Requiem for Mr. Tough Guy

Ben Gazzara, born a street kid in Manhattan, died there on Friday, at 81, of pancreatic cancer—one of the few opponents tougher than he was.

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American actor Ben Gazzara.

The domineering cadet at a Southern military college has successfully covered up two hazing crimes by intimidating his classmates and manipulating his superiors. Now he’s been unmasked and cornered by a lynch mob of fellow cadets; he’s lost his edge but not his edginess. “My name is Jocko de Paris,” he shouts defiantly. “That’s right. And that name means guts and brains and willpower!”

At the climax of his feature-film debut, The Strange One in 1957, Ben Gazzara was articulating the alpha-male gifts he would display in an acting career that spanned nearly 60 years and all the major media. As the original Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on Broadway, as Al Capone in the movies and as the thrill-seeking lawyer under a death sentence on the ’60s TV drama Run for Your Life, Gazzara was Mr. Tough Guy, Method branch. His surly sexuality could turn any dialogue with man or woman into armed combat; his insolent smile passed judgment on all who dared tangle with him; his hoarse, potent baritone, which he rarely needed to raise, gave him the aura of an Old Testament God’s most implacable enforcer. Gazzara, born a street kid in Manhattan, died there on Friday, at 81, of pancreatic cancer—one of the few opponents tougher than he was.

Biaggio Anthony Gazzara, the son of Italian immigrants, grew up on East 29th Street in New York City. He got into acting as a teenager, and by 22 he was a Broadway star, playing Jocko in End as a Man (as the stage version of The Strange One was called). Suddenly he was the legitimate theater’s Harry Hot: Tennessee Williams and director Elia Kazan chose him to play Brick in early 1955, and in the fall he left the show (replaced by Hawaii Five-0‘s Jack Lord) to play Johnny Pope in A Hatful of Rain, Michael V. Gazzo’s harrowing tale of a morphine addict and his family. All three plays became Hollywood films within a few years, but Gazzara was in only one of them. The Cat on a Hot Tin Roof male lead went to Paul Newman, and Don Murray, a 20th Century-Fox contract player, got the Johnny Pope role in the movie version.

So though Gazzara had the charismatic chops of other Method men before and after—Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino—he lacked their luck. Those three were lucky to find director-mentors to shape their early film careers: Kazan for Brando, Martin Scorsese for De Niro, Sidney Lumet for Pacino. Gazzara wasn’t granted that guardian angel. Kazan never put him in a movie; and Jack Garfein, director of the stage and screen versions of End as a Man, made only one other film. Gazzara was in his 40s when he teamed with John Cassavetes for three off-Hollywood films of high repute—HusbandsThe Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Opening Night—but by then his fate as an actor was determined. He would be one of those respected journeymen always welcome to join a project but rarely the focus of a prestige picture.

STRANGE, ELUSIVE STARDOM

The odd thing is that Jocko de Paris was a star-making part, and Gazzara filled it to icy perfection. In The Strange One he’s the alpha villain, admired and feared by classmates and faculty alike. As a senior at the military college, Jocko has the hierarchical right, and the inherent pleasure, to bully underclassmen, leaning into them and lasering a stare like a death threat. In this hothouse of homoeroticism, he strokes his saber and puffs like a dandy on his long cigarette holder, expectorating epithets at the weaker students. “Look, if you don’t stop hanging around me,” he warns an effeminate cadet he calls Cockroach, “I’m gonna stuff your nauseating carcass into one of those artillery pieces, pull the lanyard and blow you out to sea.” Even Jocko’s best friend (Pat Hingle) can spot the malignancy: “You’re a card, all right. You’re the ace of spades.”

A template for Gazzara’s career, The Strange One received only a limited release. But Otto Preminger saw it, and cast Gazzara in the 1959 all-star courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder. Gazzara was the brassy Lt. Mannion, a Korean War veteran on trial for murdering a man who had raped his wife; James Stewart played his defense counsel, Lee Remick the wife and George C. Scott the prosecutor. Mannion’s defense is that he committed a crime of passion under the “irresistible impulse” to avenge his wife’s honor. But the rage that the actor sends smoldering through the screen is pearly and calculating. A Gazzara character would never blow his stack unless he wanted to—and that was the key to the plot’s twist.

