Ben Gazzara, one of the great character actors of his generation, has died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 81. A product of New York's Lower East Side, Gazzara grew up speaking the language of his Italian-immigrant parents and had to learn English as his second language. He caught the acting bug while still in his teens, but only signed up at the theater program at The New School after a stint studying electrical engineering at City College didn't pan out. In 1951, he joined the Actors Studio at a time when it was the hottest incubator of theatrical talent in Manhattan and, under its director Lee Strasberg, the center of the Method. It launched him into a career that would span 60 years.
He made his Broadway debut in the 1952 production End As A Man, which which was adapted by Calder Willingham from his own novel. Gazzara played Jocko DeParis, a smiling, sadistic cadet at a Southern military academy who uses his rank, the power of his family connections, and his Machiavellian slyness to terrorize everyone within reach. The role gave Gazzara the chance to use his brilliance at games of theatrical one-upmanship and his special talent for projecting intelligence, meanness, and the suggestion of something twisted in his cocky nature. At the same time, even at his nastiest, he could be too funny and entertaining to be really disliked. In 1957, the play was filmed (as The Strange One), marking his movie debut. Directed by Actors Studio member Jack Garfein and with the cast of the New York production largely intact, the movie endures as a potent time capsule of what the Method was about when it was new and smoking fresh. You can see how Gazzara would have caused a sensation in the New York theater at the time, and you can also see the qualities that inspired Pauline Kael, reviewing another performance of his 25 years later, to write that he was "handsome yet guarded, like an armadillo. He could be a survivor of an ancient (and trustworthy) race."
Exciting as all this may sound, they were not qualities to make Hollywood studios offer him the keys to the vault. Gazzara's second Broadway role was as Brick in the original production of Tennessee Williams' Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, but he wasn't courted for the movie version, which starred Paul Newman. Instead, he made his second appearance on movie screens in Otto Preminger's Anatomy Of A Murder (1959), playing an army lieutenant on trial for the murder of a man he says raped his wife. Although the hero of the movie is the lieutenant's defense attorney, the film strongly implies that the lieutenant is a mean drunk and a wife-beater who may have killed the man out of sheer cussedness. (He even skips out on paying the lawyer after he gets him off.) The movie was considered groundbreaking in its day because of its frank discussion of rape, and Gazzara's performance firmly established that things just seemed a little more real when he was around. He'd work steadily for the rest of his life, but he was now soundly defined as a supporting player in Hollywood, with occasional flings as a leading man in low-budget schlock (such as 1973's The Neptune Factor and the cheesy 1975 biopic Capone) and more offbeat projects.
Many of the films that fall into the latter category came about through his friendship with the unofficial pope of American independent cinema, John Cassavetes. Over the course of seven years, he starred in three films directed by Cassavetes: Husbands (1970), The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie (1976), and Opening Night (1977). He also co-starred with Cassavetes' wife in the 1985 TV movie An Early Frost, in which they played the parents of a man (Aidan Quinn) dying of AIDS. They later both appeared in the 2002 TV film Hysterical Blindness. Gazzara was nominated for an Emmy Award for both films, and he won for the second one.
Gazzara also starred in two films directed by Peter Bogdanovich, Saint Jack (1979) and the troubled They All Laughed (1981), as well as Marco Ferreri's Tales Of Ordinary Madness (1981), the film that inspired Kael to compare him favorably to an armadillo, in which he played a fictionalized version of Charles Bukowski several years before Mickey Rourke inherited the franchise. Later on, he appeared in David Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner (1997); Vincent Gallo's Buffalo '66 (1998); the Coen brothers' The Big Lebowski (1998), in which he spoofed his own ominousness as the flesh peddler Jackie Treehorn, famous for treating objects as if they were women; Todd Solondz's Happiness (1998); Spike Lee's Summer Of Sam (1999); John McTiernan's 1999 remake of The Thomas Crown Affair (1999); and Lars von Trier's Dogville (2003), along with a great many other films, many of them in Italian. Bad movie fans may know him best as the bad guy in Road House (1990), one of two films that earned him Razzie Award nominations. (The other was the 1982 Moonie military epic Inchon.) He had been known to suggest that it was probably his most-seen performance.
His Broadway credits include Michael V. Gazzo's A Hatful Of Rain in 1955, a revival of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1976, and Eugene O'Neill's two-character, near-monologue play Hughie, double-billed with Duet, in 1975; each of these performances earned him a Tony nomination. His last stage appearance was in a 2006 production of Clifford Odets' Awake and Sing!