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Remembering Manny Fried | The Nation

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Remembering Manny Fried

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This appreciation was originally published in the February 25, 2011 issue of the award-winning Buffalo News.

Manny Fried, the actor, union organizer and prolific playwright who stood up to McCarthyism and served as an outspoken champion of the working class, died early Friday morning in a Kenmore nursing home. He was 97.

Even until this year, he remained a guiding presence in Buffalo's theater, literary and social activist communities and was widely regarded as the most important figure on Buffalo's theater scene. "He was a passionate, hardworking man devoted to hardworking people," said Lorrie Rabin, Fried's daughter. "He was very focused on his politics and his social beliefs. He was a man with a purpose."

Once dubbed "the most dangerous man in Western New York" for his union-organizing activities and association with the Communist Party, Fried was the subject of government investigations and public recriminations for much of his life. He was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee at least twice, in 1954 and 1964, each time refusing to answer questions posed by the committee or to give names of other suspected communists.

In a 2007 interview, Fried recalled his response to the committee's questions with a few simple sentences. "My answer will be, I will not answer. The First and the Fifth," he said, invoking constitutional amendments. "Or in other words, it's none of your business."

During the McCarthy era, he was blacklisted and prevented from working in the United States by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He found work at a Canadian company as an insurance salesman.

But Fried, whose friends described him as stoic and unwavering in his convictions, was no Willy Loman. For the rest of his life, he continued to write and speak out about the perceived abuses of the government and the plight of the working class in his plays, essays, newspaper articles and public appearances.

In 1972, he began his tenure as an English and creative writing professor at Buffalo State College, where he remained on the full-time faculty until 1983 and taught as an adjunct professor until 2008. During his time at Buffalo State, he mentored dozens of local playwrights.

Fried drew on his experiences as a labor organizer for his writing, which focused primarily on the plight of working men and women. In a career that spanned more than eight decades, Fried penned more than two dozen plays, including the commercially successful "Drop Hammer" and "Dodo Bird," each of which has been frequently produced outside of Buffalo.

Emanuel J. Fried was born March 1, 1913 in Brooklyn to Austro-Hungarian immigrants. His family relocated a few years later to Buffalo, where his father operated a dry goods store on Genesee Street. He attended Schools 37 and 47 and Hutchinson-Central High School.

As a boy, Fried worked as a bellhop and elevator operator at downtown hotels, a concessionaire at Offerman Stadium and as a theater usher, shoe salesman and newsboy.

At the urging of a high school teacher, Mr. Fried wrote his first play at 14, about the prostitutes he met while working as a bellboy at the Ford Hotel at Delaware Avenue and Chippewa Street.

Under the stage name Edward Mann, Fried appeared in many plays on Broadway and on national tours, including "Having a Wonderful Time," "American Way," "Crime and Punishment" and "They Shall Not Die." He worked with members of the famed Group Theatre in New York City and was a close friend of its most prominent member, the theater and film director Elia Kazan.

After moving back to Buffalo in 1939, Fried served as co-chairman of the UAW-CIO Volunteer Organizing Committee at the Curtiss-Wright airplane factory, where he worked as a template maker. On behalf of United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, known as the UE, he organized workers at Wurlitzer, Spaulding Fibre, Buffalo Bolt, Columbus McKinnon, Wales-Strippit, Pratt & Letchworth, Otis Elevator and Blaw-Knox.

During World War II, Fried served with the 20th Infantry in the Pacific Theater and rose to the rank of first lieutenant before being discharged in November 1945. He also served for a short time as director of the Buffalo Contemporary Theatre, a company that produced plays about the working class. It was at a Buffalo Contemporary Theatre variety show that he met his future wife, Rhoda Lurie, the daughter of an aristocratic Buffalo family, to whom he was married for 48 years.

The Lurie family owned the Park Lane Restaurant and apartment building on Gates Circle, once considered the nexus of Buffalo's upper-class social life. Fried made no secret that straddling the world of labor-organizing and the rarefied social atmosphere of the Park Lane was often a tenuous balancing act. That struggle, like much else in Fried's life, found its way into his writing, in pieces like the 2007 one-man show "Boilermakers and Martinis" and last year's memoir, "Most Dangerous Man."

Mindy Fried, Manny's other daughter, remembered her father as a man of ironclad will, an attribute he said came from his own parents, who struggled through hardships of their own. "He had incredible integrity, and I learned the value of standing up for what you believe in despite the odds," Mindy Fried said. "I think he suffered a lot through his life but continued to be a loving and giving person. The older he got, the more generous he became."

Darleen Pickering Hummert, Fried's longtime friend and director of Theater for Change, called him "absolutely the patriarch" of the Western New York theater world, a man who mentored dozens of playwrights and helped to create and foster several local organizations.

"He had so many different communities that he touched: Buffalo State College, the labor community, the theater community and numerous others," Hummert said. "Loyalty was his middle name."

Actress Rosalind Cramer, who worked with Fried on the Buffalo theater scene for more than 30 years, said he was "an unforgettable personality."

"He always had an idea in his head. He always wanted to do something. He always wanted to write something or perform something," Cramer said. "He made everyone that he was with feel that they were important to him. And they were."

In 2008, the Subversive Theatre Collective christened its new space, in a former factory on Great Arrow Avenue, the Manny Fried Playhouse. Kurt Schneiderman, the company's artistic director, called Fried "one of the famous subversives of Buffalo history."

As Fried's health declined over the past two years, friends visited him in his Kenmore assisted living facility during a weekly event called "Mondays with Manny," inspired by Fried's well-received performance in a 2005 Studio Arena Theatre production of "Tuesdays with Morrie." Another gathering had been scheduled for this coming Monday, a day before his 98th birthday.

Fried often boasted that he came from good stock - his mother lived to be 99 and his father 97. When anyone brought up the subject of his political enemies, most of whom passed away decades ago, Fried would often reply: "Living longer is the best revenge."

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