Monday, March 12, 2012

We knew it was him

If you had only ever watched the same handful of American TV shows from the 1970s – let’s say Columbo, The Rockford Files, Charlie’s Angels, Quincy and CHiPs, just for starters – it is likely that you will have seen countless pop-up performances from an equally small group of character actors, such as Leslie Nielsen, Charles Napier, John Vernon and Anthony Zerbe.

The 1970s film industry employed a similar repertory company for myriad generic roles, people like Robert Vaughan, Harry Dean Stanton, Burt Young and, again, the prolific John Vernon turning up in support of or as foils to the real stars of the era, like Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood and, of course, arguably the two greatest actors of their generation, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro.

While Pacino and De Niro have, to date, knocked up almost 130 movies between them, one of the most significant actors who appeared with both of them only made five films in his entire career - The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon and The Deer Hunter, all of which were either nominated for or  won the Oscar for Best Picture. The actor's name was John Cazale, and he died 34 years ago today aged just 42. And he was probably the greatest actor you’ve never known.

Born in Boston in 1935, Cazale built his career in theatre, running into Pacino in the process (although they actually met for the first time while working in menial jobs at Standard Oil in New York, in between parts). Their careers – and their friendship – remained inextricably linked until Cazale’s death. "When I first saw John, I instantly thought he was so interesting," recalled Pacino in an Entertainment Weekly interview in 2003. "Everybody was always around him because he had a very congenial way of expressing himself."

It was playing the good-hearted but “weak and stupid” Fredo Corleone that shifted Cazale’s career from solid theatre performer to the ‘almost’-movie star he became. Fredo set him up to play similar characters in Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon (the jumpy Sal Naturile opposite Pacino's first-time bank robber, Sonny Wortzik) and the shrew-like Stan in The Conversation (filmed almost concurrently with The Godfather Part II and also directed by Francis Ford Coppola).

"He had all the qualities I had hoped for in Fredo, and there was no hesitation to cast him," Coppola recalled in the 2010 HBO documentary, I Knew It Was You. As the weakest of Vito and Carmela Corleone's offspring, Fredo becomes ballast between the headstrong Sonny and the apparently naieve Michael in the wake of their father's failed assasination in New York, a position underpinned by his failure to get a shot off after the Don's would-be assassins. Cazale stole the assassination scene entirely, sitting on the Little Italy curbside, weeping.

In an expanded role in Part II, Fredo is the older but resentful Corleone sibling. Although Michael's underboss, through a favour of a favour he is working for the family in Las Vegas - where he ends up betraying his younger brother. In the role, Cazale turned Fredo from the drunken loser of the first film into a sleazy Vegas playboy - whose weakness for women (and Mob vulnerability to hinted-at homesexuality) leads to his exploited betrayal of the clan - and his eventual murder on a Lake Tahoe fishing boat. It is this, pivotal, plotline that leads to Michael's heavy fratricidal guilt for the remainder of the epic trilogy.

In 1977 Cazale was cast alongside Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep and Christopher Walken in The Deer Hunter, Michael Cimino’s epic rites-of-passage saga of a group of small town Pennsylvania steelworkers who are shipped off to fight in Vietnam and return to indifference.

As filming began, Cazale had been diagnosed with terminal bone cancer. Cimino rescheduled the actor’s scenes so that they would be filmed first, a morbid but necessary measure to ensure that the one of Hollywood’s greatest ‘nearly’ men would have his final performance on screen. Cazale completed his scenes but, sadly, didn’t live to see the film’s premiere in 1978.

“I learned so more about acting from John than anybody,” Pacino said in the 2010 HBO documentary I Knew It Was You. Generous actorspeak, you might say, but there were plenty of lead actors who owed their performances to Cazale’s acting behind them. Gene Hackman, on the other hand, found Cazale’s shadow in The Conversation a little intimidating and “extremely intense” – probably one of the reasons Coppola had cast him following his experiences with the actor in The Godfather Part II, even writing the role of Stan especially for him.

The documentary also afforded Streep a rare opportunity to open up about her relationship with Cazale, with whom she was dating at the time of his death (and was at his bedside on March 12, 1978 when he passed away).

“We would talk about the acting process endlessly,” Streep said in the programme.

“He was monomaniacal about the work. I think I was more glib and ready to pick the first idea that came to me. He would say, ‘There are a lot of other possibilities.’ That was a real lesson. I took that to heart. I always think about it.”

Streep’s relationship with Cazale was a mixture of romantic love and professional appreciation, Pacino’s bond was similiarly profound: “All I wanted to do was work with John for the rest of my life,'' Pacino revealed in I Knew It Was You. ''He was my acting partner”.

Perhaps it was fate that brought Pacino together with Cazale, in turn bringing him to the attention of Lumet and Coppola, and made him a ‘must-have’ for The Deer Hunter, one of the seminal star vehicles of the ‘70s.

But whatever it was, for five brilliant films and the final six years of his life, John Cazale played an integral part in the gathering reputations of a group of actors who are still, today, at the top of their game. Their success owes more than a little to the character actor with the mournful eyes and pallid complexion, the spindly appearance and the receding hairline who was every bit the star himself.

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