Home > Blogathon > Gone Too Soon Blogathon: John Cazale (1935-1978)

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!

  1. Le
    March 10, 2012 at 16:04

    Nice viewing of his career. It was short, but he made fabulous movies. In Dog Day Afternoon, I love when Pacino asks him any country he would like to visit and he answers “Wyoming”.
    It´s priceless!
    I’m in the blogathon with a Olive Thomas entry.

    • March 10, 2012 at 17:17

      Thanks Le! I read somewhere that the “Wyoming” response was improvised by Cazale! How GREAT is that?!

  2. March 10, 2012 at 22:53

    Thanks for this great post! Cazale isn’t someone I knew anything about, but wow, what a remarkable (albeit short) career! Most actors would be happy to have just one movie like The Conversation on their resume. But to have your entire career consist of nothing but some of the top movies of all time is truly remarkable.

  3. March 12, 2012 at 21:22

    I’m so sorry I’m so late getting to your Blogathon tribute on Mr. Cazale.
    But now that I’m here I must say right off how much I like him too! It’s so very sad that he died so young when he had amazing talent, that would most likely have led to even more stellar performances.

    The Deer Hunter was such a heartbreaking film but a story that needed to be told. Gritty and fantastic performances were given by all involved as well as The Godfather. Cazale certainly had quite the resume.

    A very nice tribute you’ve done here worthy of JC! (Oh, so glad to know you have great hair too! : )

  4. March 13, 2012 at 14:00

    A year or so ago I happened to see the excellent HBO documentary: “I Knew it Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale.” I hadn’t thought of the talented actor for quite a while – he’s been gone a long time and I hadn’t seen any of his films lately. It’s astonishing that every feature film in which he performed was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar – that was five during his lifetime, and one (“Godfather III”) in which he appeared via archival footage. Three of the films won. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that his life partner during his last two years was Meryl Streep. In the documentary, Al Pacino says on her behalf, “No matter what she does as an actor, when I think of Meryl, I think of the way she was with John when he was dying.”

    For me, John Cazale’s Fredo is as important to “Godfather I” and “II” as Brando and DeNiro as Vito and Al Pacino’s Michael. That’s saying a lot considering how deep and wide the pool of acting talent was on those films.

    Thanks, Michael, for a passionate look at the life of a wonderful actor whose career was brief but never to be forgotten.

  1. March 10, 2012 at 08:18

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