NEW YORK – Ben Gazzara, whose powerful dramatic performances brought an intensity to a variety of roles and made him a memorable presence in such iconic productions over the decades as the original "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" on Broadway and the film "the Big Lebowski," has died at age 81.
Longtime family friend Suzanne Mados said Gazzara died Friday in Manhattan. Mados, who owned the Wyndham Hotel, where celebrities such as Peter Falk and Martin Sheen stayed, said he died after being placed in hospice care for cancer. She and her husband helped marry Gazzara and his wife, German-born Elke Krivat, at their hotel.
Gazzara was a proponent of method acting, in which the performer attempts to take on the thoughts and emotions of the character he’s playing, and it helped him achieve stardom early in his career with two stirring Broadway performances.
In 1955, he originated the role of Brick Pollitt, the disturbed alcoholic son and failed football star in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." He left the show after only seven months to take on an equally challenging role, Johnny Pope, the drug addict in "A Hatful of Rain." It earned him his first of three Tony Award nominations.
In 1965, he moved on to TV stardom in "Run for Your Life," a drama about a workaholic lawyer who, diagnosed with a terminal illness, quits his job and embarks on a globe-trotting attempt to squeeze a lifetime of adventures into the one or two years he has left. He was twice nominated for Emmys during the show’s three-year run.
Gazzara made his movie debut in 1957 in "the strange One," Calder Willingham’s bitter drama about brutality at a Southern military school. He had previously played the lead role of the psychopathic cadet, Jocko de Paris, on Broadway in Willingham’s stage version of the story, "end of Man."
He followed that film with "Anatomy of a Murder," in which he played a man on trial for murdering a tavern keeper who had been accused of raping his wife.
After "Run for Your Life" ended in 1968, Gazzara spent the rest of his career alternating between movies and the stage, although rarely with the critical acclaim he had enjoyed during his early years.
In the 1970s, he teamed with his friend director John Cassavetes for three films, "the Killing of a Chinese Bookie" and "Opening Night." In another Cassavetes film, he appeared with Falk, and the two became friends (it was Cassavetes who introduced them to the Wyndham Hotel, according to a 1982 article in new York magazine).
Gena Rowlands appeared with Gazzara in "Opening Night," which also starred Cassavetes. Cassavetes and Rowlands were married; he died in 1989. Falk died last year.
"It breaks my heart to have this era come to an end. Ben meant so much to all of us. To our families. To John. To Peter. To have them gone now is devastating to me," she said in a statement.
She said her prayers and thoughts went out to "all his loyal and wonderful fans throughout the world."
Rita Moreno, who played Gazzara’s wife in the 2000 film "Blue Moon," said, "He was a wonderful man, and I so enjoyed working with him. I wish I could have had the pleasure more often."
Other Gazzara films included "the Bridge at Remagen," "the Young Doctors," "they All Laughed," "the Thomas Crown Affair," "If It’s Tuesday, It must Be Belgium," "the Spanish Prisoner," "Stag" and "Road House." He also made several films in Italy.
He appeared on Broadway in revivals of "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," "Awake and Sing!" "strange Interlude" and several other plays.
Gazzara began acting in television in 1952 with roles on the series "Danger" and "Kraft Television Theater." before landing "Run for Your Life," he played a police detective in the series "Arrest and Trial," which lasted two seasons.
Born Biagio Anthony Gazzara in new York on Aug. 28, 1930, he grew up on the Lower East side of Manhattan in a cold-water flat with a bathtub in the kitchen. His parents were immigrants from Sicily who met and married in new York, and his first language was Italian. Although he was baptized under his birth name, his parents always called him Ben or Benny.
As a child he became fascinated with movies, and after giving his first performance, in a Boys Club play, he knew he had found his life’s work.
"I disliked high school," he once said, "and after two years of it I left without telling anyone at home."
Instead he spent his days in movie theaters.
He entered Erwin Piscator’s Dramatic Workshop in 1948. Eighteen months later he auditioned for the Actors Studio run by Lee Strasberg and was accepted.
The school was a beehive of activity in those days, turning out such followers of method acting as Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Barbara Bel Geddes, Shelley Winters, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Rod Steiger and Julie Harris.
"There’s a lot of voodoo about the Actors Studio," Gazzara told the Associated Press in 1966. "In the best sense it was a place for professionals to stay in touch with their craft, where newcomers and professionals mingled, to grow, to try parts they would never get in the professional theater and to even fall on their face."
