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The incredible and curious career of John Cazale

Born in 1935, John Cazale only acted in five films throughout the 1970s before his tragic death at the age of 42 from lung cancer. However, the actor’s small filmography is far from modest, with every feature film he starred in nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. These films include iconic pictures such as The Godfather, The Godfather Part II , The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Deer Hunter – with both of The Godfather movies and The Deer Hunter receiving the respective award.

Cazale began his career as a cab driver before pursuing his love for theatre at the Charles Playhouse in Boston during the late 1950s. After receiving much praise from local critics, Cazale decided to move to New York, where he earned money as a photographer whilst looking for acting jobs. The young actor starred in several theatre productions such as Paths of Glory and J.B. before joining the 1965 national tour of The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window.

It was a chance encounter with aspiring actor Al Pacino while working as a messenger at Standard Oil that led the pair to become close friends, with Pacino starring alongside Cazale in three out of five of his films. On meeting Cazale for the first time, Pacino said: “When I first saw John, I instantly thought he was so interesting. Everybody was always around him because he had a very congenial way of expressing himself.” Both actors were cast in The Indian Wants the Bronx, a play by Israel Horovitz, winning Obie Awards for their roles in 1968.

Cazale won another Obie that year for his role in Line, which he also starred in a few years later during 1971 alongside Richard Dreyfuss. It was during this run of the production that Cazale was scouted out by Fred Roos, a casting director. Roos informed Francis Ford Coppola that Cazale would be a great choice to play Fredo in his upcoming project The Godfather. Starring alongside his close friend Pacino and idol Marlon Brando, Cazale made his feature film debut in what became one of the most successful and critically heralded films of all time.

However, the actor has not been given the credit that he is due in comparison to his counterparts – his character acting so natural and perfect for every role that his talent has often been undermined. Despite his momentous performance as Fredo Corleone in The Godfather and its sequel, Cazale never received an Oscar nomination for his work, unlike his co-stars Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Talia Shire, Michael V. Gazzo, and Lee Strasberg. The star’s ability to mould into any role with such ease meant that Cazale himself faded into the background.

Cazale’s small yet dazzling performances feel so authentic and perfectly cast that audiences tend to forget that he is even acting. It is not until you compare the differences between each character that Cazale has played – from the rather spineless Fredo to the anxious bank robber Sal in Dog Day Afternoon, that one may realise how incredible Cazale’s character acting really was. Much of his talent resides in small gestures, facial expressions, and posture – his supporting roles imbuing scenes with the atmosphere needed to support the main characters.

After the success of The Godfather movies, Coppola also cast Cazale in The Conversation alongside Gene Hackman. Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon saw Cazale shine once again, however, the actor decided to return to the stage for a few years, working on plays such as Measure for Measure and Agamemnon. Unfortunately, in 1977 Cazale, a heavy smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer. Yet this didn’t stop the star from performing in one last film – The Deer Hunter. Director Michael Cimino agreed to shoot all of Cazale’s scenes first, however, when the studio discovered the severity of his illness, they demanded he be taken out of the film on insurance grounds. Cazale sadly died before the film was released, but according to his then-partner Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro paid the costs to ensure that Cazale would be able to star in his final film.

Furthermore, Ciminio, De Niro, and Streep threatened to walk out of the project if Cazale was to be removed from it. It’s safe to say that Cazale was adored by his co-stars and friends. Speaking about his friend, Pacino said: “It was amazing to watch. It was a lesson in itself. I think I learnt more about acting from John than anybody.” He has also inspired generations of actors, such as Philip Seymour Hoffman, who said, “he seemed to be kind of uncomfortably vulnerable with everything he did and that always makes people go ‘Ohh, I think I gotta work a little harder, I think I better rethink what I’m doing here!'”

It is time that audiences greater appreciate the importance of John Cazale and his place in Hollywood. A documentary commemorating the life of the star was made in 2009, entitled I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale, which offers a greater insight into the significance of his performances and the influence he had over his co-stars, such as Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, and Gene Hackman, who are all interviewed.

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