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Michael Gazzo; Film and TV Actor, Playwright

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Michael Vincente Gazzo, who as a writer shocked a relatively naive world in the 1950s with his piercing examination of a family torn apart by drug addiction in “Hatful of Rain,” and then earned accolades as an actor, is dead.

His daughter, Peppi, said Friday that her father was 71 when he died Feb. 14 in a Culver City hospital of the complications of a stroke.

Nominated for a supporting-actor Academy Award for his chilling portrayal of Mafia lieutenant Frank Pentangeli in “The Godfather, Part II,” Gazzo was a veteran of films who was normally cast as a bad guy in a career that began in 1954 with “On the Waterfront.” He said that over his career he was “killed about 20 times in mob films.”

His early work was on stage in “Androcles and the Lion,” “Arsenic and Old Lace,” “The Imbecile,” “The Little Foxes,” “Juno and the Paycock” and several regional productions in the late 1940s.

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That was also about the time he became a playwright.

A native of New Jersey, Gazzo had returned from serving with the Air Force during World War II to study with Erwin Piscator’s Dramatic Workshop of the New School in New York City. One of Gazzo’s first plays became the basis for “Hatful of Rain,” produced in 1955.

The play opened in New York and starred Ben Gazzara, Shelley Winters and Anthony Franciosa. The New York Times described it at the time as “a forthright statement of things that are horrifying and true.”

Although relatively tame by current standards, it dealt with conflict between two brothers, one addicted to morphine after being wounded in battle during the Korean War. It played before spellbound audiences in New York and later on tour across the nation.

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In the drama, Gazzo did not limit his examination to the lengthy form of suicide that eventually claims dope addicts, but also focused on how the brother’s habit destroyed various family members, including his pregnant wife, his father and his brother.

In 1957, Gazzo and Alfred Hayes adapted the play into a film starring Eva Marie Saint, Don Murray and Franciosa.

At his death, Gazzo was writing a film adaptation of “Hatful of Rainbows,” a stage sequel.

Although Gazzo gave one of his most praised performances in “The Godfather, Part II” as a Mafioso who commits suicide to avoid testifying against his friends, he found himself competing for the supporting actor award with two other featured players in the same picture, Lee Strasberg and Robert De Niro. De Niro won.

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Gazzo’s other movies included “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight,” “The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh” and “Back Roads.”

His TV credits included the dramatic anthologies “Philco Television Playhouse,” “Robert Montgomery Presents,” “Goodyear Television Playhouse” and dozens of other appearances on episodic TV.

Besides his daughter, he is survived by his wife, Grace; two sons, Michael and Christopher; three grandchildren, and a brother and sister.


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