We're sad to report that actor Ben Gazzara died on February 3rd at age 81, succumbing to pancreatic cancer. Over his nearly-sixty year career, Gazzara specialized in portraying tough guys with an intellect, usually undergoing a crisis of conscience. Most cinefiles and scholars agree that the best work of his career were his collaborations with actor/filmmaker John Cassavetes on the films Husbands, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Opening Night. I interviewed Gazzara for Venice Magazine in 2004 to coincide with the Criterion Collection's release of their "John Cassavetes: Five Films" collection. Our conversation took place in the home that Cassavetes lived in with wife Gena Rowlands from 1962 until his death in 1989.
Ben Gazzara was born August 28, 1930 in New York City, the son of Sicilian immigrants. After studies at The Actor's Studio, Gazzara made a name for himself on Broadway in the original productions of Cat On a Hot Tin Roof and A Hatful of Rain in 1955. Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder made him a bona fide star in 1959, with his powerful portrayal of a rape suspect on trial.
Gazzara's first collaboration with John Cassavetes was the 1970 drama Husbands, in which he co-starred with Cassavetes and Peter Falk in the story of a trio of friends who decide to mourn the death of the fourth member of their group with an extended wake that takes them overseas on a wild binge in London. Gazzara followed this with his seminal role in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, playing Cosmo Vitelli, an L.A. strip club owner in debt to the mob. He also appeared in Cassavetes' Opening Night the following year.
Gazzara, Falk and Cassavetes remained close friends after the experience of filming Husbands, and formed a tight-knit group much like their characters in that film. Here are some of Mr. Gazzara's memories and reflections about his time spent with John:
When did you and John first meet?
Ben Gazzara: We were young actors in New York together. We were friendly, would say 'hi' to each other, but we were also rivals, up for the same parts and things, so we never became friends at that point. I was doing this TV series here in LA years later called Run For Your Life, and he was doing a couple pilots over at Universal. I asked him "If they both sell, which show are you going to do?" He said "Neither of them. I don't worry about that stuff. I'm not doing it for the money. I'm doing it for the raw stock and a hand-held camera, because I'm going to shoot a picture up at my house." And of course, that was Faces. So, time goes on, and I'm finished with the series, and I saw very little of John, and I'm leaving the studio the day I finished shooting the 86th episode, the final show of my series, and John is driving off the lot. He says "Ben, did Marty (Baum, their agent) tell you?" I said "No, tell me what?" "We're gonna do a picture together!?" I said "Oh, okay." I thought, 'bullshit!' because you hear that all the time, as an actor. Sure enough, a week later, we go to the old Hamburger Hamlet on the strip, and he tells me I'm going to be the star of Husbands, more or less. He said "I'm going to Europe to shoot this gangster picture (Machine Gun McCain, 1968). I think I can get the money from this Italian producer." So I said, 'okay, sure,' still not quite believing him. I had to go to Czechoslovakia to do a war picture with George Segal and Robert Vaughn (The Bridge at Remagen, 1969), then the day the Russians moved in, that day in August, I get a call from John: "Ben, don't get killed! I got the money! I got the money to make the picture!" So I went to London, and we started rehearsing Husbands. That was 1968. And for me, it was like getting out of jail. As a young actor, I was in on the creation of projects. My first plays in New York were written around improvisation, which is what I love. Being on the TV series, sure I was making a lot of money, but I was playing the same guy in the same fuckin' predictable situations. But here, I was free, able to let it go.
Tell us more about the experience of doing Husbands.
Well, John and I became dear, dear friends. We did a couple films together after that and we would've done more.
What was the process like, working with John?
