“Nothing is pleasanter than doing something successful. But successful acting isn't necessarily good acting. An actor needs success in order to get opportunities to be good, so he concentrates on achieving success, and in the process he may lose whatever it is that has made him good. In the movies, if an actor's success comes when he is just starting, he is in danger of becoming a business expert and a tax expert. If his devotion is to how much his last movie has grossed, he is in danger of stopping, and never developing as an actor. Instead, he may just repeat what won him attention the first time. He loses the desire and the patience and the will to work at his craft, so he ceases to grow as an actor. I feel I'm a much better actor now than I was a few years ago; I find that the more I do, the more colors I can use.”—Ben Gazzara quoted in Lillian Ross and Helen Ross, The Player: A Profile of an Art (1961)
As a kid in the mid-to-late Sixties, I used to see trailers for a TV show about a forlorn-looking man in a jacket and tie, stepping out of a doctor’s office, followed immediately by a single, careening tracking shot down a highway, as if filmed from the perspective of the man behind the wheel of the invisible auto. That man in the jacket, the unseen driver of the careening car, was the protagonist of Run for Your Life. No wonder the guy looked so depressed: he’d been a successful lawyer who, having been told he had only one or two years to live, decided to go on a pell-mell search for experience. (By the way, what happened with this show demonstrated another reason why patients should get a second opinion: the show lasted three years, so the lawyer died not because of his medical condition but because of poor ratings.)
Little did I know that the actor in this inexplicable but plainly awful position for one hour each week had once been acclaimed one of the great young hopes of American stage and screen, originating the role of Brick, the drunken, haunted ex-athlete in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Lt. Manion, an Army officer on trial for killing the man who allegedly raped his wife, in Anatomy of a Murder. A world of trouble and anguish lay barely concealed beneath their surfaces.
For making a splash in these last two roles before he had even turned 30, Ben Gazzara—whose 85th birthday would have been celebrated yesterday—had once been anointed a possible “next Brando”. It didn’t turn out that way, and he found himself taking roles in the likes of Run for Your Life to pay the rent: “I would like to be able to say that television is good training for an actor, but I don’t believe it….I accept television roles, however, because it’s necessary for an actor to keep acting—just as any man has to keep working,” he told the Ross sisters.
Gazzara managed to “keep working” for 50 years on stage, screen and TV. He might never have reached the heights of his profession as Brando, an earlier graduate of the famous Actors’ Studio run by Lee Strasberg, but he did well enough, as attested by all the directors with whom he worked over the years, including Otto Preminger, David Mamet, Peter Bogdanovich, Vincent Gallo, the Coen brothers, Todd Solondz, Spike Lee, and Lars von Trier. His appeal was aptly summed up by Bogdanovich: “You couldn't take your eyes off him. Your eyes just went to him; he had magnetism in spades.”
There’s another well-known director with whom he worked: his great friend John Cassavetes, who, with low-budget movies financed in large part by acting jobs, is generally considered the godfather of American independent film. If it’s impossible to think of that film movement without Cassavetes, it’s even harder to think of a Cassavetes film without Gazzara. They made three in the period when Cassavetes was working most feverishly: Husbands (1970), Opening Night (1977) and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976). They were linked even by death, as Gazzara passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2012, 23 years to the day that Cassavetes died.
Alcohol and depression plagued Gazzara through much of his career. He seems to have gotten through it all through a great sense of humor (he was reportedly a fantastic entrepreneur), a tremendous respect for his profession (he saw Laurette Taylor's legendary performance as Amanda Wingfield in the original production of The Glass Menagerie a half dozen times) and powerful work ethic.