British GQ, February 2010

Icon: John Cazale

He made just five movies, but each of them is a classic. He went toe to toe with Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, and brought out some of their greatest performances. Off-screen, he was a drinker, smoker and lover of “some of the most beautiful women on the planet”. So why isn't the actor who will forever be Fredo Corleone acclaimed as one of the legends of 1970s cinema? By Tim Lewis

Speak to anyone who knew John Cazale personally and at some point in the conversation they will stop, smile, and say something like, “Has anyone told you how slow he was?” They do not mean unintelligent, rather that he could be deliberate and languid to an extent that was either endearing or maddening. There will then follow an anecdote of how he once stayed up all night adjusting the contrast on a new colour television; or how an eternity seemed to pass as he counted out the correct change at a toll booth; or how he once spent six months editing a 10-minute short film; or how directors came to know him, not always benignly, as “20 Questions” because he was unable to start any scene without knowing the precise motivation of his character.

“He was a sensualist, John, very much so,” says Al Pacino, a long-time friend of Cazale’s, in a new documentary about the actor’s life and career called I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale. “You’d eat a meal with him and you would be done, finished, washed and in bed before he got halfway through his meal.” Pacino leaves a stage pause, “And then the cigar would come out. He would light it, look at it, taste it and then finally smoke it.”

“He took his time with stuff and it sometimes drove people nuts,” admits Meryl Streep, the love of Cazale’s life. “It took him a really long time to leave the house and lock the car.”

“I used to kid John,” says Marvin Starkman, a classmate and collaborator since their college days, “Jesus, your foreplay must take five hours.”

This sensuous approach might go some way to explaining his meagre output of work, at least in cinema. When Cazale died at the age of 42, on 12 March, 1978, from lung cancer that had metastasised to the bone, he left behind just five film roles, all of them supporting parts, and a screen time that added up to little more than an hour. But, as they say, never mind the width, feel the quality. Each of those films – The Godfather (1972), The Conversation (1974), The Godfather: Part II (1974), Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and The Deer Hunter (1978) – was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars and are still considered to be among the finest movies of all time. In total, they hauled 40 Academy Award nominations, although despite his totemic presence, Cazale never received even a single one. It has led him, when he is remembered at all, to be described as “a Zelig of the Seventies movie boom”.

Cazale was by no means a flashy actor. He was sly and subtle, mostly doing his work at the margins of a scene. Directors were quick to pick up on the fact that his face – those intense eyes, that absurd hairline, the features that should have been drawn by a Simpsons artist – had a rich emotional complexity. They would cut to him constantly for reaction. He could make you empathise with a vulnerable, weak and self-loathing character; if you needed to make a halfwit psychopath loveable, there was no one better. Any scene he was in seemed to become both more tragic and more comic.

Certainly, he inspired devotion from those who worked with him. Francis Ford Coppola, who gave him his most memorable role, the hapless Fredo Corleone in The Godfather films, and wrote a part specially for him in The Conversation, describes him as “a wonderful, wonderful actor and a wonderful person”. Streep, who met him in her mid-twenties, says he was “monomaniacal about the work” and credits him with changing the way she approached performing. Yet, perhaps his closest professional affinity was with Pacino, whom he met when they were young actors ‘resting’ as couriers in New York, and whose collaborations included three plays and three films. “I think I learned more about acting from John than anybody,” he says.

“He was this weird little asterisk in the history of American film,” says Richard Shepard, an established Hollywood director (The Matador, The Hunting Party) whose admiration for Cazale inspired him to make the documentary about him. “He made these five perfect movies that really crystallised the best in American film-making. He worked with all of the best actors and film-makers and he worked with them over and over again and he was always on par with them. He makes the other actors look better – he’s the ultimate acting partner. He is the ultimate character actor.”

