Ben Gazzara died today at 81, of pancreatic cancer. As an actor, he’s one of the last of a generation: trained at the Actors Studio, he went on to create a 60-year career. After success on Broadway, Gazzara starred in films like Otto Preminger’s “Anatomy of a Murder” and as the terminally ill lawyer of the TV series “Run For Your Life.” And while he later created memorable performances in films like “The Big Lebowski,” “Buffalo 66” and “Happiness,” he may have been best known as part of the repertory group that defined many of John Cassavetes’ productions, including “Husbands,” “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” and “Opening Night.”
“Opening Night” is also where Gazzara met Peter Bogdanovich, a longtime admirer who became his champion and directed him in two films, “Saint Jack,” an adaptation of Paul Theroux’s novel in which Gazzara portrayed Jack Flowers, a small-time American pimp in Singapore; and “They All Laughed.” Indiewire called Bogdanovich, whose Blogdanovich is part of our blog network, and asked if he’d tell us what he remembered most about Gazzara. Here’s what he had to say.
The first review I ever wrote was for the Broadway play that made him a star, “End As a Man,” by Calder Willingham. It became a movie, “The Strange One.” I wrote it for my high school paper, when I was a freshman. I saw him in the theater four or five times — for “Cat on Hot Tin Roof, “A Hatful of Rain” — and the way he could pull focus… the first act of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is mostly Maggie talking and Brick looking out the window saying things like, “That’s right, Maggie.” And you couldn’t take your eyes off him. Your eyes just went to him; he had magnetism in spades.
I met him on the set of “Opening Night.” John Cassavetes asked me to come down to be an extra in the theater opening sequence and I loved Ben right away. I was planning to make “Saint Jack” and I thought he was perfect for the character. He was a wonderful storyteller — very out there, wasn’t afraid to talk loudly and cause a scene in a restaurant — and that’s the way the Jack character was. He wasn’t hot then, so Paramount didn’t want to make it with him; they wanted me to use somebody else. I said I wasn’t making it without Ben, so I took it to Roger Corman. I think it was the most he ever spent on a movie.
It was one of the most intense experiences I’ve ever had with an actor. We worked on the script together; it was really a collaboration. We won the critics prize at the Venice Film Festival for “St. Jack;” they hadn’t given the award in seven years. He was very much responsible for that prize, played a major role. And it revived his career, which I was very happy about. That led to him Paramount hiring him to make “Bloodline,” with Audrey Hepburn.
He and Audrey loved working together and that was the impetus for “They All Laughed.” I wrote it for Audrey and Ben. I knew Ben struggled with depression and I could see he was very depressed, but he gave a great performance. It was quite evident he was suffering. But we had to make the movie. He got through it — he’s the epitome of a trouper — but it wasn’t easy. He’s great in the picture.
I don’t think they make actors like Ben anymore. I’m going to miss him a lot.