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 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.
Long before An Early Frost, Ben Gazzara had already appeared in two (however veiled) gay-themed productions. On Broadway, he was the virile ex-football player pining for his “best friend” while ignoring wife Barbara Bel Geddes in the 1955 original staging of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. (Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor played those two roles in the bowdlerized 1958 movie version directed by Richard Brooks.) And in 1957, Gazzara made his film debut as a sexually troubled military man who gets off by viciously abusing (or watching others viciously abuse) his fellow cadets in Jack Garfein’s The Strange One.
Among Gazzara’s other 75 or so feature films – many of which were made in Italy – are Steve Carver’s Capone (1975), in the title role; Stuart Rosenberg’s Voyage of the Damned (1976), a poorly received all-star drama about Jews (Faye Dunaway, Lee Grant, Wendy Hiller, Oskar Werner, Maria Schell, Julie Harris, etc.) aboard an ocean liner as they attempt to seek refuge from Nazi persecution; Terence Young’s critical and box office disaster Inchon (1981), with Laurence Olivier and Jacqueline Bisset (Gazzara was nominated for a Razzie for this one); and Joel Coen and Ethan Coen’s The Big Lebowski (1998), featuring Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, and Julianne Moore.
As for Gazzara’s two features films for Peter Bogdanovich, those were hardly fortuitous. Both Saint Jack (1979) and They All Laughed (1981), the latter co-starring Audrey Hepburn, were critical and box office flops. (As per the Times obit, Gazzara and Hepburn – both married at the time – had a brief fling after they were featured together in another Terence Young flop, the 1979 thriller Bloodline.)
Gazzara was married three times. One of his wives was actress Janice Rule (1961-1982), who had supporting roles and second-leads in about two dozen movies in the ’50s and ’60s (e.g., Welcome to Hard Times, Alvarez Kelly, The Swimmer). She died in 2003.
Apparently, Gazzara’s film career never developed as many would have expected because of the actor’s own poor choices. (Whether those choices were a result of his chronic depression is unclear). “When I became hot, so to speak, in the theater, I got a lot of offers,” he said in a 1998 interview on the talk show Charlie Rose. “I won’t tell you the pictures I turned down because you would say, ‘You are a fool.’ And I was a fool.”
Curiously, as Roger Ebert pointed out on Twitter, Ben Gazzara died exactly 23 years after John Cassavetes, who died of cirrhosis of the liver on Feb. 3, 1989.