Ben Gazzara, who was featured on Broadway in the original Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and in movies by the likes of John Cassavetes, Otto Preminger, and Peter Bogdanovich, died earlier today at Manhattan's Bellevue Hospital Center as per the New York Times. Gazzara, who had been suffering from pancreatic cancer, was 81.
Although Gazzara (the son of Italian immigrants, born Aug. 28, 1930, in New York City) is probably best remembered for his films directed by Cassavetes – Husbands (1970), The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), and Opening Night (1978) – he was remarkably effective elsewhere. Arguably, much more effective elsewhere.
Gazzara delivered a first-rate performance in Otto Preminger's cynical look at the American justice system, Anatomy of a Murder (1959), in which he played a military man on trial for killing a man – he claims – was attempting to rape his wife (Lee Remick, replacing Lana Turner). James Stewart is his somewhat shady defense attorney, who has to discuss with the judge and prosecutor George C. Scott until-then taboo issues such as rape, intercourse, orgasm, and female undergarments. Partly because of censorship issues – Chicago Mayor Richard Daley decided no one in his city should be allowed to watch the film – Anatomy of a Murder became one of the biggest box office hits of the year. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including nods for Stewart, Scott, Arthur O'Connell (as Stewart's assistant), and screenwriter Wendell Mayes (adapting John D. Voelker's novel); yet, Gazzara, Remick, and director Preminger were bypassed.
Gazzara was a good foil for Totò and an exuberant Anna Magnani in Mario Monicelli hilarious comedy Risate di gioia / The Passionate Thief (1960), in which Gazzara is a pickpocket and Magnani a struggling actress. He was also fine as an alcoholic in Marco Ferreri's Tales of Ordinary Madness (1981), a visually striking but dramatically flat adaptation of a Charles Bukowski novel. Ornella Mutti was his leading lady.
Additionally, Gazzara was a strong presence in the television movie An Early Frost (1985), playing the caring but (at first) bigoted father of gay son Aidan Quinn in the first American TV drama to tackle head-on the AIDS pandemic. Gena Rowlands, Cassavetes' real-life wife and the star of Opening Night, played Gazzara's wife in the TV movie. As the grandmother, veteran Sylvia Sidney (whose son would die of AIDS), won a Golden Globe for her performance. All four leads and the movie itself were nominated for Emmys.
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