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John Cassavetes 1929-1989

Country : New York City, New York
Profession : Film Director
Date of birth : 1929-12-09
Date of death : 1989-02-03
Cause of Death : Cirrhosis of the Liver

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John Cassavetes 2

John Nicholas Cassavetes (December 9, 1929 – February 3, 1989) was an American actor, screenwriter and filmmaker. He appeared in many Hollywood films. He is most notable as an influential pioneer of independent film. He used handheld cameras and cinema-vérité style techniques in his films, but they were based on actors and screenplays and were fiction.

Early life

Cassavetes was born in New York City, the son of Katherine Cassavetes (who was to feature in some of his films) and Nicholas John Cassavetes, Greek immigrants to the U.S. His early years were spent with his family in Greece; when he returned, at the age of seven, he spoke no English.He grew up in Long Island, New York. He attended Port Washington High School from 1945-1947, participating in Port Weekly (the school paper), Red Domino (interclass Play), Football, and the Port Light (year book). Next to his photo on page 55 of his 1947 year book is written "'Cassy' is always ready with a wisecrack, but he does have a serious side. A 'sensational' personality. Drives his 'heap' all over." Cassavetes also attended high school at Blair Academy in New Jersey before moving to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. On graduation in 1950, he continued acting in the theater, took small parts in films, and began working on television in anthology series such as Alcoa Theatre.

Early films: directing and acting

During this time, he met and married actress Gena Rowlands. By 1956, Cassavetes had begun teaching method acting in workshops in New York City. An improvisation exercise in one workshop inspired the idea for his writing and directorial debut, Shadows (1959; first version 1957). Cassavetes raised the funds for production from friends and family, as well as listeners to Jean Shepherd's late-night radio talk show Night People. His stated purpose was to make a film about little people, different from Hollywood studio productions.

Cassavetes was unable to gain American distribution of Shadows, but it won the Critics Award at the Venice Film Festival. European distributors later released the movie in the United States as an import. Although the box office of Shadows in the United States was slight, it did gain attention from the Hollywood studios. Cassavetes directed two movies for Hollywood in the early 1960s — Too Late Blues and A Child is Waiting.

His next film as a director (and his second independent film) was Faces (1968), starring his wife Rowlands as well as John Marley, Seymour Cassel and Val Avery. It depicts the slow disintegration of a contemporary marriage. Faces was nominated for three Academy Awards (Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress). Around this time, Cassavetes formed "Faces International" as a distribution company to handle all of his films.

He directed and acted in Husbands (1970), with actors Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara. They played a trio of married men on a spree in New York and London after the funeral of one of their best friends. Minnie and Moskowitz (1971), about two unlikely lovers, had Rowlands with Seymour Cassel.


Cassavetes played Johnny Staccato in a late 1950s television series about a jazz pianist who also worked as a detective. It was broadcast on NBC between September 1959 and March 1960, when it was acquired by ABC. Although critically acclaimed, the series was cancelled in September 1960. Cassavetes also appeared on the NBC interview program Here's Hollywood.

In the 1962-1963 season, Cassavetes guest-starred on the CBS anthology series, The Lloyd Bridges Show, and directed two episodes, including "A Pair of Boots", in which his friend Seymour Cassel guest starred. In the 1963-1964 season, Cassavetes appeared in Jason Evers's ABC drama about college life, Channing. That same season, he appeared in the ABC medical drama about psychiatry, Breaking Point. In 1965, he appeared on ABC's western series, The Legend of Jesse James.

Cassavetes acted in Devil's Angels (1967), the second of American International Pictures motorcycle gang movies; The Dirty Dozen (1967), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor as an impudent, insubordinate condemned soldier; and in Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968) as a two-faced actor. Other notable appearances included the role of the victim in Don Siegel's The Killers, and as a vicious government nemesis to Kirk Douglas in The Fury (1978).

