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Overview for Ben Gazzara
Ben Gazzara

Ben Gazzara



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Also Known As: Biagio Anthony Gazzara Died: February 3, 2012
Born: August 28, 1930 Cause of Death: Pancreatic Cancer
Birth Place: New York, New York, USA Profession: Cast ... actor director screenwriter


Branded the toast of Broadway for his incendiary performances in such theatrical milestones of the 1950s as Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and Michael V. Gazzo's "A Hatful of Rain," Ben Gazzara came a long way from his upbringing in Manhattan's Gashouse District during the Great Depression, becoming in the course of only a few years of his burgeoning career, the nation's preeminent Italian-American actor, 20 years ahead of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. After making an indelible impression in Otto Preminger's "Anatomy of a Murder" (1959), he was resigned to the middling career of a jobbing actor through the Sixties, until the following decade, when his craft was revived through a partnership with filmmaker John Cassavetes on the controversial films "Husbands" (1970) and "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie" (1976). He would go on to impress audiences with his roles in "Capone" (1975), "They All Laughed" (1981), "Buffalo '66" (1998) and "Dogville" (2003). Rediscovered at the turn of the century by a new generation of indie filmmakers, Gazzara remained an in-demand character actor and a surviving link to both the Golden Age of Broadway and live television and the birth of the American independent film movement.

Ben Gazzara was born on Aug. 28, 1930, in the Italian Hospital on Manhattan's Lower East Side. The son of immigrant Sicilian bricklayer Antonio Gazzara and his wife, the former Angelina Cusumano, Biagio Anthony Gazzara grew up in a series of coldwater flats. Raised in a tight-knit Irish-Italian community that was home to over 200 of his relatives, Gazzara spoke Italian as a first language and lost his father when he was a teenager. While many of his childhood chums slipped by dint of poverty into a life of petty crime, Gazzara developed a taste for acting at the Madison Square Boys Club across the street from his tenement. The deep-voiced Gazzara was cast in his first play, as an elderly Arab in Lord Dunsany's "The Gods of the Mountain." The show's director, Howard Sinclair, became a mentor to Bennie Gazzara and was his direct inspiration for a future as an actor.

As a disinterested student at the elite math and science-focused Stuyvesant High School, Gazzara often cut class to go see movies starring his heroes, James Cagney, John Garfield and Edward G. Robinson. Redirected to the private St. Simon Stock in the Bronx, Gazzara's grades improved and he lost interest in acting with the departure of Howard Sinclair from the Madison Boys Club. Odd jobs during his teenage years included working the counter at Whelan's Drug Store near Grand Central Station and running the elevator at the Hotel Sheraton on 35th Street. After his high school graduation in 1947, the year his father passed away, Gazzara studied engineering in night classes at City College of New York while working a series of menial day jobs. Accompanying a buddy to a workshop production of Jean-Paul Sartre's "The Flies," he found his interest in acting renewed. Quitting night school, Gazzara applied for and was granted a scholarship to Erwin Piscator's Dramatic Workshop at the New School for Social Research.

As Gazzara matured in his craft, he was excited and inspired by "The Method," a bold new style of performing espoused by the founders of The Actor's Studio. Auditioning for Studio founders Lee Strasberg, Elia Kazan and Cheryl Crawford, Gazzara was accepted into the pioneering theatrical program and stayed there for the next three years. Cast as rebellious military cadet Jocko de Paris in Calder Willingham's semibiographical "End as a Man" in 1953, Gazzara transferred with the production to Broadway, where it ran for four months. In 1955, Gazzara returned to the Great White Way as the tortured Brick in Elia Kazan's original Broadway staging of Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." Co-starring Barbara Bel Geddes and Burl Ives, the production ran for 694 performances at New York's Morosco Theater. In 1956, Gazzara was nominated for a Best Actor Tony Award for playing charismatic heroin addict Johnny Pope in Frank Corsaro's production of Michael V. Gazzo's "A Hatful of Rain." During this time he also performed on live television in a handful of CBS anthologies, among them "Medallion Theatre" (1953-54), "Danger" (1950-55) and "Playhouse 90" (1956-1961).