For most moviegoers, Lt. Mannion was their introduction to Gazzara. When Anatomy of a Murder became one of the year’s big hits, Hollywood scrambled to cast the perhaps-star in conventional leading roles. In the 1961 ensemble drama The Young Doctors, he plays an ambitious surgeon in a New York City hospital—a city kid impervious to any peril, except for putting on ice skates. (He falls twice.) Fredric March, as the elder-statesman surgeon whose job Gazzara covets, defines him acutely: “Cocksure, full of vinegar, no room for error, negligence or age.” March’s final advice to the young doctor: “Don’t waste time being humble.”

Being humble wasn’t Gazzara’s problem; the pride or arrogance in his persona might have been. Maybe Hollywood saw that the actor projected brains and guts, and little heart or warmth; the cool contempt for the world he exuded suggested a lizard’s body temperature. So Gazzara was frequently cast as some kind of capo, testing the hero but rarely getting to play one. He later said he turned down a lot of big roles and regretted doing so. For a few seasons in the mid-’60s he did take the money and Run for His Life, but he wasn’t suited to inhabiting a lovably crumply TV character, like his pal Peter Falk’s Columbo. And though Gazzara returned to Broadway occasionally (the last time in 2006 for a splendid revival of Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing), and toured in a one-man show about Yogi Berra, he never came near matching his 1950s streak of creating signature roles in three important plays.

Gazzara limited himself in other ways. Though he packed plenty of wit into his line deliveries, he rarely appeared in flat-out comedies. Nor did he expand his range by coating his native New Yawk dialect with a British or foreign accent. Throughout most of his career, he looked essentially the same, maintaining his muscular welterweight and, even in the 70s—that worst of decades of coiffure—keeping his hair cropped short, like an alpha monk. For 50 years, he played some aspect of prickly, macho Ben Gazzara. This self-type-casting may be one reason that David Thomson, in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, writes, “It is an open question as to whether he is a remarkable actor or simply a glowering ham.”

CASSAVETES AND COSMO

Gazzara’s three Cassavetes movies answer that question in different ways. Husbands casts him, Falk and Cassavetes as three guys in their 40s whose close friend has just died; they get to thinking about their own mortality and trying to outrun it, first with heavy drinking and binge-philosophizing, then by flying to London to hook up with some younger birds. Husbands, which landed its auteur on the cover of Life, was advertised as “a comedy about life, death, and freedom,” but is closer to an autopsy of male camaraderie. As Gazzara’s Harry tells his pals, his wife is a good lay, but he loves them more.

An actor’s director to a fault, Cassavetes worked from a script but let his performers improvise dialogue and take longer pauses, in search of behavioral realism (though, in real life, hardly anyone talks as slowly as people do in Method movies). Actors loved this process, both to find the truth of the moment and to extend their time on screen. In Husbands, the director gives his co-stars enough rope to hang themselves. The movie is a Cassavetes gulch between his breakthrough Faces in 1968 and the later A Woman Under the Influence and Opening Night, starring his wife, Gena Rowlands.

Gazzara played a supporting role in Opening Night, as the alcoholic actress’s director, but was front and center in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, released in 1976 at 2hr.15min., then two years later in a version nearly a half-hour shorter. On its face a gangster film—Gazzara is Cosmo Vitelli, a Hollywood strip club owner who to pay gambling debts is ordered by the mob to shoot an old Chinese man—the movie was really Cassavetes’ autobiography, the tale of an entrepreneur determined to pursue his shadowy dream against all those who would wreck it. “I’m the owner of this joint,” Cosmo tells his audience. “I choose the numbers, I direct them, I arrange them. You have any complaints, you just come to me, and I’ll throw you right out on your ass.”

In a 2004 DVD interview, Gazzara said of Cassavetes, “This picture was about the struggle, his struggle, to remain an artist.” Yet Chinese Bookie hewed close enough to genre conventions to make it, after a meandering first third, the director’s most Hollywoodish movie—in a good way. Gazzara, for once a movie’s underdog hero, shows resources of feeling not often glimpsed before. Set up by the mobsters, who don’t expect him to survive the hitman caper, Cosmo is the victim of a heinous hazing, just as Jocko had been the perpetrator of one. But he’s used to playing before a hostile crowd: the audience at his Crazy Horse West night club have tried to boo him off the stage, and he’s stood there like the Western gunman who won’t go down until he’s dead.