Cassavetes played opposite Peter Falk again in 1972, in the film Columbo: Etude in Black, playing the symphony conductor and murderer Alex Benedict.


He directed three films in the 1970s, each produced independently. A Woman Under the Influence (1974) stars Rowlands as an increasingly troubled housewife named Mabel. The portrayal of Mabel demonstrated how Cassavetes treated an offbeat protagonist in a manner different from Hollywood productions. Mabel is not 'sane' by societal standards, but her real problem is that she lives to please everybody else and not herself, hence the name of the film. Nick, her husband, is not demonised even though he lashes out when Mabel is acting too hospitably towards his company in the spaghetti dinner scene. Nick loves his wife; this is evident by the way he is so consumed with guilt after sending Mabel to the institution that he lashes out at a co-worker for making light of the situation, and his love is shown further through his excitement and fancy dress to welcome Mabel home. Rowlands captured the character of Mabel so well that she received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, while Cassavetes was nominated for Best Director.

In The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), Ben Gazzara plays Cosmo Vitelli, a small-time strip-club owner with an out-of-control gambling habit, pressured by mobsters to commit a murder to pay off his debt.

Opening Night (1977) has Gena Rowlands as lead actress with Cassavetes, Ben Gazzara, and Joan Blondell. Rowlands portrays an aging film star named Myrtle Gordon working in the theater and suffering a personal crisis. Alone and unloved by her colleagues, in fear of age and always at a remove from others on account of her stardom, she succumbs to alcohol and hallucinations after witnessing the accidental death of a young fan. Ultimately, she fights through this, delivering the performance of her life in a play.

Later career, death and family legacy

Cassavetes directed the film Gloria (1980), featuring Rowlands as a Mob moll who tries to protect an orphan boy whom the Mob wants to kill. She earned another best-actress nomination for it. Love Streams (1984) featured Cassavetes as an aging swain who suffers the overbearing affection of his recently divorced sister. His last film, Big Trouble (1986), was taken over during filming from Andrew Bergman, who wrote the original screenplay.

An alcoholic, Cassavetes died from cirrhosis of the liver in 1989 at the age of 59. He was survived by Rowlands and three children (Nick, Alexandra and Zoe).

His son, Nick Cassavetes, followed in his father's footsteps as an actor (Face/Off, Life) and director. In 1997 he made the film She's So Lovely from a screenplay written by his father. He also directed 2002's John Q and 2004's The Notebook, which also starred Rowlands. Alexandra Cassavetes directed the documentary, Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession in 2004 and served as 2nd Unit Director on her brother's film Alpha Dog in 2006.

His younger daughter, Zoe Cassavetes both wrote and directed the 2007 film, Broken English, featuring Rowlands and Parker Posey.

Many of John Cassavetes' films are now owned by Faces Distribution, a company overseen by Gena Rowlands and Julian Schlossberg, with Castle Hill Productions distributing.


How Cassavetes' used improvisation in films is frequently misunderstood. With the exception of the original version of Shadows, his films were heavily scripted. Confusion arises in part because Cassavetes allowed actors to bring their own interpretations of characters to their performances. Dialog and action were scripted, but delivery was not.

Film methodology

Cassavetes offered a formula that differed greatly from that of the Hollywood studio system, both in method and final product. His films were not easy to watch; filled with awkward and gut-wrenching moments and complex characters who were unpredictable, uncontrollable, and for the most part unreadable, the films usually did not offer the audience a concrete narrative story line to follow. Cassavetes wanted to portray the characters themselves, the moments of expressional truth sealed within an interaction, a look, or an awkward pause, than how the story necessarily played out.

