Gone Too Soon Blogathon: John Cazale (1935-1978)
James Dean was easy to be interested in when I was in the early stages of my passion for … and obsession over … and addiction to … classic film. He had an endless supply of mystique; he had matinee idol looks; he died speeding in a cool car; he had spectacular hair; and his image was plastered on everything from posters to lunch boxes.
I was a child.
With the greatest of respect for James Dean, the actor he was, the actor he could have been, and the McLegend his memory has become, I’m a grown-up now. I don’t carry a lunch box anymore.
But I might consider carrying one if they put John Cazale’s picture is on it.
John Cazale had no James Dean-like mystique. His looks were less matinee idol and more creepy uncle. He died not quickly by car, but slowly by cancer. And as for his hair … well, I’ll keep my own, thanks. But what Cazale lacked in lunch-boxiness, he more than made up for in acting – specifically, in acting in five films that are more than classics. They are legendary.
After finding success on the stage, Cazale debuted … debuted! … as Fredo Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), a film heralded (to this day) as one of the greatest movies ever made. It’s easy to remember James Caan as Sonny Corleone, the hothead who checks out in a blaze of toll-booth glory; and it’s easy to remember Al Pacino as Michael Corleone, the favorite son and future king, who did everything from put slugs in a cop to deliver the greatest baptismal vows ever.
But if those two Corleone brothers are easy to remember, Cazale, as third brother Fredo Corleone, is impossible to forget. He lacks everything his two brothers have, from intellect to machismo, but we connect with him the easiest because all he does is live in the shadows of his siblings, and all he wants to do is make his father proud. Who doesn’t know what that’s like?
After The Godfather, what followed for Cazale were four other other onscreen appearances. Four. That’s it. But what appearances they were.
Cazale followed-up The Godfather with two more excellent films, The Conversation (1974) and The Godfather Part II (1974), both of which were directed by Coppola and the latter of which features Cazale reprising his role as Fredo Corleone. This second stint as Fredo features the star in two of cinema’s most iconic moments: being kissed by his brother Michael (Pacino), who utters the line, “I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart”; and taking a fateful sailing trip on Lake Tahoe as a result of why Michael uttered that line.
These two appearances were followed by appearances in Dog Day Afternoon (1975), where Cazale plays Al Pacino’s bank-robbing partner, and The Deer Hunter (1978), where the actor holds his own in the company of such acting luminaries as Robert DeNiro, John Savage, Christopher Walken, and Meryl Streep.
These roles were followed by … death. The Deer Hunter was Cazale’s last film. He succumbed to cancer at the age of 42. He didn’t even live long enough to see its release.
Six years … five films … and three decades of wondering things like “why” and “what if.”
The Academy never honored Cazale with so much as an Oscar nomination (let alone a win), but that’s okay. He holds the distinction of being the only actor whose total number of films in which he appeared were nominated for Best Picture.
That might not be lunch box-worthy, but it’s damn good enough for me.
This is a blogathon, people! There are many entries to be enjoyed. Check out the rest of the tributes in Comet Over Hollywood’s Gone Too Soon Blogathon here!
Plus, much thanks to Jessica at Comet Over Hollywood for hosting this wonderful blogathon event!