FROM BUKOWSKI TO LEBOWSKI

In a way, Gazzara’s freedom from superstardom was a blessing. The freelancer’s need to keep working and to support his family (he had three wives, including the actress Janice Rule) led him into illuminating detours. In Steve Carver’s 1975 Capone, he plays the title role opposite Cassavetes’ Frankie Yale (to whom he justifies his underworld sense of honor by saying, “I just don’t like cops, that’s all”). Gazzara’s Capone is a brutal, B-movie Richard III who by the end has veered into King Lear, eyes blazing as he talks to his dead mother and has an angry argument with himself.

The actor gives the same hint of misfit machismo as the alcohol-addled genius writer Charles Bukowski in Marco Ferrari’s fanciful, loopy bio-pic, the 1981 Tales of Ordinary Madness. Spouting poetry while sucking from a wine bottle in a paper bag, or burrowing his head in the crotch of his fat-lady lover, or kneeling to grasp a teenager’s nude body on Venice Beach, his Bukowski is a man apart, visiting Earth on a brief parole from his demons. Some movies were memorable for other reasons: the inert high-finance drama Bloodline, in 1979, brought him a two-year affair with Audrey Hepburn—the most regal of all Hollywood stars and, a least to outsiders, the very least likely Gazzara bedmate.

Those decades of trotting the globe—gracing movies from Italian sex dramas to the Russian Quiet Flows the Don, and from David Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner to the quirkiest American indies—won Gazzara all manner of acolytes. “It’s not often that I wish I could kick god right in the nuts, but this is one of those moments,” the blogger “Jame Gumb” (does that name sound familiar?) wrote on screenjunkies.com the day of Gazzara’s death. “You probably remember him best as pornographer Jackie Treehorn in the Coen Brothers’ classic, The Big Lebowski, or as monster-truck owning small-town dictator Brad Wesley in Road House. In fact, if you don’t know Gazzara from at least one of those roles, you are an awful person who needs to reassess his or her life.” Each gig cost Gazzara only a few days, but who can predict where immortality awaits? Fanboys who never saw him play Jocko can recite from memory such Treehorn aphorisms as “People forget that the brain is the biggest erogenous zone.” (To which The Dude, Jeff Bridges, replies, “On you maybe.”)

Gazzara never stopped working, making some 30 movies since the year 2000. Lars Von Trier invited him to Denmark to join Nicole Kidman, Lauren Bacall, James Caan, Harriet Andersson and John Hurt in the filming of the slavery parable Dogville; Gazzara went. The Internet Movie Database says he recently shot a picture, Max Rose, with Jerry Lewis.

But for the international audience his last significant appearance was in the omnibus film Paris, je t’aime: a six-minute segment, “Latin Quarter,” that he shares with Rowlands, who wrote the script. (The vignette’s directors were Gérard Depardieu, who plays a small part, and Frédéric Auburtin.) The two Cassavetes veterans play an elderly couple, long separated, meeting at a café to discuss their impending marriages to much younger partners. Gazzara looks impaired and shriveled, the saxophone voice now a thinner reed. He looks less like an old gangster than a retired tailor—or, 50 years later, one of the cadets that Jocko browbeat. The sadness in his eyes may be regret for the great stage and screen career that never was, for the early promise not quite fulfilled. Jocko de Paris, je t’aime.

Better to think of Gazzara in his long, studly prime, when he was cocksure and full of vinegar. Think of him at the beginning of Tales of Ordinary Madness, an alcoholic bum with the kernel of male grandeur, as the actor declaims Bukowski’s most famous poem: “Style is the answer to everything—a fresh way to approach a dull or dangerous thing. To do a dull thing with style is preferable to doing a dangerous thing without style. To do a dangerous thing with style is what I call art.”

That was Gazzara’s answer too. Mr. Tough Guy exuded the musk of danger, and did it with high, enduring style. That made him a consummate actor-artist.
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