Ben Gazzara: Intense and powerful actor best known for his work with John Cassavetes


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The Independent Online

Ben Gazzara managed a career that embraced critically acclaimed independent and art-house films, popular movies, television and stage. He may be best known for three searing performances in John Cassavetes films but also worked with directors such as Otto Preminger, Spike Lee, the Coens and Lars von Trier. He claimed that youthful idealism made him turn down a lot of roles but in later years he refused few jobs, simply to maintain a comfortable lifestyle. In such a prolific career his ability to make the smallest gesture register means he is often better than the films he is in.

Gazzara's Sicilian parents lived on New York's working class Lower East Side; his father was a carpenter. Gazzara spent three years at the Actors' Studio but hated the label "Method Actor", saying, "The Actors' Studio was a special place which furnished a good many American actors for a time, but that doesn't mean anything except that good actors came from there."

Gazzara began his stage and television careers in the early 1950s and was soon also appearing in films. In 1952 he made his Broadway debut in Calder Willingham's End as a Man, a scathingly anti-macho story set in a military academy. Five years later he and most of the cast reprised their roles in the film adaptation The Strange One. Meanwhile, in 1955 and 1956 Gazzara was on Broadway again, playing the lead in Elia Kazan's premiere production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opposite Barbara Bel Geddes, and, opposite Shelley Winters, in Frank Corsaro's production of A Hatful of Rain. But despite racking up more than 1,000 performances, Gazzara along with most of the rest of the cast members were replaced for the film versions. Gazzara continued to appear on the stage throughout his career but these were his most successful outings.

At the same time he was appearing in television drama, but in 1959 he appeared in his first major film, Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder. Gazzara made a powerful mark as the loutish US Army lieutenant charged with murdering the man accused of raping his wife.

In the 1960s Gazzara landed leading roles in a couple of television series: the police series Arrest and Trial (1963-64), and Run for Your Life (1965-68), in which he played a lawyer with two years to live who works through his "bucket list". Though he hated the show's predictability, he directed a few episodes, later adding some superior Columbo's.

Gazzara was making the war film The Bridge at Remagen when the Soviet tanks rolled into Prague. The next day John Cassavetes, who had already sounded Gazzara out for his next film, excitedly rang: "Ben, don't get killed: I've got the money for Husbands!" Leaving the country, the Gazzaras, helped by Robert Vaughn, smuggled their Czech nanny over the border. His later account of the event is relatively blasé, where Vaughn's reads like a thriller.

In Husbands (1970) Gazzara, Cassavetes and Peter Falk play three men plunged into mid-life crisis by a friend's death. Its rambling structure exasperated some critics while others hailed the emotional honesty – in fact, closer to a full-frontal attack on its characters, which according to co-star Jenny Runacre were not that far from the actors' own. It was not a huge financial success but the stars cut an extremely profitable deal.

In their next film, 1976's Death of a Chinese Bookie, Gazzara was the undoubted star as Cosmo Vitelli, a club-owner lured into a stupid bet and offered the chance to pay it off through performing the titular act. It is a bleak story, yet with an uplifting edge as the wounded Vitelli, essentially an honourable if lonely figure, returns to his club to see that everything is in order and to gee up the performers, who are unaware of what has happened. Gazzara completely inhabited the role: the merest flick of an eye gives an insight into Vitelli's soul, as he desperately tries to find a compromise deal.

Opening Night (1977) is another emotional rollercoaster as an actress (Cassavetes' wife, Gena Rowlands) is forced to face the fact that she is aging, with little support from those around her including her former lover and now her director Manny Victor (Gazzara).

Peter Bogdanovich described Gazzara as having "the conscience of an artist" and directed him in two under-rated films, Saint Jack (1979) and They All Laughed (1981) with Audrey Hepburn, with whom he had a brief affair after they had worked on the international jet-set thriller Bloodline (1979). He also played the poet Charles Bukowski in Tales of Ordinary Madness (1981).

Gazzara's second divorce encouraged a procession of Italian films and US TV movies of little distinction, though there were bright spots, including David Mamet's Spanish Prisoner (1997) and a cameo in the Coen Brothers' The Big Lebowski (1998). In 1999 he played a mobster in Spike Lee's Summer of Sam (1999) and, in an appropriately smooth performance, a smooth lawyer in the smooth remake of The Thomas Crown Affair. A more offbeat project was Lars von Trier's minimalist Dogville (2003).

In 1999 Gazzara was diagnosed with throat cancer but he continued to work – again often retreating to Italy – and completed his autobiography. In 2002 he picked up an Emmy as the love interest of an aging waitress (Gena Rowlands) in Hysterical Blindness, and the following year he developed a one-man show about the legendary baseball catcher Yogi Berra, Nobody Don't Like Yogi. In 2006 he returned to Broadway for a revival of Clifford Odets' Awake and Sing!

Biagio Anthony Gazzarra (Ben Gazzara), actor, director and writer: born New York 28 August 1930; married 1951 Louise Erickson (divorced 1957), 1961 Janice Rule (divorced 1982; one daughter), 1982 Elka Stuckman (one daughter); died New York 3 February 2012.