Michael Sarrazin—an actor best known for his starring roles opposite Jane Fonda in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Barbra Streisand in For Pete’s Sake, and longtime girlfriend Jacqueline Bisset in several early-'70s films—has died after a brief battle with cancer. He was 70.
The Canadian-born Sarrazin had a swift rise to fame in the late 1960s, landing a meaty supporting role as Curley, the young Army deserter who forms a grifter team with George C. Scott in 1967’s The Flim-Flam Man. Though his contract with another studio meant he narrowly missed out on taking the lead role of Joe Buck in 1969’s Midnight Cowboy—and thus all the infamy and breakout stardom afforded to Jon Voight—he landed an even better, more lasting film in Sydney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, They Don’t They?, playing the failed would-be director who finds himself paired with Fonda in a Depression-era dance marathon that gradually turns into a grueling, horrific death march. Sarrazin’s leading man provides the film’s primary point of view—as well as its title, spoken in his final line of dialogue after the wallop of a climactic scene), and though his typically understated performance failed to nab him any nominations—he provides the stable emotional center that allowed so many of his Oscar-nominated fellow performers to really and truly unravel. (One of those, Susannah York, died in January.)
In 1971, Sarrazin starred opposite Paul Newman (who also directed), Henry Fonda, and Lee Remick in Sometimes A Great Notion, playing the suicidal youngest son of a family of lumber magnates who puts aside his depression and despair to join his estranged kin in battling a local logging union. He would reteam with Newman the following year on The Life And Times Of Judge Roy Bean, playing the husband to Jacqueline Bisset, with whom Sarrazin had a real-life relationship (begun on the set of the Beatnik drama The Sweetest Ride) for nearly 14 years.
Sarrazin was usually called upon to play depressed characters or serve as the face of post-Summer of Love disaffected youth, such as when he played a sensitive drug addict who corrupts Bisset in Believe In Me, or a jaded college student who flees a vehicular manslaughter charge in The Pursuit Of Happiness. But one of his other best-known roles put a radical spin on that sense of alienation: In the 1973 TV movie Frankenstein: The True Story, Sarrazin plays a markedly different version of Mary Shelley’s creation, one who begins life as the handsome toast of London society, then turns monstrous and mad as he rapidly devolves into a more recognizably hideous form. Though often pretty campy, Sarrazin’s surprisingly sympathetic portrayal actually made the film quite touching.
Starring as the unsuspecting husband who never seems to catch on to any of Barbra Streisand’s wacky moneymaking schemes (from prostitution to cattle rustling), Sarrazin didn’t have much to do in 1974’s For Pete’s Sake, despite being the “Pete” for whose sake she did all that stuff. After that, Sarrazin played another lead "Pete" in the supernatural suspense thriller The Reincarnation Of Peter Proud (a film optioned for a remake in 2009), and his career arguably reached its apex with a starring role in 1976’s The Gumball Rally, a wacky road-race precursor to The Cannonball Run that also starred Raul Julia and Gary Busey. In 1978, Sarrazin had what would be his last major film in 1978’s Iran-shot adaptation of James Michener’s Caravans.
That same year Sarrazin hosted an episode of Saturday Night Live, then throughout the ‘80s until his death, he would be seen in mostly supporting roles in films like Deadly Companion and The Seduction, the James Woods-starring drama Joshua Then And Now, the made-for-TV Harry Palmer movie Bullet To Beijing, and the Dolph Lundgren actioner The Peacekeeper. He also had many guest TV appearances throughout the ’80s and beyond on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, The Outer Limits, La Femme Nikita, and a recurring role on the Canadian series Deep In The City. Sarrazin’s last feature film was the 2002 Stephen Dorff-starring Feardotcom, while his final appearance was in the 2008 made-for-TV movie The Christmas Choir.