Gazzara’s first two marriages, to actresses Louise Erikson and Janice Rule, ended in divorce.
While filming "Inchon" in Korea in 1981, he met Krivat. they married the following year, and the union endured.
"Elke saved my life," Gazzara said in 1999. "When I met her, I was drinking too much, fooling around too much, killing myself. She put romance and hope back in my life."
He adopted Krivat’s daughter, Danja, as his own. She recalled on Friday that he was a "complex soul" and that his role as a father to her and his own daughter was challenging.
"I adored Ben, and so did his daughter," she said. "But we both had difficulty with him … I think the difficulty lay in his complexity of being an actor and those layers that you have, that you bring with you."
Besides Danja, Gazzara is survived by his wife, daughter Elizabeth and a brother.
Former Associated Press writer Bob Thomas in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
Ben Gazzara, the gritty actor who was a member of John Cassavetes' independent troupe after attaining TV fame for starring in the 1960s NBC series run for Your Life, died Friday afternoon in Manhattan, the New York Times reported.
The actor died of pancreatic cancer at Bellevue Hospital Center, his lawyer, Jay Julien, told the newspaper. Gazzara lived in Manhattan.
Noted for his naturalistic performances, Gazzara played in three Cassavetes films during a seven-year span in the 1970s: Husbands, the killing of a Chinese Bookie and Opening Night. he also starred as an alcoholic Italian writer in Marco Ferreri’s Tales of Ordinary Madness (1981).
While linked aesthetically with Cassavetes and independent-minded films, Gazzara also excelled in mainstream movies including Road House (1989), starring Patrick Swayze. even in the broadest of such popular entertainments, he invested his supporting characters with gritty dimensions, as in the 1999 remake of The Thomas Crown Affair.
A native of New York's lower East side, Gazzara played Brick in the original Tennessee Williams Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, starred in the 1959 classic Anatomy of a Murder and won an Emmy in 2003 for his supporting role in the HBO telefilm Hysterical Blindness.
Throughout his career, Gazzara positioned himself for “creative elbow room,” seeking edgy characters in non-mainstream productions or infusing mainstream productions with idiosyncratic supporting turns. But he always felt he should have done more.
“I turned down so many movies because I was idealistic,” he once said. “if I had the same chances today, I would take them all because you never know where it will lead.”
Born Biagio Anthony Gazzara on Aug. 28, 1930, he grew up in a cold-water flat, speaking Italian as his first language. Despite the hardships, Gazzara persevered to study engineering at City College of New York but gravitated to acting, going on to study with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio.
Gazzara made it to Broadway in 1953 as a manipulative cadet in end as a Man. two years later, he co-starred in Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and followed with a starring role in A Hatful of Rain. Despite acclaimed performances, Gazzara was not selected to play either role in the film adaptations: Paul Newman got the part in Cat, and Don Murray starred in the movie version of Hatful.
However, end was made into a 1957 film, now titled the strange one, and his intense performance attracted attention.
Gazzara was next cast in Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959), playing a belligerent Navy officer and murder defendant whom lawyer Jimmy Stewart gets off — and who then skips town without paying his legal bill. the film earned seven Oscar nominations, and Gazzara’s strikingly sinister portrayal led to similar roles including a turn in Convicts 4 (1961), in which he played a hostile inmate whose life changes when he discovers art.
Gazzara’s ability to show multiple dimensions, from amoral toughness to sensitivity, led to meaty roles. he thrived on playing highly conflicted and desperate characters. In 1963, he co-starred with Chuck Connors in the 90-minute series Arrest and Trial. two years later, he gained national attention with his performance as a lawyer with a short time to live in run for Your Life.
The series ran for three seasons. at his peak of popularity and recognition after run, Gazzara starred in TV’s first miniseries, QB VII (1974), an adaptation of Leon Uris’ best-selling novel.
During this period, Gazzara hooked up with Cassavetes, his acting-school buddy. Cassavetes’ psychologically turbulent subject matter, often involving personal demons and midlife crises, was a fitting canvas for Gazzara’s searing portrayals. Along with Cassavetes and Peter Falk, Gazzara co-starred in Husbands (1970), playing one of three middle-aged men whose best friend’s death triggers their panicky spiral into debauchery in New York and London.