In 1957, Gazzara traveled to Florida to make his feature film debut in "The Strange One" (1957), an independently-financed adaptation of "End as a Man." In 1959, he supported James Stewart, Lee Remick and George C. Scott in Otto Preminger's controversial courtroom drama "Anatomy of a Murder." Able by this point to choose his projects, Gazzara returned to his roots in the theatre, performing in summer stock in Florida and throughout New England. In 1958, he returned to Broadway for the short run of Gazzo's "The Night Circus," co-starring Janice Rule, who became his second wife. Gazzara's films through the Sixties were mostly unremarkable, although "The Passionate Thief" (1960) gave him an opportunity to travel to Rome to work with acclaimed actress Anna Magnani and veteran Italian comic, Toto. He enjoyed leading roles in "The Young Doctors" (1961) with Fredric March and "Convicts 4" (1962) opposite Rod Steiger and Vincent Price. On television, he appeared in 30 episodes of the groundbreaking "Arrest and Trial" (1963-64) and picked up an easy paycheck as the globetrotting star of "Run for Your Life" (1965-68).

It was Gazzara's association with independent filmmaker John Cassavetes that altered the course of his later career. Gazzara barely knew the mercurial Cassavetes, despite the fact that both had once acted together in a live TV production. For "Husbands" (1970), Cassavetes cast himself, Gazzara and Peter Falk as middle-aged men mourning the death of a mutual friend via a booze-fueled pilgrimage from New York to London. The project was providential for Gazzara, whose career had hit the doldrums of soulless for-hire work. With start-up money provided by a dodgy Italian count and the actors deferring their salaries until the film could be sold, the experience was an invigorating gamble that revitalized Gazzara. Despite nearly coming to blows over the film's protracted editing process, Gazzara and Cassavetes would enjoy a working friendship that endured through several feature films and ended only with Cassavetes' death in 1989.

Gazzara's résumé through the next two decades was not without its low points, but highlights included the lead in the mobster biopic "Capone" (1975), star turns in Cassavetes' "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie" (1976) and "Opening Night" (1977), the title role in Peter Bogdanovich's "St. Jack" (1978, and as a dissolute poet in Marco Ferreri's "Tales of Ordinary Madness" (1978). The actor carried on a clandestine love affair with co-star Audrey Hepburn during the making of the trashy whodunit "Bloodline" (1980) in Europe and Bogdanovich's comedy "They All Laughed" (1981) in Manhattan, bringing an end to his marriage to Janice Rule. On the small screen, Gazzara excelled in the made-for-TV movies "QB VII" (1974), "The Death of Ritchie" (1977) and "An Early Frost" (1985), one of the first Hollywood films to deal openly with AIDS. Gazzara's paycheck from his villainous turn in "Road House" (1989) enabled him to make his directorial debut with "Beyond the Ocean" (1990), filmed entirely on location on the island of Bali.

Vincent Gallo's casting of Gazzara as his apoplectic father in "Buffalo 66" (1998) made the nearly 70-year-old actor a marketable name in the New York independent film scene. Gazzara contributed similarly high-octane supporting performances to Todd Solondz's "Happiness" (1998), John Turturro's "Illuminata" (1998) and Spike Lee's "Summer of Sam" (1999). Additionally, he added value to the ensembles of the Coen Brothers' "The Big Lebowski" (1998) and Lars von Trier's "Dogville" (2003) and acted with John Cassavetes' widow, Gena Rowlands, in the "Quartier Latin" segment of the French omnibus "Paris, je'taime" (2006), directed by Frédéric Auburtin. Despite radical surgery for throat cancer in 1999 and bouts with depression, Ben Gazzara continued to work steadily, while also publishing his memoirs, In the Moment: My Life as an Actor. The actor was eventually felled by his cancer, dying at age 81 on Feb. 3, 2012.

By Richard Harland Smith

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