Spotlight On…John Cazale: The Best Actor You’ve Never Heard Of

James Hadland

John Holland Cazale (August 12, 1935 – March 13, 1978) was an American actor who appeared in just 5 films, before his life was tragically ended by bone cancer. These 5 films happened to be, however, all nominated for the Oscar Academy Award for Best Picture, as James Hadland explains.

After having watched the films in question, I can positively agree with Richard Shepard’s claim “His greatest ability was making the actors and filmmakers around him look really good” – stated in Shepard’s documentary “I Knew It Was You” about the late actor.

His start on the stage included notable performances such as The Indian Wants the Bronx (1967) in which he won an Obie award, and after his long-time friend Al Pacino invited him to audition, Cazale’s film debut was as Fredo Corleone in The Godfather (1972).

The Godfather (1972):

Here, he faced an almost impossible challenge to compete with actors such as Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, James Caan, Marlon Brando, eventual and contemporary icons of the cinematic world who have received countless Oscar nominations and totalled 4 between them. Fredo’s character was smaller and less fiery than the other Corleone fraternity, yet he has within the film an undeniable ability to appeal to the audience and create empathy for his character.

The Conversation (1974):

In fact, Coppola was so impressed with Cazale’s ability in the role that he wrote the part of Stan for him in his next film, The Conversation (1974) in which he co-starred with Gene Hackman and Harrison Ford. In the film, it is once more Cazale’s transparency that allows the audience to connect emotionally with his character, and his on-screen chemistry with Hackman enables the tension and thrill of the movie. This can particularly be seen from the look in Stan (Cazale)’s eyes after Harry (Hackman) finds out he has left him to work for Moran.

The Godfather Part 2 (1974):

In 1974, Cazale reprised the role of Fredo Corleone, being afforded far more screen time by an ever-impressed Francis Ford Coppola, in what I would argue is his magnum opus. The film’s central themes of family and power are embodied by Cazale’s character and, without giving anything away, includes a scene that could easily be argued as some of the best dialogue and character interaction Hollywood has ever seen. Remember to say 10 Hail Mary’s, Fredo. Such chemistry between lifelong friends is perhaps why Pacino, one of the best actors the screen has had the pleasure of watching, once said “All I wanted to do was work with John for the rest of my life. He was my acting partner.”

Dog Day Afternoon (1975):

Much to Pacino’s delight, the pair again co-starred for Sidney Lumet’s biographical drama chronicling the 1972 robbery and hostage situation led by John Wojtowicz and Salvatore Naturile at a Chase Manhattan branch in Brooklyn. Cazale plays Salvatore ‘Sal’ Naturile in a film where one can hardly look away, encapsulated by the film’s tension.

Cazale’s portrayal of the tender Stan in The Conversation and timid, weak Fredo Corleone is in stark contrast to Sal, who Cazale shows as erratic amidst the uncertainty of the heist. One line however that provides comic relief and an insight into Cazale’s character’s stupidity despite their attempt to rob a bank is when Sal answers ‘Wyoming’ as a country they could potentially flee to. In the film as a whole however, Cazale’s intense acting leads to the audience fearing Sal, and slightly pitying him, managing once more to achieve a connection between the audience and his side-character. After finishing Dog Day Afternoon, Cazale returned to stage and fell in love with the then-unknown Meryl Streep who, after he received a terminal prognosis of bone cancer, cared for him until his death.

The Deer Hunter (1978):

a testament, therefore, not only to his strength as an actor but also as a person

Director Michael Cimino was aware that Cazale was desperately ill and so his scenes were completed first. Cazale’s flawless performance was a testament, therefore, not only to his strength as an actor but also as a person, in the face of adversity and nearing his final days. As a side note, the actor was so ill that he was uninsurable before filming. It was Robert De Niro who put up all the insurance money personally to ensure he was cast, depicting a beautiful side to Hollywood, with De Niro and Cazale sharing a love for the craft and a great respect. His partner Meryl Streep also acted in the film and insisted she would quit if Cazale was fired from the production.

Despite his fleeting acting career, his influence has gone on to inspire actors in the following generations, such as Philip Seymour HoffmanSteve BuscemiSam Rockwell, and Michael Fassbender to name a few. What is perhaps further proof of Cazale’s Midas touch in Hollywood, is how one more film was posthumously released with footage of Cazale – the Godfather Part 3 – which was once again nominated for Best Picture. I recommend watching every movie within his filmography, where you will easily see why all the best wanted to work with him.

rest in peace John Cazale, possibly the greatest supporting actor of all time

Cazale died at approximately 3 a.m. on Monday, March 13, 1978, to cancer, and was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Malden, Massachusetts. Rest in peace John Cazale, possibly the greatest supporting actor of all time.

James Hadland

Featured Image courtesy of Blondinrikard Fröberg via  Flickr. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

In-article image courtesy of theacademy via instagram.com. No changes were made to this image.

In-article trailer 1 for The Godfather courtesy of Paramount Pictures via youtube.com. No changes were made to this video.

In-article trailer 2 for The Conversation courtesy of Rialto Pictures via youtube.com. No changes were made to this video.

In-article trailer 3 for The Godfather Part 2 courtesy of Paramount Movies via youtube.com. No changes were made to this video.

In-article trailer 4 for Dog Day Afternoon courtesy of Movieclips Classic Trailers via youtube.com. No changes were made to this video.

In-article trailer 5 for The Deer Hunter courtesy of StudiocanalUK via youtube.com. No changes were made to this video.

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