5 for 5: Actor John Cazale is more than an asterisk


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‘The Godfather,’ ‘The Conversation, ‘ ‘The Godfather: Part II,’ ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ and ‘The Deer Hunter’ may simply look like a list of some of the most acclaimed American films of the 1970s, which they are, but they also make up the entire filmography of actor John Cazale. ‘I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale,’ just released on DVD by Oscilloscope Laboratories, points out the rather extraordinary fact that all five films were nominated for the Academy Award for best picture.

The film takes its title from the famous line from ‘The Godfather: Part II’ when Al Pacino’s Michael says a bittersweet farewell to his older brother Fredo, played by Cazale, who died of cancer at age 42 in 1978. With his odd looks, unfortunate hairline and shifty, slightly feral demeanor, Cazale is something of an emblem of American film in the early 1970s, what many now see as a second Golden Age of Hollywood. Had Cazale lived, where might his career have taken him? Would he have moved on to leading roles? Or was he always to be a supporting player, the wounded vulnerability he conveyed so well having destined him for a life at the edges?


‘He was this weird little asterisk in terms of film history,’ said Richard Shepard, a veteran director of feature films and television who is making his first documentary with the Cazale film. ‘I related to him and loved him in those movies. It’s weird for me that he’s an actor that tends to play weak people, but there is something about him that is just so incredibly compelling. You can’t take your eyes off of him.’

Born in Massachusetts, Cazale studied theater at Boston University. After moving to New York, he became friends with Pacino when both appeared in a production of Israel Horovitz’s play ‘The Indian Wants the Bronx.’ It was while on-stage in a 1971 revival of Horovitz’s ‘Line’ that Cazale came to the attention of ‘Godfather’ producer Fred Roos.

‘I Knew It Was You’ was a bonafide labor of love for Shepard, who worked for more than three years in creating the 39-minute film. (With extras, the DVD runs 103 minutes.) The documentary includes new interviews with Cazale’s most high-profile collaborators, including his former girlfriend Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Gene Hackman, Pacino, Horovitz and directors Sidney Lumet and Francis Ford Coppola. The only person Shepard pursued and was unable to land for the documentary was notorious Hollywood recluse Michael Cimino, who directed Cazale in his final role in ‘The Deer Hunter.’

Actors of subsequent generations such as Steve Buscemi, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Sam Rockwell all turned out to be fans of Cazale’s work and appear as well. After reading an interview in which director Brett Ratner declared Cazale his favorite actor, Shepard contacted him and Ratner joined the project as a producer.

As a number of interviewees in the doc take care to mention that Cazale in real life was a far cry from the Cazale we know on screen. There is actually something heartening and strengthening with regard to his performances, to learn that he had a hearty zeal for living and was even something of a ladies’ man. Cazale was no Fredo.

‘Every actor I’ve ever met has wanted to be the cool guy,’ said Ratner of what lessons there are to be learned from reconsidering the work of John Cazale. ‘If you were casting ‘The Godfather’ right now, every great actor would want to play Sonny Corleone or Michael Corleone. Nobody would want to play the older brother who wasn’t smart.


‘And so his brilliance was really about being fearless and wanting to be vulnerable, to show weakness. And he was really there to service the other actors. He was a selfless guy, as an actor he didn’t think it was all about him.’

-- Mark Olsen