Deer Hunter, Godfather and Dog Day Afternoon, not a bad CV. Every film John Cazale was in was Oscar nominated. Ladies and gents, doff your trilbies...
Many actors talk about finding themselves through their craft but for John Cazale the process was, quite literally, a matter of life and death. Diagnosed with bone cancer shortly before filming began on The Deer Hunter he continued working, rather than seek treatment.
Director Michael Cimino agreed to shoot Cazale’s scenes first and keep details of the actor’s illness secret from studio bosses. When they found out and tried to remove the actor from the movie his co-star and, by that time, fiancé Meryl Streep threatened to walk off set. Result? The kid with the hangdog expression and haunted eyes, stayed in the movie. Despite being so weak near the end of the shoot that he could barely say his lines, Cazale delivered the final remarkable performance in a short but impeccable career.
Certainly there were far more famous Italian American actors in 70s cinema than Cazale – but none so well loved or highly regarded by their peers.
Robert De Niro, whose confrontation with him in The Deer Hunter’s celebrated “this is this” hunting scene contains Cazale’s most incandescent screen performance, was in awe of his theatrical work and credited Cazale with helping him break into movies.
Al Pacino, with who he appeared onstage and in 3 of his 5 films (Godfathers 1 and 2 and Dog Day Afternoon), described him as his “acting partner – a guy I could have acted with my entire life”.
Statistics can be misleading but in Cazale’s case they are instructive – bar The American Way, in which he had only a small bit part, each film he made was Oscar nominated. Three of those won, while another, The Conversation, lost out to one of the others, The Godfather 2.
Today Cazale is the only actor who has all his major films listed in the imdb.com Top 250. The fact is he pursued good work, rather than trash, returning to the theatre rather than exploiting his Hollywood potential after The Godfather success.
Playwright Israel Horovitz (father of Beastie Boy Adam) was, like Pacino, a Cazale childhood pal who became an important professional collaborator. He recalls him as an unfailingly dedicated and varied personality offstage and off-screen, good humoured, with an advanced musical brain, a keen photographer who also had an unfailing affinity for – and success with – women.
Working as a messenger for an oil company and a taxi driver to finance his early career Cazale’s real life experience fed into his craft. By 1968, aged 33, his accomplishment earned two off Broadway (Obie) Awards for his parts in Horovitz’s plays The Indian Wants The Bronx (opposite Pacino) and Line. Such was his versatility the judges didn’t initially realise they were awarding the same actor.
After seeing Cazale in Line Godfather producer Fred Roos told Francis Coppola the search for Fredo Coreleone clan, was over. Cazale made the role of the sad, heading for a fall, “passed over” elder brother so completely his own that it was became much bigger than originally planned in Part 2. The devastating scene inside the family compound where Michael (Pacino) tells him “you are nothing to me” and subsequent execution on the lake (Cazale sustained an injury from a blank gunshot while filming) provided the entire saga with its haunting dramatic centrepiece.
Majoring in sad desperation and vulnerability as Fredo and trapped animal fear as Sal, Pacino’s sidekick in Dog Day Afternoon’s bank heist, Cazale embodied a certain type of American no-one else could capture.
That’s why his finale as Stan in The Deer Hunter was so remarkable – it was a stunning inversion of his screen persona. He plays the part like it’s Fredo’s revenge – a moustachioed puffed up womaniser, playing the bigman about town while his buddies go into psychic meltdown at the front.
Nursed by Streep, who moved into the hospital where he was treated after filming, he died in March 1978 aged 42, before ever seeing the finished work. Yet, nearly 30 years later, perhaps only director Terence Malick can boast a movie career that so defiantly champions quality over quantity.