August 12, 1935 — March 12, 1978
Throughout the 1970s, American cinema was a playground for talented actors. Starring in films from directors who were either on the precipice of infamy or at the height of their careers, the men and women who populated our screens carved out the framework for a new set of Hollywood rules, revitalized a generation, and forever changed the medium. We worship the players like Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, and Dennis Hopper, but there was one man whose brief but memorable performances continue to live on after his all too sudden death: the wonderful John Cazale. It’s difficult to believe but Cazale was only in five films. Ever. Yet every single one of them went on to be nominated for Best Picture Academy Awards, most winning taking them home. Between Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather: Part I & II, Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon, Michael Chimino’s The Deer Hunter, and Coppola’s The Conversation, Cazale’s idiosyncratic characters and subtle, indefinable acting style played an integral role in these films that soon exist as proper cinematic classics. He once said, “I sometimes wonder if the inability to find oneself makes one seek oneself in other people, in characters,” and it’s a terrible shame we never got the chance to see him disappear into more of them. But as today is his birthday, we thought we’d celebrate his life by taking a look at some of his most memorable on screen moments, as well as the documentary, I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale. —Celebrating the Life of John Cazale on His Birthday by Hillary Weston
Here’s to one of the greatest actor’s of a generation. Still missed and a gift to all who’ve seen him, here’s to the great, John Cazale.
“John’s life was such a mystery,” said the documentary’s director-producer Richard Shepard. “He liked to drink. He liked to smoke. He liked beautiful women and he liked to act. His personal story was what it was. Once Meryl Streep said she’d learned about acting from John and Pacino said the same thing, I realized that, ultimately, this movie would be about acting in the guise of—John.” Streep had never spoken so publicly about Cazale. And if her emotional interview in the film is any indication, it wasn’t especially easy. Streep was at Cazale’s bedside as he lay dying. During the film, her eyes are sometimes red and slightly swollen as if she’d broken down, recovered and soldiered on. But here she is, the most Oscar-nominated actress in history, humbly crediting Cazale for inspiring her career. “We would talk about the [acting] process endlessly and he was monomaniacal about the work,” she says in the film. “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.” —Gina Piccalo, John Cazale, A Godfather of Acting
Al Pacino talks about his acting partner, John Cazale: “I learned more about acting from John than anybody.”
"In the screenplay, Cazale’s role was written to be a smart-ass street kid. But Al came to me and said, ‘Sidney, please, I beg you, read John Cazale for it.’ And when John came in I was so discouraged and thought ‘Al must be out of his mind.’ This guy looks thirty, thirty-two, and that’s the last thing I want in this part. But Al had great taste in actors, and I hadn’t yet seen him in The Godfather. And Cazale came in, and then he read, and my heart broke… One of the things that I love about the casting of John Cazale was that he had a tremendous sadness about him. I don’t know where it came from; I don’t believe in invading the privacy of the actors that I work with, or getting into their heads. But my God — it’s there — in every shot of him. And not just in this movie, but in Godfather II also. When Al asked him during a scene, ‘Is there any country you want to go to?’ Cazale improvised his answer by saying, after long thought, ‘Wyoming.’ To me that was the funniest, saddest line in the movie, and my favorite, because in the script he wasn’t supposed to say anything. I almost ruined the take because I started to laugh so hard… but it was a brilliant, brilliant, ad lib.” —Sidney Lumet