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To say that little is on record about John Cazale’s life is an understatement. There’s practically nothing, and what exists is often inaccurate – he did not, for example, have roots in Sicily; his grandfather came to America from Genoa in the 1870s. Meryl Streep was his girlfriend for the last two years of his life, but the couple were never engaged as is often rumoured. He left behind no children, and is survived by only his younger brother, Stephen. Cazale himself seems to have made just one public utterance: “I sometimes wonder if the inability to find oneself makes one seek oneself in other people, in characters.” You can read that a few times and be none the wiser.

Stephen Casale – he reverted to the original Italian spelling of the family name – describes a “typical Catholic upbringing” in the suburbs of Boston. Their father was a wholesale coal salesman, whose work took him throughout New England, and their mother was a housewife. There was no theatrical background in the family, though the brothers did like listening to classical music and playing recorder duets. “I was surprised he went into acting at all because basically John was a very shy person,” says Casale. “He kept to himself very much and, even when he became relatively recognised, the whole business of appearing in public was a bit of a chore for him. He wasn’t one to push his own career; he was devoted to his craft, to his art, to his acting. The ego side of it, that wasn’t so great.”

Was there anything to indicate his future career? “I remember we had a neighbour friend who used to come by on the way to school,” he says. “One morning he came and found John sitting at the breakfast table with one shoe laced and the other unlaced and his breakfast uneaten. And for some reason he didn’t want to eat what my mother had put before him, so she said he had to sit there until he finished it. So his friend went off to school and in the afternoon he looked in to see what the story was, because John hadn’t been at school. And John was still at the table, with one shoe unlaced and the breakfast uneaten. It was the same kind of single-mindedness and concentration that served him well in his acting.”

At Boston University in the late Fifties, Cazale studied under Peter Kass, a legendary acting tutor whose protégés include Oscar winners Faye Dunaway and Olympia Dukakis, and three-time Razzie nominee Val Kilmer. Kass has been called the “holy madman of the theatre” and was notorious for pushing his students to explore the darker, sometimes brutal aspects of a character’s psyche – whatever the personal costs.

It was a lesson that stayed with Cazale throughout his career. One scene in The Deer Hunter required Robert De Niro to put a loaded pistol to Cazale’s head and pull the trigger. The director Michael Cimino continues the story: “Bob came to me said, ‘Mike do you think we can put a live round in the gun to help me play the scene?’ And I said, ‘Are you crazy?’ He said, ‘No, no, no. Ask John.’ So I went to John and said, ‘Bob would like to play this with a live round in the gun.’ Well, the whole crew thought it was nuts but John just looked at me and he blinked and said, ‘OK. But I have to look at the gun first.’ Then John drove Bob crazy by checking the gun – it took him a half hour to check each shot, but it was a real live round.”

Cazale had grown up admiring Montgomery Clift and Charles Laughton but his hero when he was startied to study acting was Marlon Brando. “He was our God,” says Marvin Starkman, “and we would go to On The Waterfront as though we were going to Mecca, a place to worship at.” The casting of Brando as the pater familias of the Corleones had a neat symmetry for the actors who played his sons in The Godfather, according to film critic David Thomson. “All the younger actors in the film – James Caan, Robert Duvall, Pacino, Cazale – felt it was right and proper because for all of them he was the model figure they had had,” he tells GQ. “They all would have said, ‘He is what acting is in America today. It’s entirely proper that he plays our father because we’ve all got, or hope we’ve got, his genes.”

Cazale’s scenes with Brando left an indelible impression, recalls Marvin Starkman. “The thing John was most proud of – you remember the scene where Brando gets shot in the street and the oranges fall out of the bag and he falls into the gutter and John goes ineptly for his gun? Well, Brando thought so much of John as an actor that when it came to John’s close-ups, he – Brando! – got back down in the street, lay down in the gutter, so that John would be able to ‘work off him’. Stars of that ilk don’t do that; you have to sit there and make it up yourself. Nothing ever – no applause or anything – came close to what Brando did for him that particular day.”

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At this point, you might wonder, if Cazale was so revered why he only has five film roles to his name. Despite odd jobs (courier, taxi driver and photographer), he was always a working actor. He died young, but not that young. Yet, having appeared in five of the greatest films of the Seventies, did he just have the finest judgement in the history of cinema?

