We will miss Ben Gazzara….a great actor…thank you for the memories..
Pass it on,
Few screen debuts have equalled the searing malevolence of Ben Gazzara’s Iago-inspired Jocko de Paris in The Strange One (1957). The role, which he had created on stage, became forever associated with this intense graduate of New York’s method school of acting.
Gazzara, who has died aged 81, continued his stage career in modern classics including Epitaph for George Dillon and as the humiliated and vengeful George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? He also achieved popular acclaim through television series – notably Run for Your Life – and in movies for his friend John Cassavetes and other directors including Otto Preminger, Peter Bogdanovich, David Mamet, Todd Solandz and the Coen brothers.
Gazzara was born to Sicilian immigrants and grew up on Manhattan’s lower east side. He began acting at the Madison Square Boy’s Club and made a teenage debut in a TV dramatisation of a short play by Tennessee Williams. After gaining a scholarship to Erwin Piscator’s drama workshop, he eventually moved to the equally legendary Actor’s Studio headed by Lee Strasberg.
His stage debut was in Pennsylvania, then on tour, in Jezebel’s Husband but his career took off when – aged 23 – he created Jocko in Calder Willingham’s adaptation of his own novel End as a Man. When a revised version of the play transferred to the Vanderbilt Theatre, Gazzara received the New York critics’ award as “most promising young actor”.
Its director, Jack Garfein, an assistant to Elia Kazan, took four years to get the movie version financed and in the interim Gazzara gained experience as the original Brick in Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and as the drug-addicted Johnny in A Hatful of Rain, where his darkly handsome features and forceful acting were distinct assets.
Although The Strange One looked overly theatrical, Gazzara’s pared-down performance survived the lumpen direction, revealing a natural screen presence. The sombre work about a duplicitous cadet leader, who manipulates an army camp in the deep south, was not a popular success and Gazzara returned to the stage until cast as the equally venal, though more enigmatic, soldier Lieutenant Manion in Preminger’s courtroom masterpiece Anatomy of a Murder (1959).
These movies were hard acts to follow and Gazzara, who spoke Italian before he learned English, returned to his roots to star opposite Anna Magnani in The Passionate Thief (1960). It was the start of a lifetime affair with Italy, where he was to work and live for many months each year and where he eventually bought a villa in Umbria.
The following year Gazzara married Janice Rule (having divorced his first wife in 1957) and took the role of the idealistic pathologist in The Young Doctors. He then co-starred opposite David Niven in The Captive City, a lacklustre war movie set in Athens. A challenging role as the convicted murderer turned painter John Resko better reflected Gazzara’s ambitions, but Convicts Four was not a hit and he moved into television, first as the detective in Arrest and Trial and then as the dying Paul Bryan in Run For Your Life (1965-68).
Gazzara was one of several stars coaxed into a cameo role in If It’s Tuesday, This Must be Belgium (1969). Fortuitously, another was Cassavetes and, after working on the liberal documentary King: A Filmed Record … Montgomery to Memphis, Gazzara joined Peter Falk and Cassavetes as the eponymous Husbands in the latter’s improvised study of marital discord.
Gazzara took a decidedly less comedic role as the murderous stripclub owner Cosmo Vitelli in Cassavetes’s edgy thriller The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) and a year later played Manny Victor in the director’s masterpiece Opening Night. After the director’s untimely death, Gazzara appeared in several documentaries about his friend, notably Anything for John (1995), which reflected the admiration felt by his peers for that maverick filmmaker.
Gazzara had established a willingness to work outside the commercial mainstream, specialising in anti-social characters including a plumply brutish Al Capone, but his career wavered between quality and dross, film and television and work in the US, Italy and a few other countries, notching up over 80 movies in the years following his initial collaboration with Cassavetes.
These included the free-spirited Saint Jack (1979) in Peter Bogdanovich’s elegant rendition of Paul Theroux’s novel and – two years later, also for Bogdanovich – a co-starring role opposite Audrey Hepburn in They All Laughed, an underrated but commercially disastrous variation on love’s roundabout.
Following a second divorce Gazzara worked for a decade in Italy, returning to the US only for lucrative TV movies, including A Question of Honour (1982), A Letter to Three Wives and the Aids drama An Early Frost (both 1985), Road House (1989) and Blindsided (1993).
In Europe he portrayed the disillusioned beat poet Charles Bukowski in Tales of Ordinary Madness (1981), was a professor in Il Camorrista (1985) and a less amiable Don in Don Bosco (1988). Although he had directed episodes of Columbo for his friend Peter Falk, he only graduated to the big screen in 1990 with the little-seen Beyond the Ocean, shot in Bali.
Soon after that Italian-financed movie he again concentrated on work in America, averaging five films or TV movies each year, while dividing his time between homes in Umbria, New York City, and Sag Harbor, New York state.
Highlights of this busy period included Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner (1997), where he played the mysterious Mr Klein; cult success Buffalo ’66; the black comedy The Big Lebowski; and the controversial Happiness (all 1988). He was well cast as a gang leader in Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam and moved to the other side of the fence as a smooth lawyer in the glossy The Thomas Crown Affair (1999).
Dozens of other films were routine and he freely admitted that “these days I turn nothing down in order to maintain a comfortable and happy life with my third and last wife”.
Despite debilitating treatment for throat cancer, in 1999 he published an autobiography and worked steadily for the next decade, notching up over 30 credits, from television series to leading roles in features, many made in Europe, often in his beloved Italy. There he worked in TV, was on location in Calabria for Secret Heart (2003), in Umbria for a brilliant cameo in Christophe Roth and moved to Spain for Schubert, to Belgium for Chez Nico and for the title role in Godbye Michel. In 2008 he took the name role in Looking for Palladin, about a former Hollywood star who hides from fame in Guatemala.
He enjoyed his role as the Vatican’s banker in Holy Money, but most rewarding of the many films were a short, Eve, cleverly directed by Natalie Portman, with Lauren Bacall, and the two films with Gena Rowlands, echoing their John Cassavetes days. He took a supporting cameo to her lead in the superior television movie Hysterical Blindness (2002), and four years later they played a two-hander as part of the portmanteau film Paris, Je t’aime, in a bittersweet episode where, as in later works, a recent stroke affected his speech, though never his courage or professionalism.
Ben Gazzara: born Biagio Anthony Gazzara, 28 August 1930, New York City; died Friday 3 February 2012, New York City.
Married Louise Erickson (1951-1957); Janice Rule (1961-1979); Elke Krivat (1982)
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