By Robert Simonson
03 Feb 2012
|Photo by Aubrey Reuben|
Darkly handsome, with a brooding, manly persona, the New York-born, Italian-American actor—born Biagio Anthony Gazzara—caught the acting bug when still a teenager. Though he majored in electrical engineering at City College, he soon after was taking acting classes at the Dramatic Workshop of The New School in New York with the influential German director Erwin Piscator.
Thereafter, he joined the Actors Studio, and quickly became one of the most visible proponents of its performance theories. (In those early days, he was frequently compared to Marlon Brando.) He made his Broadway debut in 1953 in End as a Man, a stage adaptation of Calder Willingham's novel (written by Willingham) about life at a brutal southern military academy. It opened at the Theatre de Lys in Greenwich Village and soon transferred to Broadway. Mr. Gazzara won a Theatre World Award for his performance.
Two years later he was a star, creating the role of Brick in Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and, later in 1955, playing morphine-addicted war veteran Johnny Pope in Michael V. Gazzo's A Hatful of Rain. His deep, gruff voice (one writer called it a "buzzsaw basso"; Mel Gibson was known to imitate it when on the set of his movies), focused gaze, and intensity of manner lent an innate manliness to both parts. It would prove a trait he would bring to most every performance.
Mr. Gazzara repeated his role in End as a Man in the film version of the play, titled "The Strange One" (1957). But he would lose the movie part of Brick to Paul Newman. Thus set the pattern for an erratic film career in which prime opportunities were juxtaposed with long fallow periods of poor choices and inactivity. "I turned down so many movies because I was idealistic," he reflected in later life. "I was so pure. I didn't really take advantage of the opportunities. If I had the same chances today I would take them all because you never know where it will lead."
Some good film roles he did accept. He starred opposite James Stewart—a movie star he had tried to imitate as a child—as a soldier on trial for avenging his wife's rape in Otto Preminger's 1959 courtroom drama "Anatomy of a Murder." The 1960s brought a couple of Italian films, including "The Passionate Thief" (1960) opposite Anna Magnani, as well as the Hollywood films "The Young Doctors" and "Convicts 4." But for the most part, opportunities were wanting, and Mr. Gazzara turned to television for work.
"I had to pay the rent," he said of the TV show "Run for Your Life," in which he played a successful lawyer who is told in the first episode that he will die in one to two years, and decides to do all of the things he has never had time for before. "The offer was good, but it was before the big, big money in television. And that was hard work, I gotta tell you. You know we made 30 one-hour shows a year? I was in every scene, morning, noon and night. It was really tiresome, I gotta tell you. Hard, hard. Ran for three years, and we made 80, 85 shows." The series was rewarding attention-wise, however. He won two Emmy nominations and three Golden Globe nominations.
In the 1970s, his movie career revived when his filmmaker friend John Cassavetes cast him in several of his critically praised films, including "Husbands" (1970), "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie" (1976) and "Opening Night" (1977). The actor called the first and second among the favorite films he ever made.
After disappearing from view for several years, Mr. Gazzara experienced a career renaissance in the late 1990s and early 2000s, after a host of independent filmmakers rediscovered his work with Cassavetes. He took on key supporting roles in films by David Mamet ("The Spanish Prisoner"), Vincent Gallo ("Buffalo '66"), the Coen brothers ("The Big Lebowski"), Todd Solondz ("Happiness"), John Turturro ("Illuminata"), Spike Lee ("Summer of Sam") and Lars von Trier ("Dogville").
Mr. Gazzara returned to the stage regularly, acting in The Night Circus in 1958 (which had a short run, but introduced him to his second wife, actress Janice Rule); a revival of Strange Interlude in 1963; and Traveler Without Luggage in 1964. He starred in a 1975 revival of O'Neill's Hughie, and as George opposite Colleen Dewhurst's Martha in a 1976 production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? His final Broadway appearance was as the grandfather in a 2006 revival of Odets' Awake and Sing!, for which he won a Drama Desk Award. He was nominated for Tonys for Hughie and Woolf.
He is survived by his wife, Elke Stuckmann, whom he married in 1982, and a daughter.
While he frequently played combustible neurotics on film and stage, in interviews Ben Gazzara came off as thoughtful, literate and grounded. Asked by a reporter in a 1957 interview about the premiere of the movie "End as a Man" what was next on his agenda, the actor replied, "Meanwhile, I'd like to be a man."