“I will tell you exactly what it was, it’s very interesting,” says Richard Shepard. “He tried to get cast in stuff, but this was before the breakthrough in the late Sixties, early Seventies where really ethnic-looking, odd-looking leading men were breaking through and he just couldn’t do it. So he honed his craft as a theatre actor, which he loved and was quite successful at, not making a ton of money but winning awards and stuff like that. And when he was finally cast in The Godfather that opened a six-year run for him, but between the big movies he was still auditioning and struggling and Pacino says that he was slightly frustrated that he wasn’t getting more work.”

With his light-bulb head, deep-set eyes and gaunt pallor, Cazale was certainly not an obvious leading man. But his low-key appeal was more sensibility than appearance, argues the playwright Israel Horovitz (the father, no less, of Beastie Boy Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz). Cazale appeared in 10 of Horovitz’s plays in the Sixties and Seventies, most notably Line, where he was spotted by casting director Fred Roos for The Godfather, and The Indian Wants The Bronx, which saw him work for the first time alongside Pacino (two productions that were responsible for Cazale’s only major acting award, the 1968 Off-Broadway “Obie” for Distinguished Performances).

“John looked like St Francis of Assisi, but he was no more of a character actor than Al was,” says Horovitz. “Al was a little guy, he’s a lot shorter than John, maybe prettier somehow, but John has a great look. It was more a personality thing. Al never doubted that he would have success, I don’t think it ever once crossed his mind that it wasn’t going to happen. But John never had that, ever. He didn’t think anything was going to work out particularly, it just wasn’t his nature.”

Pacino, who admits that he would overact in these early plays just to impress Cazale, seems to acknowledge there is truth in Horovitz’s analysis. “John was an actor and that was what he was going to do, nothing was going to stop that,” he says in the documentary. “Business didn’t matter, what mattered was the plank and the passion – the plank being the stage, and the passion, that was what he had.”

There is a certain poignancy that the role with which Cazale is most associated is Fredo, the brother who is heartbreakingly passed over as head of the Family in favour of the more dynamic, ruthless Michael. It is said that every young actor in America wanted to be cast in The Godfather, but that they all wanted to play Sonny and Michael – big, bruising roles eventually taken by Caan and Pacino respectively. For Coppola, however, Fredo was a crucial character – it was, indeed, the part that he most identified with, having grown up in an Italian-American family in the shadow of a precocious brother himself, the writer-professor August Coppola.

When the success of the first film demanded a sequel, Coppola decided to make the role of Fredo more integral, and in Part II, as Michael becomes increasingly cold and remote, it is Fredo – weak, corrupt and treacherous Fredo – with whom the audience sympathises. “Cazale taught us that the weakling and the coward could be a great part absolutely,” says Philip French, The Observer’s film critic since the Seventies. “We would all like to be a Sonny or a Michael, but in fact, if we are really honest, most of us are a Fredo. Most of us are lousy, compromising cowards, we just don’t like to think of ourselves that way.”

“One of the things I love about casting John Cazale is that he just had this tremendous sadness about him,” says Sidney Lumet, director of Dog Day Afternoon. “I don’t know where it came from, I don’t believe in invading the privacy of the actors that I’m working with. But my God it’s there, in every shot of him.”

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His mastery on screen of the sad, vulnerable loser is all the more impressive for the fact that these misfits seem to share little in common with Cazale himself. He could be dark and angst-ridden certainly, but he was, by all accounts, smart, sensitive and funny, with an infectious machine-gun laugh that came out of nowhere. Then, there was his mysterious knack, to quote his character in The Deer Hunter, for getting “more ass than a toilet seat”. “He was very, very successful with women,” recalls Israel Horovitz, “I don’t know if that’s talked about, but John had amazing girlfriends, some of the most beautiful women on the planet. For a guy who wasn’t obviously a ladykiller, there was something about him. We all tried to study and imitate it but it never caught on.”

