A Closer Look at The Great Actor, John Cazale – Who?

June 26th, 2011 by Michael Tabor

Yes, unless you are a film aficionado you will more than likely not recognize the name – John Cazale, even though he appeared in and had an instrumental role in 5 of the greatest movies ever made. The few people who do recognize him are usually Godfather fans and know him as Fredo, the weak older brother of Michael Corleone; they will not however be able to recall his real name –John Cazale. Although Mr. Cazale did not by any means play the “lead’ I could say without any hesitation that without Fredo, The Godfather and The Godfather II would certainly not be the great movies that they are. (Many film scholars rank The Godfather and The Godfather II as the greatest films ever made, including myself.) I would even go out on a limb and say the movies could not be done without him. I have seen The Godfather I & II more than 3 dozen times (I am not exaggerating) and some of the most memorable and indelible scenes etched in my mind are the scenes of which John Cazale is apart. There are good actors and there are great actors. John Cazale unquestionably fell into the latter category and what added to his greatness was the way he played these unique and very unflattering character roles with a style that has and had never been seen before. What happened though? How did John Cazale fall through the cracks and not become a household name like Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro ? Interestingly enough, De Niro and Al Pacino both have stated that John Cazale was the greatest actor they have ever worked with. Pacino went so far as to say that Cazale changed his life and made him, he himself Al Pacino, a better actor. The one reason and really the main reason was that his film career lasted only 6 years (he was an actor his whole life and did theater before film but it was in fact just 6 years of film work). John Cazale sadly succumbed to lung cancer at the age of 42 and was very sick when he did his last film, The Deer Hunter . One may ask, how could one work when one is that sick? (John was throwing up blood, was pale as a specter, had dark circles under his eyes, etc.) . Meryl Streep said in an oddly, endearing and comical way that John always looked sick even before he was diagnosed. I was happy to find that there was a short documentary (40 min.) about John Cazale called I Knew it was you: Rediscovering John Cazale (I recommend this to everyone – short but solid). In this documentary, Robert De Niro stated that (Meryl Streep was John Cazale’s fiancée at the time. They frequently alluded to the fact that though John was no looker he always had a beautiful woman by his side) he never saw 2 people so deeply in love and when he thinks of Meryl Streep, he doesn’t think of her incredible body of work, but rather how wonderfully caring and loving she was towards John. She stayed at John’s bedside to the very end. Look at the films John Cazale was in: The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather II, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Deer Hunter. Wow! He was in only five films but they were films that are arguably five of the greatest films ever made. If John Cazale lived out a normal life – perhaps another 30 years of work; John Cazale died right before the release of The Deer Hunter in 1978. What would have become of him? I could only imagine what greatness he could have left for us. I will end this Op-ed blog by mentioning just a few scenes in which John Cazale appeared that will stay with me forever: · Towards the end of The Godfather II, there is an exchange between Pacino and Cazale (I believe it was there last talk before Fredo gets whacked) at lake Tahoe in the patio room overlooking the lake and Michael says he has always taken care of Fredo. Fredo who had been slouching in his recliner and attempting to explain and apologize for his behavior reacts to Michael’s comment and erupts – “taken care of me? You are my kid brother and you take care of me…the acting doesn’t get better than this, not to mention the intensity of this dramatic scene. · In Godfather I – Fredo’s inept attempt to use a gun and rescue his father (Brando – “The Don”) and his reaction afterwards. · In The Deer Hunter – Cazale forgets his hunting boots and De Niro, though he has an extra pair refuses to lend them to Cazale – watch this exchange, it is one of my favorite parts of the movie. · Dog Day Afternoon – The whole movie Cazale is intense and nervous throughout. Both Pacino and Cazale are phenomenal. I am not sure if words can adequately describe their performances. I must mention just one funny and sad moment in the film, which occurs when Pacino asks Cazale to which country he would like to go in order to escape and Sal replies (Cazale) “Wyoming.” I could write a book. Please watch the 5 aforementioned movies and watch John Cazale. He was surrounded by greatness in every movie but had he lived, John Cazale may have been the greatest actor of all time. R.I.P. John Cazale – I always thought you were special. We love your comments. So WHADAWETHINK?

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7 Responses to “A Closer Look at The Great Actor, John Cazale – Who?”

  1. Sal Paradise Says:

    Nice piece on a man my father and I have (for several decades) believed never got his due. How many actors then or since can so excel in portrayals of pathetic, inept, flawed characters? How many are willing to swallow their vanity and play such unflattering roles over the objections of their PR people? Very few, unless it’s calculated to prove their ‘range’ and perhaps garner them an Oscar nod.

    Kudos for referencing “The Conversation,” an often overlooked gem.

  2. le duke de formage Says:

    Mr. Tabor, The scene where Fredo on a dock at lake tahoe, tells his nephew how he and not his brothers caught fish when they were young defines what acting is all about. I have often thought about that scene and can relate to what it meant to him. great actor great movie.

  3. photography website builder Says:

    Wonderful, keep it up thanks.

  4. Michael Tabor Says:

    Great hearing from you Sal. In the documentary there is mention of some of the very things you brought up. John Cazale was not afraid to look weak & inept; most actors are so vain that if they are are offered such roles they will play it over-the-top so people will know they’re playing a character. John Cazale was beloved by all and wasn’t afraid to like you said Sal.

    Le duke de formage -As soon as I hit publish on my keyboard, I thought of that scene and I was hoping someone would bring it up. The “Hail Mary’s” was the trick for catching fish. Thanks for bringing this scene up. He was great.

  5. kiki Says:

    Thank you..really informative!!

  6. Antoine Says:

    Actually hard to find practiced individuals on this subject issue, nevertheless, you sound like you are aware of exactly what you are speaking about! Many thanks

  7. Nancy Says:

    Thanks for the share!

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