Family & Companions
While he only made five pictures in his all too brief career, noted supporting actor John Cazale made the most of his brief time on screen before his life was cut short by bone cancer. Having had his start on the stage with notable performances in off-Broadway productions, Cazale was cast by director Francis Ford Coppola to play the weak and ineffectual Fredo Corleone in "The Godfather" (1972). His part was small and less fiery than those of co-stars Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, James Caan and Robert Duvall, but Cazale gave everything he had and made his moments count. Coppola cast him again as Gene Hackman's sound assistant in the paranoid thriller "The Conversation" (1974) and expanded Fredo's role significantly for "The Godfather, Par II" (1974). Cazale shined as the traitorous Fredo in the second installment, but really came into his own opposite Pacino in Sidney Lumet's "Dog Day Afternoon" (1975), which marked the best collaboration between the two acting partners. After returning to the stage and falling deeply in love with a then-unknown Meryl Streep, Cazale received a terminal prognosis of bone cancer, which almost jeopardized him being cast in Michael Cimino's "The Deer Hunter" (1978). Cazale's scenes were filmed quickly and died before the film was released, leaving behind a brief legacy that included only five films, but all of which were nominated for Best Picture.
Born on Aug. 12, 1935 in Boston, MA, Cazale was raised the middle child of three by his father, a wholesale coal salesman, and his homemaker mother. His father traveled for work across New England and was rarely home, leaving Cazale and his two siblings, Stephen and Catharine, to spend most of their time with their mother, Cecilia. After studying acting at Oberlin College and earning his bachelor's degree in performing arts from Boston University, Cazale moved to New York City to become an actor. To make ends meet, he worked sporadically as a taxi driver, a photographer and a messenger for Standard Oil, where he met another struggling actor named Al Pacino. They fell out of touch for a few years, while Cazale appeared in such plays as "The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window" and "The Contractor." He reunited with Pacino during the 1967-68 theater season when the two co-starred in Israel Horovitz's "The Indian Wants the Bronx," which earned him an OBIE Award for Distinguished Performance. Cazale won a second OBIE in 1968 in the same category for his performance in Horovitz's one-act absurdist drama, "Line," which featured a young Richard Dreyfus in the lead.
The following year, Cazale co-starred with Pacino in "The Local Stigmatic" (1969), but it was the strength of his performance in "Line" that attracted the attention of director Francis Ford Coppola, who was having trouble casting the role of Fredo Corleone for "The Godfather" (1972). Coppola had auditioned a number of actors for the part and found no one suitable to play the weak son of Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando). But his attention was called to Cazale, who was performing in "Line" at the time, and the director knew right away that he had found his actor. Though not prominent in "The Godfather," often lingering in the background in the film's first scenes, Cazale made the most of his time on the screen, particularly when he failed to protect his father, leading to the Don being hit by thugs while shopping for fruit. All of Fredo's weakness and inability to lead the family was brilliantly portrayed by Cazale, whose breakdown next to his father's bleeding body was one of the shining moments in the film.
Cazale worked again with Coppola on the director's critically acclaimed paranoid thriller "The Conversation" (1974), in which he played the assistant of surveillance expert, Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), hired to track a young couple (Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest), only to uncover a conspiracy to commit murder. Once again, his part was small, but he made a lasting impression while bringing out the best in his co-stars. Cazale reprised Fredo for a more prominent supporting performance in Coppola's multi-Oscar winning sequel, "The Godfather, Part II" (1974). Though he is now one of Michael's underbosses who runs a Las Vegas nightclub, Fredo has been given no real power, making him feel that he has been passed over for being head of the family. These feelings of inadequacy - underscored in early scenes where he is mocked by his inebriated wife for not being a real man - eventually lead Fredo to betray Michael (Pacino) to rival gangster Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg). That betrayal results in Roth putting out a hit on Michael, who learns that his own brother went against him. Cazale's final scene with Pacino, where years of Fredo's frustrations boil over, was nothing short of brilliant and should have propelled him to an Academy Award nomination. Instead, Cazale's finely tuned work was once again overlooked.
His finest screen performance came with his next film, "Dog Day Afternoon" (1975), Sidney Lumet's tense crime thriller based on real events from 1972 that also doubled as a searing commentary on overzealous police. Cazale played the dark and brooding Sal Naturile, who helps his desperate friend Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino) rob a Chase Manhattan bank in Brooklyn in order to help pay for a sex change operation for Sonny's so-called wife, Leon (Chris Sarandon). Slow-witted and trigger-ready, Cazale's Sal was perfectly portrayed by the actor and was the perfect compliment to Pacino's intense and often manic Sonny. Though he earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor, Cazale - much like Fredo in "The Godfather, Part II" - was once again passed over by the Academy. Still, his performance opposite Pacino marked a true high point in their collaborations. Meanwhile, Cazale returning to the stage alongside Pacino to co-star in a production of Bertolt Brecht's gangster saga "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui" (1975) at the Charles Playhouse in Boston.
The following year, Cazale delivered an against type performance as the imperious Angelo to Meryl Streep's headstrong Isabella in the New York Shakespeare Festival's Central Park production of "Measure for Measure" (1976), which also marked the beginning of the romantic relationship between him and the then-unknown Streep. But the union proved brief, as Cazale was diagnosed with terminal bone cancer. His diagnosis was so fast and severe that Cazale had become uninsurable, making him a liability for Universal Pictures, which was financing Michael Cimino's unrelenting Vietnam War drama, "The Deer Hunter" (1978). Cimino fought adamantly for Cazale to play Stanley and eventually won his actor when co-stars Robert De Niro and Streep threatened to walk if he was not cast. Cimino moved the film's schedule around so that Cazale's scenes would be filmed first. In the end, it was clear that the effects of his deadly cancer were beginning to show. Still, the actor was able to craft yet another memorable performance. Cazale never saw the finished product, as he died on March 12, 1978. He was 42. Though he only appeared in five films in his career, all five were nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Friends like Pacino, De Niro, Streep and Hackman deeply mourned his loss, and years later expressed their love of the man and his acting talent in the documentary, "I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale" (HBO, 2009). Of Cazale, Pacino said, "All I wanted to do was work with John for the rest of my life. He was my acting partner."
By Shawn Dwyer
Cast (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Special)
First made mark Off-Broadway in "Line" "The Indian Want The Bronx", by Israel Horowitz; first collaboration with Al Pacino
Appeared onstage with Pacino in "The Local Stigmatic"
Feature film debut as Fredo Corleone, the middle son, in "The Godfather", directed by Francis Ford Coppola and co-starring Pacino
Reteamed with Coppola as Gene Hackman's assistant in "The Conversation"
Reprised role of Fredo Corleone in "The Godfather, Part II"; earned Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination
Co-starred with Pacino in Sidney Lumet's "Dog Day Afternoon"
Appeared in support of Pacino in "The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui" at the Charles Playhouse in Boston, MA
Co-starred opposite Meryl Streep in New York Shakespeare Festival production of "Measure for Measure"
Final film, "The Deerhunter", co-starring Streep