Feb 6, 2012

Ben Gazzara (1930 - 2012)

Actor Ben Gazzara has died, leaving a legacy of stage, television and film work dating back to the 1950s. Born Biagio Anthony Gazzarra in New York City, he first got the acting bug while attending the drama program in the Madison Square Boys and Girls Club. Later, he took acting classes in the Dramatic Workshop of the New School under the tutelage of the influential Erwin Piscator, and then joined The Actors Studio. He had received notices for his stage performances in "A Hatful of Rain" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof", and appeared onscreen (with fellow Actors Studio personnel) in The Strange One (1957), and then starred as the man on trial for murdering his wife's attacker in Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder (1959). 

Throughout the 1960s, his screen work was few and far between, instead working more in television, especially on the series "Run For Your Life", in which he played a terminally ill man who would get the most of life while he still could in each new episode. However, it was his association with actor-director John Cassavetes which signified his screen career. Gazzara became part of the maverick filmmaker's stock company (with Peter Falk, Seymour Cassel and of course the director's wife Gena Rowlands), known for giving intense performances in films that were idiosyncratic in structure and grittily realistic studies of human nature that gave the essence of being improvised.  In Cassavetes' films he was one of the middle-aged men in Husbands (1970) who undergo a mid-life crisis, the obsessive bar owner Cosmo Vitelli in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), and co-starred with Gena Rowlands in Opening Night (1977), chronicling the breakdown of a stage actress.

Peter Bogdanovich cast Gazzara in two films, Saint Jack (1979), in one of his greatest roles as a Singapore pimp and entrepreneur (which is an interesting addendum to his Vitelli character), and in the screwball comedy They All Laughed (1981). He also co-starred with Italian beauty Ornella Muti in two European-made melodramas- The Girl From Trieste (1981) and Tales of Ordinary Madness (1983); in the latter, based upon the writings of Charles Bukowski, he gave another virtuoso performance as Charles Serking (an alter ego of the author).  On television, he appeared as father figures in two well-regarded topical TV-movies, The Death of Richie (1978) about a drug-addicted teenager, and An Early Frost (1986), pioneering for its day, co-starring with (coincidentally or not) Gena Rowlands as parents of a young man with AIDS.

As the work of John Cassavetes became rediscovered, Ben Gazzara became very busy in films. Perhaps the work which most recalls that former era is his wonderful turn in Vincent Gallo's Buffalo 66, in which he and Angelica Huston star as the actor-director's crazy parents. While Gazzara often gave intense performances, personally I preferred his quieter moments, in which his characters often gave a knowing half-smirk regarding their situations.  At their best, his roles were characters (often willingly) captive in the crazy worlds they have created.

The Strange One (1957)

With Jimmy Stewart in Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

With Katherine Ross in an episode of TV's Run For Your Life

Peter Falk, John Cassavetes and Ben Gazzara as Husbands (1970)

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)

With Denholm Elliott in Saint Jack (1979)

With Audrey Hepburn in They All Laughed (1981)

With Ornella Muti in Tales Of Ordinary Madness (1983)

The Spanish Prisoner (1997)

Vincent Gallo, Christina Ricci, Ben Gazzara and Angelica Huston in Buffalo 66 (1998)

With Nicole Kidman in Dogville (2003)

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