The Godfather. The Godfather Part II. The Conversation. Dog Day Afternoon. The Deer Hunter.
These 5 films are always included among the greatest American films of all time. In fact, these are considered the greatest films in the history of cinema. These were all complex films that showcased crime, the zeitgeist of the time, and incredible dramatic acting.
What did these films have in common? They all featured one actor who, sadly, didn’t live long and these 5 films only feature films he had. His career was short, but it was arguably one of the greatest acting careers of all time.
John Cazale was a brilliant American actor who sadly didn’t live to see his final film. He also engaged to Meryl Streep who’s also spoken often about his life and career.
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EARLY LIFE AND CAREER
John Holland Cazale was born on August 12, 1935, in Revere, Massachussetts. He was half Irish-American and half Italian-American.
John’s upbringing was that of a typical American household at the time. His mother was a housewife and his father was a traveling salesman. His father, also named John, wasn’t always present at home – but when he was, he was often firm and overbearing.
Some have speculated that this relationship led to John’s sheepish look that he would emphasize with all of his film characters.
He became interested in acting during his high school years. As he was part of the drama club at the Buxton School in Williamstown. He later studied drama further at Oberlin College and Boston University.
After graduating from college, John worked as a taxi driver while pursuing his acting career on the side. Many of his early theater successes included work in plays such as Hotel Paradiso, Our Town, and The Indian Wants the Bronx.
With The Indian Wants the Bronx, he co-starred with another amateur actor named Al Pacino! John Cazale had found a day job as a Standard Oil messenger and Al Pacino was his colleague! The two of them became friends and would work together for the rest of their lives.
His roles were varied in the theater, but he always managed to stand out even when he played supporting roles. Under the guidance of his drama teacher, Peter Kass from Boston University, he learned to tap into his inner pain to become a successful actor. Peter Kass wanted actors to be natural and to not try to shy away from showing their vulnerability.
John Cazale took these lessons to heart and would give his best in his acting performances. He would later known as an actor who not only gave great performances in his own roles but also provided support to emphasize the talents of his co-stars.
But while theater was where John Cazale got his start, it was in cinema where he would shine the most…
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JOHN’S FILM CAREER
John Cazale’s first film role was as a Beatnik in a short film called The American Way released in 1962. Six years later, he appeared in an episode of NYPD called “The Peep Freak” as a character called Tom Andrews. Since his passing, this particular episode of NYPD has become hugely popular among his fans.
But these small roles didn’t bring him much attention among wider audiences. He still depended mostly on working in theater and it seemed that he’d confined to this medium throughout the 1960s.
However, a change was happening in the late 1960s which would carry onto the 1970s. American cinema was going through a new renaissance. Filmmakers wanted to make serious films with gripping storylines, complex characters, and high art.
Francis Ford Coppola had hired to direct an adaptation of the bestselling novel The Godfather. This film would follow an Italian mafia boss and his family. Marlon Brando cast as Don Corleone. James Caan was Sonny Corleone and newcomer Al Pacino, who had become a big success with his role in Serpico cast as Michael Corleone.
But there was a huge challenge in casting the role of Fredo – the middle brother. Actor after actor auditioned for the role and it seemed that none could match with Francis Ford Coppola’s vision for the character.
John Cazale recommended by Al Pacino to play Fredo and this would become the start of a short but brilliant film career. To this day, film critics, historians, directors, aspiring actors, and audiences alike have analyzed John Cazale’s role as Fredo in both The Godfather and The Godfather Part II and his excellent portrayal of the troubled character.
John Cazale’s performance as Fredo in both Godfather films made him synonymous with the character. Yet, Fredo didn’t define him as he was eager to branch out into other great roles.
In 1974, the same year he appeared in The Godfather Part II, John Cazale appeared in another film directed by Francis Ford Coppola. The film called The Conversation and in it, he played Stan, who assisted Gene Hackman’s character, Harry, as they tried to spy on a couple and record a conversation.
This a small role and John’s screen time shorter compared to his role in both Godfather films. But his vulnerability as Stan who gets pushed around by Harry and eventually dismissed by him is studied by actors to this day.
Perhaps John Cazale’s most powerful role was as the bank robber Sal Naturile in Dog Day Afternoon – once again, co-starring with Al Pacino. In the real-life incident on which the film was based, Sal Naturile, only around 18 or 19 years old. At first glance, the 40 year old John Cazale didn’t seem appropriate for the role.
But Al Pacino once again convinced the director, this time, Sidney Lumet, to consider auditioning John Cazale. Sidney Lumet immediately blown away by John’s performance and granted him the role.
Any aspiring actor should study his role in this film to see the incredible contradictions in the role. At one point, John is cold and ruthless as he takes out a gun to begin robbing the bank. In another scene, he feigns insecurity when his character is described as a “homosexual.” In another scene, he lectures a woman on why she shouldn’t smoke. He stands his ground with Al Pacino’s character, Sonny, in some scenes and then humbles himself by taking orders from Sonny.
Sadly, John Cazale didn’t live to see his final film. His final film was part of an ensemble. He had part of an ensemble cast in both Godfather films and still managed to stand out. The same happened when he was cast in The Deer Hunter. In this film, like in The Conversation, his character named Stan and a sheepish character trying to impress his friends and always coming out on the short end.
This harrowing film follows a group of friends in a small town and the effects of the Vietnam War on them. One of the co-stars in this film Meryl Streep, who John Cazale dating at the time and was engaged to.
In this film, we see John Cazale at his finest and his most natural. But what’s especially shocking is how John pulled off this role with his illness. He had diagnosed with terminal cancer and the director Michael Cimino had to hide this fact from the studio – afraid that they wouldn’t cast him. Robert De Niro, one of the stars of The Deer Hunter, personally paid for John Cazale’s insurance simply because he wanted to work with him – as the two never shared scenes in The Godfather Part II.
Looking back at The Deer Hunter, one can see that John was getting better and better with every single role. Alas, this was to be his last and one can only speculate on what more great roles and films we could have seen…
JOHN’S LIFE AND LEGACY
John Cazale died on March 13, 1978, at the age of 42 in New York. Since his passing, there has been a rekindled interest in his career and his brilliant film roles.
Meryl Streep, who is guarded about her private life, has spoken about her relationship with John Cazale. She’s spoken about how they were deeply in love with each other and how she pushed for him to appear in The Deer Hunter even when he was suffering from cancer.
John Cazale was also deeply in love with Meryl Streep and praised her acting. He gained a reputation amongst his friends and colleagues for being a generous friend, excellent colleague, and a great romantic.
While John Cazale wasn’t the most handsome man and only played sheepish characters, his incredible talents and natural charm made him a joy to be around. He was loved by everyone and to this day, there are actors who look up to him as inspiration.
His career was short-lived, but it’s arguable that John Cazale was the most successful actor in the history of American cinema.
So, now let’s hear from you:
Are you a fan of John Cazale? Do you know of any other actor with a career as successful as his?
Here’s what we’d like to know:
Do you think his role as ‘Fredo’ in The Godfather films is his best work?
Or is there another role of his that we need to pay more attention to?
Let’s hear your thoughts in the comments.
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