For a fun thing to do, I go over to IMDB.com and see who has a birthday every evening just after midnight, when the list switches. I’ll go through the résumés of the people who intrigue me most. See what they are up to – if they are still ambulatory, check if there’s anything I’ve missed, and generally reconsider their careers. Sometimes I even make a list. As you can see, I’m not that busy.
Like I said, mostly this is a fun thing to do. Especially when insomnia comes calling as it does for me on the regular. Of course, every now and then it’s a little sad. That usually happens when I take a glance at someone whose career never met it’s potential, or when I come across a favorite of mine who is no longer with us. Almost no one hits me in the chest quite like John Cazale though. You see, through no fault of his own, he fits into both categories.
John Cazale got a late start on film. He first received notice onstage in Boston at the age of 24 in 1959 while performing in a production of Our Town. He later moved to New York, and for the next decade he appeared on many a theatre stage while supporting himself as a cabby, a photographer, and then as a messenger for Standard Oil. There he met Al Pacino, who made this on the money statement:
“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.”
They became fast friends. Acted together onstage multiple times. They both won Obies while performing in a production of Israel Horovitz’s The Indian Wants The Bronx in 1968. Still, it would be four more years before Cazale would make his film debut. Again, working with Pacino. This time playing his onscreen brother, Fredo, in The Godfather. He was already 36 years old.
He then appeared in Coppola’s follow-up, The Conversation, in the relatively small role of Stan. Three more films followed. The Godfather Part II, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Deer Hunter.
And that was it.
After performing on Broadway for the first time as the lead in Agamemnon, he fell ill after only one performance. He was then diagnosed with lung cancer. Despite aggressive treatment, his cancer metastasized quickly. So much so that Deer Hunter Director, Michael Cimino arranged the shooting schedule so he and girlfriend Meryl Streep could shoot all their scenes first. Although terribly weak during filming, he was able to complete his scenes. He did not live to see the film win best picture or be released. In fact, he did not survive the filming.
John Cazale died on the morning of March 12, 1978, with Streep next to his bedside. He was only 42 years old. He left behind a total of five films. But my, what a five. All of them were best picture nominees. Three of them won the award. All of them are classics.
It’s nearly impossible to imagine any of them without Cazale’s particular energy. His hang dog face. Those deep sad eyes. That raven-toned shock of hair. Mostly, it was the vulnerability that always drew me in. Even when being fearsome and terrifying as he was in Dog Day Afternoon playing Al Pacino’s ill-fated fellow bank robber, Sal. A man who was dangerous, but who still seemed like he could break under the force of a harsh word.
Cazale was immortalized as Fredo, of course. And that’s a more than fair inscription for his cinematic tombstone. It’s the mountaintop of filmmaking. For a lot of people, the argument over the greatest film ever made comes down to Godfather vs. Godfather II. Pacino, Caan, and Brando were iconic. But so was Cazale. It is his betrayal of Michael that breaks your heart and Pacino’s soul. It’s a brave thing to surrender to a role like Fredo in the way Cazale did. To truly allow your character to be pathetic. When Fredo screams “I’m smart!”, he’s not so much standing up for himself as much as he is begging someone, anyone, to believe him. Including himself.
Still, it was in Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day where I feel he did his best work. It was the part the least like the others he had played. His Sal was hollowed out from the inside. Almost a zombie. Cazale was a thin, reedy man, but in this New York City classic, he was genuinely frightening. As electric as Pacino was as Sonny, Cazale played all the way to the opposite side. Quiet. Still. Of few words. In another film, he would have made a tremendous serial killer. But because Lumet and Cazale were not the types to settle for anything so simple and easy as the trope of the off-kilter freak who blows up a heist, you could feel something much deeper within Sal. The role was anything but one note despite how controlled it was. Cazale made you wonder. What happened to this man? What made him this way?
As the film goes on, mysteriously, even magically, you develop a sympathy for Sal. His fealty for Sonny clearly comes from a place of great affection. And as the situation inside the bank becomes more and more impossible, Sal’s desperation and fear start to seep out. By the end of the film, I felt like I was looking at a scared little boy. Cazale’s minimalism resulted in a maximalist effect. The whole thing happened right before your eyes, and yet you couldn’t really see it. You could only feel it.
My god, he was so wonderful.
Cazale was only once nominated for a major acting award for his film work. A Golden Globe for best supporting actor in Dog Day. He somehow lost to Richard Benjamin and his work in The Sunshine Boys. Oscar never came calling. Which seems like a pretty huge miss. I’ve always guessed he got passed over for Fredo because he was too good at playing such a weak man. I don’t have any answer for his lack of acknowledgement in Dog Day.
I suppose it doesn’t matter all that much. What’s more upsetting is how little work – in terms of quantity – there is to remember him by. Five films. That’s it. The good news is he made every one of them count. I wish John Cazale had lived long enough to make a bad movie. Not only for his own sake, or Meryl’s, but for ours. Because even though had he been with us for several more years, he would have surely made a misstep – the law of averages would have eventually had their way – we also would have gotten more. More Sals. More Fredos. More John.
Instead, what we have is small scale perfection. Five times up. Five times over the fence. There will never be another résumé like it.
It’s worth noting that John Cazale was a funny looking guy. I’m sure that held him back on film. He was thin as a rail. His forehead was more like a five. Maybe a six. His voice was kind of high. His eyes sunken and buggy at the same time. He was no one’s version of a matinée idol. I imagine one might wonder how Meryl Streep in the full bloom of her youth and beauty could have been not only attracted, but devoted, to such an odd-looking character. My theory has always been she could have picked anyone she wanted. But being Meryl Streep, she looked around the room and tried to find the only man whose gifts matched her own.
And there was John Cazale.