with Montgomery Clift as a Tennessee Valley Authority representative who comes to a rural area to build a dam.
Neal, who co-stars in "A Face in the Crowd," is scheduled to be on hand to talk about the film. Kazan cast her (she portrays the small-town radio personality who discovers Rhodes) after directing her in a scene at the Actors Studio in New York.
"He was very good," Neal recalled. "He was an actor and he knew how we acted. He would come and talk to you privately. I liked him a lot."
Moore goes so far as to call him her best friend. The two became close when she played the feisty daughter of an Eastern Bloc circus manager in 1953's "Man on a Tightrope," which screens Friday, along with Kazan's Oscar-winning masterpiece "On the Waterfront," for which Brando won his first Oscar.
When Moore arrived to meet Kazan in New York for the audition, "I was just in jeans and a flight jacket. I went into the interview and all the other girls were all dressed up in their little cotton dresses. Kazan walked out into the ante room and said, 'You, come here.'
"We went out the door and we walked up and down the lot. He said, 'What can you do?' My agent had met me at the airport and told me the character rides horses and she's real mean. So I said, 'I can fly. I can break horses and I'm real mean.' "
Kazan hired her on the spot, Moore said. "He made you feel better than you thought you could be. I never had another director that ever touched him. I was spoiled for life."
Baker is expected at the Cinematheque on Saturday for the screening of "Baby Doll," for which she received an Oscar nomination for her seminal performance as a thumb-sucking child bride living in the South.
Kazan, said Baker, "would find out if your life was like the character or if there was a divergence between certain things in the character and you. He would say, 'Can't you find something in your life that was similar?' He was the best director with actors."
His last great film, 1963's "America America,' screens Sunday. The Oscar-nominated epic is based on the story of Kazan's uncle, a young Greek man living in Turkey, circa 1900, who becomes obsessed with coming to the United States. Not only is it his most personal film, but it was also Kazan's favorite.
Appearing at that screening will be cinematographer Haskell Wexler and actors Lou Antonio and Stathis Giallelis, the Greek actor who plays Kazan's uncle.
Kazan's secret, said Giallelis, was that he made actors feel comfortable. "He also taught you," he added. "Every day I was learning and he told me he was learning too. He was always very open to people's suggestions. He would tell me, 'I want this to come out in this scene.' I was quite free to do what I wanted to do. If he didn't like it, he would tell me, 'This isn't quite what I wanted.' He gave me a lot of freedom, but he had a lot of control. He knew what he wanted from each actor."