Next for Cassavetes, Gazzara starred as a seedy L.A. strip-club operator who is deep in hock to the mob in the killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976). he took a supporting role in Cassavetes’ next opus, 1977's Opening Night, which starred Gena Rowlands as an actress traumatized by witnessing the accidental death of a longtime fan.
Gazzara also starred with Cassavetes in the oddball disaster film Capone (1975), which Gazzara ratcheted up as the dying, syphilis-ridden gangster. (Cassavetes did not direct the film.)
Amid such dark peculiarities, Gazzara played in lighter fare during the late 1960s and ’70s, including if It’s Tuesday, This must be Belgium, the Neptune Factor, High Velocity and Sidney Sheldon’s Bloodline.
He also hooked up with director Peter Bogdanovich, starring in Saint Jack (1979) and They All Laughed as well as the Reverend Sun Myung Moon-produced Korean War extravaganza Inchon, the latter two released in 1981. In addition, Gazzara brought his mix of surly toughness and psychological complexity to mainstream roles, most notably his intimidating performance as a bisexual thug in Road House.
In the '90s, a new generation of independent filmmakers, weaned and schooled on Cassavetes fare, cast him in their movies: In three 1998 films, Gazzara was featured as a pornographer in the Coen Brothers’ the big Lebowski; played an obsessed father in Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo '66; and portrayed a husband walking away from a 40-year-marriage in Todd Solondz’s Happiness. the same year, he was featured in Too Tired to Die, as an artist romancing a much younger Korean girl, and as a senile actor in John Turturro’s Illuminata.
A year later, Gazzara brought his gritty intensity to the role of a Bronx crime lord in Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam.
Starting in 2003, Gazzara portrayed New York Yankees legend and linguist Yogi Berra in the off-Broadway production Nobody Don’t Like Yogi and appeared in Lars von Trier’s controversial Dogville (2003). Despite being treated for throat cancer, which made his voice gravelly, Gazzara brought his one-man Yogi to such New York venues as Sag Harbor and Syracuse. he also was featured in a segment of the 2006 collaborative film Paris, Je T’aime.
Gazzara had been married to actress Elke Krivat since 1982 and had previous marriages to actresses Louise Erickson and Janice Rule. In addition to Krivat, survivors include two daughters and a brother.
The five movies on cable that I can’t turn off. These are not in any rank order of preference.
Road House (1989) – Patrick Swayze is Dalton, the zen loving bouncer who cleans up a corrupt town run by Brad Wesley (Ben Gazzara). So what if the acting is wooden, the premise hokey, the fight scenes unbelievable. It’s a very cool movie and a ton of fun. the film scored 42% on Rotten Tomatoes but what do they know? Other notables in the star-studded cast include Kelly Lynch and Sam Elliot. There’s even an actor named John Doe. I once watch this movie back to back at 8 & 10 pm on TBS. Maybe I need counseling.
The Verdict (1982) – Paul Newman is incredible as Frank Galvin, a down on his luck alcoholic lawyer who wins the case of his life and wins redemption in the process. Jack Warden, Charlotte Rampling and James Mason round out a stellar cast. the acting is superb, the storyline is topnotch. Arguably some of the best courtroom scenes in film history. the scene where Galvin gets tossed out of the funeral parlor for trying to give his business card to the grieving widow is pricelessly pathetic.
Remember the Titans (2000) – Based on true events surrounding the integration of two high schools in 1971, this is one heck of a movie. Denzel Washington is excellent as Coach Herman Boone. A young Hayden Panettiere plays Sheryl Yost, the daughter of Boone’s assistant coach bill Yost (played by Will Patton). the football scenes are good, the acting is fine. Titans is a solid movie.
Die Hard (1988) – For my money one of the best action movies ever made. Bruce Willis, Bonnie Bedelia, Allan Rickman and the guy who played the dad on the sitcom Family Matters are all great in this special effects bonanza. Willis as New York cop John McClain has some great lines as he battles a cadre of well-armed thieves looking to rip off millions from the Nakotomi Corporation. Grab a beer, some cold pizza, sit back and enjoy.
Godfather (1972) Godfather II (1974) Goodfellas (1990) – I know that technically this is more than five movies but I just couldn’t pick one of these mob must sees. I’ll stop and watch either of these three at any time of the day or night.
If you have some favorites post them in the comments section and send them along.