Early girlfriends included actresses Verna Bloom and Ann Wedgeworth (an ex-wife of Rip Torn), but he never fell as hard as when he was cast opposite a highly regarded Vassar graduate in a 1976 Shakespeare in the Park production. “I remember coming to Manhattan after I’d been away – this is after we made Dog Day together and The Godfather – and John telling me, ‘Oh man, I have met the greatest actress in the history of the world,’” says Al Pacino. “And I said, ‘Really?’ He said, ‘Yeah, she’s with me in the park in Measure for Measure. And I thought, ‘This is a guy in love, how good can she be? She can’t be what he’s saying…’ And sure enough, it was Meryl Streep, so he was right.”

Despite a 14-year age difference, and quite contrasting personalities (“Meryl would come into the room and fall down, just to get a laugh, and John was nothing like that,” says Horovitz) the feeling was reciprocated. “He wasn’t like anybody else, he wasn’t like anybody I’d ever met,” Streep reveals in I Knew It Was You, the first time she has broken her silence on Cazale in three decades. “It was the specificity of him and his sort of humanity and his curiosity about people and his compassion.”

Cazale would spend the rest of his life with Streep, but tragically this would only be two years. He had always lived the life of a New York artist – he liked to drink and “smoked like a motherfucker,” says Richard Shepard – and his health problems were a recurring concern. Marvin Starkman remembers rushing him to the Roosevelt Hospital in New York in 1973, where he was diagnosed with chronic pancreatitis. “He was full of tubes and one of them led to a glass jar that had this green-ish, swampy-looking water that was coming out of his stomach,” he says. “The doctors told him that if he wanted to commit suicide, all he had to do was start drinking again because it was eating up his pancreas.”

His physical deterioration can be charted, to an extent, in his film work. “There is a kind of moral decay in Fredo that is entirely borne out by the fact that from the first picture to the second Cazale has become more ghost-like,” notes David Thomson. “He’s thinner, his eyes are more exaggerated, his forehead is sticking out further.”

By the time that The Deer Hunter was being cast, it was confirmed that he was suffering from cancer. The studio insisted that another actor was found – he was practically uninsurable; a major problem if he died halfway through and the scenes needed to be reshot – but Michael Cimino insisted that Cazale stayed and Robert De Niro is said to have personally secured the bond on his participation. “I wanted him to be in it,” is all De Niro will say now. Cimino’s abiding memory of Cazale is that when they shot the hunting scenes he would catch him between takes smelling the mountain flowers.

Streep had taken a role in the film to be closer to Cazale, but while he survived the film’s shooting, he died six months before the film was released (and before he could see Streep nominated for an Oscar). She remained by his side in the hospital to the end, mimicking the voices of newsreaders and reading him the sports pages. “There’s this really chilling story,” says Horovitz. “I had never known this but when people die there is sometimes a moment of blood rushing through the brain that brings them back for a split second. So the doctors were there and Meryl was there and the doctor said, ‘He’s gone.’ Meryl sobbed and John came back for that moment and said, ‘It’s all right Meryl, it’s all right.’ And then he was gone.”

It is tempting to speculate how Cazale’s career might have developed if he had lived longer. There seems little doubt that he could have been one of the busiest character actors in the business, perhaps in the mould of Christopher Walken or Joe Pesci. We certainly would have seen more range; his friends say they would have loved to see him as a romantic lead. However, in all likelihood his pristine track record would have taken some knocks. “I’m sure if he lived he’d have been in The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training to pay the rent,” says Richard Shepard.

What is obvious, however, is the inspiration he has been to a current generation of character actors, like Steve Buscemi, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Sam Rockwell, who have broken out of supporting roles into the big time, and all of whom contribute to the documentary. “I remember my older brother saw The Godfather first,” says Buscemi. “He said, ‘Me’ – even though he was older than me – ‘I’m like the youngest one. I’d be more of a Michael or maybe Sonny. But you, you would be Fredo.’ He meant it as an insult, and I understood what he was saying, and I saw the movie and I was like, ‘Ah, OK, that guy…’ But now I’m like, ‘Yeah, that guy! I want to be that guy!’”