If Ben Gazzara had come to Hollywood a decade after he first arrived, his career may have rivaled the likes of Al Pacino or Robert DeNiro. Embracing his ethnicity and streetwise upbringing, he was the kind of man these actors so often played, born and raised on the tough streets who just barely escaping to become a master of his craft and force of nature. Alas, he came along too early to be one of the character-types who would become unlikely leading men in the 70s. He came along before Dustin Hoffman became a movie star, Robert DeNiro was considered a leading man, and Al Pacino a sex symbol.
Gazzara was competiting for leading roles with another generation of actors, white-bread, traditionally handsome men such as Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and Steve McQueen. Gazzara became famous on the stage for originating the role of Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, only to loose the role to Paul Newman when the film was made. The same would happen when A Hatful of Rain was made into a feature film and the filmmakers again replaced Italian American Gazzara’s with the all-American Don Murray as the morphine addicted husband of Eva Marie Saint (the film's replacement for Shelley Winters). Not 10 years later, Gazzara would have arguably been the more likely choice for these gritty films, but in the 1950s, it was unlikely to see an actor of his type and style as leading men.
Gazzara was an endlessly interesting and compelling actor to watch, no matter the role he was given. All one has to do is watch his performance as the veteran who murdered his wife’s rapist in Anatomy of a Murder that one feels his presence. As James Stewart represents that last of classical Hollywood, giving speech after speech in the courtroom, Gazzara is one of the new breed, sitting next to him. His quiet brooding is both realistic and disturbing, reminding us that the reason he isn’t saying anything, is he doesn’t require any words.
He embodied what it meant to be the actors' actor. Anyone who studied acting saw his genius, a master of his craft who made it all look too easy to ever earned him the respect he deserved. He was given more respect as a television actor, where character actors still to this day find more opportunities to shine. He earned two well deserved Emmy nominations as a terminally ill man trying to live life to the fullest in the series Run for Your Life. He finally won after his fourth nomination for the film Hysterical Blindness, costarring Gena Rowlands.
Rowlands was part of his entourage of fellow actors lead by auteur John Cassavetes. They starred together in Cassavetes’ feature Opening Night, one of several films he made with his close friend. One of Cassavetes’ favorite actors, he made it his mission to turn him into the leading man he could/should have been, casting him in leading roles in Opening Night, Husbands, and Killing of a Chinese Bookie, which may be Gazzara’s masterpiece as an actor. In a year with key performances from DeNiro (Taxi Driver), Stallone (Rocky), Eastwood (The Outlaw Josey Wales), and Hoffman (Marathon Man), Gazzara’s hapless strip club owner is deserving of his place among the best of 1976.
I love Gazzara’s films with Cassavetes, and many of the other films he made in his long, varied career. But my personal favorite of his many performances is a 1997 film by David Mamet titled The Spanish Prisoner. The role is simplistic and relatively small, playing a businessman whose attempts to maintain control of his genius employee (Campbell Scott) sends the employee into the hands of a conman (Steve Martin). Gazzara is, in the most basic sense, “the man” in this film, the senior performer surrounded by 70s leading man Steve Martin (in a non-comic role) and anti-leading man Campbell Scott. Its like watching the evolution of the leading man in their triangular performances, Gazzara commanding every scene he appears, showing the presence, charisma, and power he always possessed.
In the 1950s he wasn't the ideal leading man, unsafe for baby-boomer audiences. But to see him on screen even then, there are hints of what will soon come to Hollywood; handsome but imperfect faces full of lines and personality, who can be frightening and intense, but with a geniune smile, as warm as any classical leading man who came before him. And that may be his greatest legacy as an actor.