Elia Kazan’s “On the Waterfront” — Who Was Johnny Friendly?

Classic Film Features Marlon Brando Playing Christ as an Informer

Jon Hopwood
3 min readMay 15, 2023
Theatrical poster for Columbia’s 1954 release of On the Waterfront (Public Domain, Wikipedia Commons)

On the Waterfront remains one of the undisputed American cinema classics, except for a mild backlash against Elia Kazan by leftist intellectuals for glorifying an informer.

In 1952, Kazan testified as a “Friendly Witness” before the House Un-American Activities Committee and “Named Names.” McCarthyism was like a high tide flooding in before its peak.

Kazan’s Naming Names was was a public act of contrition by the former Communist Party USA member, who was already a legend, having shepherded The Skin of Our Teeth, A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman to the Broadway stage.

The three plays won the Pulitzer Prize for Thornton Wilder, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, and achieved theatrical immortality.

Having won a reputation as the greatest director on the Broadway stage in the mid-20th Century, Kazan had also made his mark in motion pictures. He won the Academy Award for Best Director for Gentleman’s Agreement.

On the Waterfront would bring him his second Best Director Oscar.

The character played by Lee J. Cobb (Michael Skelly a.k.a. Johnny Friendly) in On the Waterfront was based not on Albert Anastassia, the notorious Mafiosi who was head of Murder Inc., but on his brother, Anthony Anastasio. (Albert changed the family name.) Though filmed in Hoboken, New Jersey, the film seems to be set in Brooklyn. “Tough Tony” Anastassio was the head of Brooklyn Local 1814 of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA), and served as ILA vice president under President Joseph P. Ryan.

Fond of expensive clothes (like Johnny Friendly) and the high life, Tough Tony was the boss of the Brooklyn docks from 1932 through his death in 1963, though his power was diminished somewhat by the murder of his brother Albert in 1957.

The Johnny Friendly character is Irish (Skelly), an ethnic group who dominated the Manhattan docks. Italian-Americans were the dominant ethnic group in the Brooklyn longshoreman’s union, which was dominated by Italians. On the New Jersey docks, the longshoreman’s union was controlled by of Charlie “The Jew” Yanowsky.

By 1950, four years before On the Waterfront was shot, African Americans had their own “Jim Crow” (segregated) local, Local #968, but their inability to control a pier (unlike the Irish and the Italians) meant that their employment was unsteady, and they were mostly were hired as fill-ins/back-up workers at the shape up, as depicted by the one black actor in the movie. LIke all the white longshoremen, they were required to pay kickbacks to obtain a job.

The Irish-American Joe Ryan, ILA President, exercised suzerainty over the Manhattan docks, his power backed up by Irish gangs, but ultimately, the New York-New Jersey waterfront was controlled by the New York City Mafia. Prominent Mafia chieftains, including Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky, were some of the organized crime heavyweights who had a huge stake in waterfront corruption, both in union control and the organized theft of cargoes. In addition to Albert “The Lord High Executioner” Anastassia, other notorious killers such as Louis “Lepke” Buchalter provided the muscle.

It was the Mafia who murdered the progressive labor union organizer Pietro “Pete” Panto (1911–1939) in 1939. Panto was a Brooklyn longshoreman, who along with other reform-minded longshoremen affiliated with the American Labor Party and the Communist Party, who were agitating for union reform in the ILA. It was the murder of Pete Panto that first interested Arthur Miller in the story of waterfront corruption, influencing his screenplay “The Hook” that he and Eliza Kazan tried to make.

By 1949, an estimated $100 million ($1.2 billion in 2022 dollars) in cargoes were being stolen annually.

Tough Tony, like Albert, was a made member of the Mafia. Thus, when Johnny Friendly toward the end of the film says that he will deal with Terry himself (kill him), that is something that could be expected of someone like Tough Tony Anastassia.

In fact, in Budd Schulberg’s novel based on his screenplay, Terry Malloy is killed. The symbolism of Terry as a Christ figure is completed in the novel, as it was not in the classic motion picture.