On March the 13th 1978, at the age of 42, John Cazale died. This great and unlucky actor only appeared in five movies, each of them nominated for an Oscar for best movie. Yet, he never received a nomination.
John Cazale was born on August the 12th 1935, in Revere, Massachusetts, from an Italian-American family, middle child of three. This apparently irrelevant detail, will actually play a part in Cazale’s career – along with the indisputable talent.
After studying Theater in Boston, he moved to New York, to become a professional actor. He does many jobs to make a living, also the courier, where he has no less than Al Pacino as a colleague. They find out that they both are aspiring actors while talking about a Chekhov book that Cazale brought to work.
By chance, the two will find each other years later, in 1968. They both are in the cast of the off-Broadway show The Indian Wants the Bronx, written by Israel Horovitz. Their friendship will last until the end.
In 1971, Francis Ford Coppola and the casting director Fred Roos are in New York, desperately looking for an actor for the role of Fredo, in the Godfather. Their friend Richard Dreyfuss takes the opportunity to have them in town to invite them to the off-Broadway show Line, also written by the prolific Horovitz, in which he has a part. Coppola and Roos notice an Italian-American name in the cast, that already catches their ears. They will find out later that he’s brilliant too.
In the documentary I knew it was you – from the iconic quote of the Godfather, when Michael/Pacino realizes that his brother Fredo/Cazale betrayed him – Coppola says that he immediately thought that Cazale transmitted “warmth and gentleness”, qualities that “he hoped for in Fredo”. He and Roos had no hesitation in casting him.
That will be John Cazale’s debut in cinema, next to giants like Pacino, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall. He interacted with them naturally, like a veteran, integrating perfectly.
The Conversation and The Godfather II
Coppola liked Cazale’s performance so much that he decided to write a part build on him in The Conversation, with Gene Hackman.
Then arrives The Godfather II, the final and inevitable consecration of John Cazale. Fredo is the traitor, even more “negative” than the other mobsters. Yet, he evolves in humanity, the opposite of Michael/Pacino, who gets more and more cynic and cold.
All the actors who worked with John Cazale couldn’t help but enhance his method. His ability not only to feel the character, but to help the colleagues to do the same. Al Pacino said that John taught him to ask himself questions without giving answers, to understand the character under every aspect and leave a lot of open doors.
For this reason, directors called him “20 questions”. He was never completely satisfied by the profiles of his characters. Seeing him at work was a lesson, said Pacino, adding that probably Cazale was the one who taught him more than anyone else in this field. He never started a scene by following the script, he stayed in silence until he was stimulated. Then he dragged you in improvisation, dictating the pace. Only when there was the right connection, he went back to the script.
Mark Harris, journalist and film historian, believes that his presence pushed the other actors toward amazing performances.
Dog Day Afternoon
In 1975 Dog Day Afternoon is released. The director Sidney Lumet thought of casting a nineteen-year-old as Pacino’s partner in the bank robbery. Pacino himself convinced Lumet to do an audition with 40-year-old Cazale, who easily passed it.
Compared to The Godfather, in this movie the roles are almost reversed. Pacino’s character is calmer, rational, under control. While Cazale is nervous, intense, sometimes grotesque, always about to snap. Lumet remembers the sensation of personal obscurity and sadness transmitted by Cazale’s face. That’s where his complexity was, putting tragic in comedy and vice-versa.
One of the funniest, actually tragicomic scene, stems from an improvisation. Pacino asks his partner where he would like to escape, as they’ll have to leave the United States and never come back. Cazale answers with a disarming and imperturbable “Wyoming”.
In the meanwhile, John Cazale had started a relationship with another great colleague, Meryl Streep. “John wasn’t like anybody else”, she remembers him and his, “humanity, curiosity about people, compassion. He took his time, and sometimes this drove people nuts!”. But without this obsessive care for details, he wouldn’t be the great man and actor he became.
If Meryl Streep, with all her experience and skill, was more “glib, ready to pick the first idea that came to me”. John repeated her that there were lot of other possibilities, “That was a real lesson. I really took that to heart”.
Cancer and The Deer Hunter
John was a heavy smoker and that lead to lung cancer. John faced it with strength and bravery, he wanted to keep acting. There were good signs, plus, as the colleagues said, he never looked so healthy, maybe he wasn’t that sick.
Michael Cimino was starting to shoot The Deer Hunter and, as John Cazale is in the cast, the producers need to decide what to do. What if he dies in the middle of the shooting? There were contracts, penalties, clauses, terms, maybe the need to find a replacement.
Cimino and Robert De Niro aren’t willing to negotiate. John stays – maybe his scenes will be shot first – or they will all leave. Meryl Streep even suspected that De Niro economically contributed to the realization of the movie, but he never admitted it, because he is “very generous”.
Death and legacy
Unfortunately, John Cazale died before The Deer Hunter was ready and distributed. It was just his fifth movie, nominated for an Academy Award like the others.
“Certain actors maybe push it too much, they’re over the top or under, or don’t know what they’re doing”, De Niro said. “I never felt that with John. There was no forced kind of acting, so you could relate and interact in a very solid way”.
Israel Horovitz, his first theater director, dedicated a touching eulogy to John Cazale.
“John Cazale happens once in a lifetime. He was an invention, a small perfection. It’s no wonder his friends feel such anger upon waking from their sleep to discover that Cazale sleeps on with kings and counsellors […].
John Cazale’s body betrayed him. His spirit will not. His whole life plays and replays as film, in our picture houses, in our dreams. He leaves us, his loving audience, a memory of his great calm, his quiet waiting, his love of high music, his love of low jokes, the absurd edge of the forest that was his hairline, the slice of watermelon that was his smile. He is unforgottable”.
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