Published 12/02/2012 | 05:00
The intense and powerful actor was best known for his work with John Cassavetes, writes John Riley
Ben Gazzara, who died on February 3, 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.
Biagio Anthony Gazzarra was born in New York on August 28, 1930, to Sicilian parents and lived on the city's working class Lower East Side.
Gazzara spent three years at the Actors' Studio but hated the label "method actor".
He began his stage and television careers in the early- Fifties 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 reprised his role 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.
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 Sixties Gazzara landed leading roles in two television series: the police series Arrest and Trial (1963-64), and Run for Your Life (1965-68).
He 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!"
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 their next film, 1976's Death of a Chinese Bookie, Gazzara was the star as Cosmo Vitelli, a club-owner lured into a bet and offered the chance to pay it off by performing the titular act. It is a bleak story, yet with an uplifting edge. 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 roller coaster as an actress (Cassavetes' wife, Gena Rowlands) is forced to face the fact that she is ageing, with little support from those around her including her former lover and now 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 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 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 and completed his autobiography. In 2002 he picked up an Emmy as the love interest of an ageing 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!
Ben Gazzara was married three times.