A lot of people had the misconception that John improvised his films, which wasn't true. We rehearsed for two or three weeks before we shot. Occasionally a scene would be completely improvised, but only occasionally. The rehearsal was in order to give the impression of it happening for the first time, and also for the purpose of rewriting. John loved to rewrite on his feet. He'd just tear things apart, and try six, seven different ways of doing things. So by the time you got on the floor, with the camera present, you were pretty secure with where you were. John's films were made through his actors. He loved being surprised during rehearsals and wanted you find things within yourself that would even surprise you. He wasn't afraid of taking any trip you wanted to take. The only thing John hated was if you didn't try, if you didn't "put it up," as he used to say. "Put it up!" So I felt right at home, because that way of working was my idea of joy: where everything is open and everything is possible and nobody can do wrong. There is no wrong. It might not be right, but it ain't wrong.
Emotionally, John's films can be very tough to watch. Did they take a toll on you as an actor?
Only when they were drawing to an end. It was always very tough to say goodbye to the experience, especially on Husbands, because there was a lot going on there. It was about friendship. We became friends, and who knew if we were ever going to see each other again, because most films are "I'll call ya, I'll call ya, I'll call ya," and nobody ever calls anybody. But John was the glue that really kept my friendship with Peter together. Since John died, Peter and I see each other very infrequently. But when John was alive, we all used to see each other constantly.
He also did that cameo in your film Capone (1975), playing the gangster Johnny Torrio.
Yeah, he did that as a favor, he was so sweet. He walked on the set, did the scene, went back to his office on the lot! For no money! He didn't get paid for that.
There are many filmmakers now, particularly on the independent scene, who have been highly influenced by John's work. He's left a lasting legacy.
I know, isn't that interesting? When he was making these films, he couldn't get a dime to make them. And now, every kid in film school is talking about his work. That was the thing about John, a lot of guys could get beaten down by rejection, but 'no' didn't exist for him.
"That which does not kill you makes you stronger."
That's right! The major studios didn't want to do it, fine. He put up his own money. "I'll do it!" The people at the studios just didn't get it, didn't get the stories, didn't get the characters.
John wasn't afraid to have characters that weren't necessarily likeable. Your character in Husbands, for example, was a real son of a bitch on many levels, but you still cared about the guy!
I know. Well, he was scared, and he was ignorant. John loved that. He used to say "I love ignorance." What he meant was, the ignorant are ingenuous, but they would vent with such a strong belief. John used to say, I don't know if he was serious or not, that he was going to make Husbands II, and the opening would be on the Grand Canal in Venice. I would be with a new, young wife, he and Peter would pull up and we'd all meet on motor boats. Wouldn't that have been a great opening?
Yeah. They probably would've been there for a dental convention, right?
(laughs) Yeah, that's right!
Let's talk about Cosmo Vitelli, a great character.
In his heart, in his gut, although he's an unsophisticated man, he's really an artist. He lives in his art, his art being this cockamamie strip show he puts on at this seedy fuckin' joint he owns. That's his life. And when these gangsters come to take that away, it's the thing he cares about the most. To the point of, in one of my favorite scenes, when he's on his way to do the hit and could possibly get killed doing it, he stops to call to see how the show is going! To me, that film was a metaphor for John's life: the never-ending battle against those nuisances who try to keep you from doing your work. (pause) Do you think Cosmo died in the end?
Yeah, absolutely. I think he sat down in front of his club and bled to death, but like a good captain, he stayed with his ship, and in that sense, he won the battle.
Yeah. And you know something, John and I never talked about that, about whether Cosmo died or not. I never asked him and he never asked me.
But it doesn't really matter because ultimately, that's not what the film is about.
Let's talk about Opening Night.
Again, we have a film about the theater. John's theater life was very limited. He was the stage manager for a play called The Fifth Season, but I don't think he ever acted on Broadway. But, obviously his love of the theater and memories of the theater were present here, because it's a remarkable film. Not only is it about the theater, but it's about aging. It's about doing good work and what you have to call on in order to do good work. The work was the thing that was most important to John.
Was it all downhill working with other directors after you had been directed by John?
I wouldn't say "downhill," but it was certainly different. It such a rare and unique experience being in on the creation of an event. It's rare to find a director with the lack of ego to do that.