Aside from presenting difficult characters whose inner desires were not easily understood, he paid little attention to the “impressionistic cinematography, linear editing, and star-centred scene making ” that are fashionable in both Hollywood and art films. Instead, he chose to shoot mostly hand held with general lighting, or documentary style, to accommodate the spontaneity of his actors. Further, Cassavetes’ methodology was completely unconventional by Hollywood standards. From creating a communal atmosphere on set with no class structure, to shooting in continuity, everything he did defied standard filmmaking practice. He came to embody an American counter-culture independent film movement that would come to prominence in the sixties and seventies on the heels of his groundbreaking first film Shadows. Cassavetes' unorthodox characters represented the filmmaker’s vision of breaking down our learned societal forms of expression, for which Hollywood is one of many teachers, in an effort to depict true human emotion on screen. His methodology in both production and shooting represented, like his films, a shift away from the normal monetary-driven productions of Hollywood. Cassavetes aimed to present humanity in its truest form, depicting and championing those characters who did not conform to social standards of self expression, just as he himself refused to conform to cinematic standards, both in content and methodology.

The performances that Cassavetes elicited from his subjects were entirely different from the Hollywood standard whereby a character conveys his or her feelings and inner desires through clearly spoken, well-articulated lines, or a director gives the audience insight through more complex mise en scene. Cassavetes's characters are neither simple nor readable because human beings are complex, and his films are an attempt to reflect our true nature. In addition, Cassavetes was never interested in working with actors or actresses who were more concerned with their own personal images than with that of the characters whom they were portraying, which is why he rarely, if ever, had actors or actresses of note (other than Gena Rowlands who was his wife) in his films. As Cassavetes himself said, he strove “to put [actors] in a position where they may make asses of themselves without feeling they’re revealing things that will eventually be used against them.”

Cassavetes's unorthodox characters portrayed our inner desires of self-expression, thus moving away from learned social practices reflected and perpetuated by Hollywood movies. Hollywood has always been concerned with portraying simple, universal emotions in accordance with a narrative story line; Cassavetes was concerned with individual emotional expression above all.

Cassavetes's unorthodox characters reflected his similarly unconventional methodology in the making of his films. He employed mostly his friends as actors and on-set personnel, generally for little or no money guarantee and a share in the profits, if any, of the film. Both Shadows and Faces, two of his earliest films, were shot over a four-year period on week-ends and whenever funds became available. Because the set was in essence a collective, there was no formal class structure, meaning that Cassavetes liked working in this environment because he felt that for his intensely personal and emotionally powerful films to work, he needed everybody on his set to feel that the film was theirs. “The hardest thing for a film-maker, or a person like me,” he once said, “is to find people…who really want to do something…They’ve got to work on a project that’s theirs.” This on-set methodology differs greatly from the 'director run' sets of big-budget Hollywood productions

In Accidental Genius, Marshall Fine writes that “Cassavetes, who provided the impetus of what would become the independent film movement in America…spent the majority of his career making his films ‘off the grid’ so to speak…unfettered by the commercial concerns of Hollywood.”  To make the kind of films he wanted to make, it was essential to work in this ‘communal,’ ‘off the grid’ atmosphere because Hollywood’s “basis is economic rather than political or philosophical,” and no Hollywood executives were interested in Cassavete’s in-depth study of human behaviour. Indeed, he mortgaged his house to acquire the funds to shoot A Woman Under the Influence, instead of seeking money from an investor who might try to change the script so as to make the film more marketable.

Cassavetes's films were no doubt original, and his avoidance of the studio system in his production methodology allowed him to further explore those realms of human nature that films over concerned with turning a profit could never do. So, while Hollywood reinforced the American dream so as to keep people in their state of metaphorical sleep, Cassavetes, in his attempts to wake them up, struggled valiantly to show them that our social codes of expression are learned, and thus fabrications.


In September 2004, The Criterion Collection produced a Region 1 DVD box set of his five independent films: Shadows, Faces, A Woman Under The Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Opening Night. Also featured in the set is a documentary about the life and works of Cassavetes called A Constant Forge, a booklet featuring critical assessments of the director's work, and tributes by old friends. In 2005, a box set of the same five films was released in Region 2 by Optimum Releasing. The Optimum DVD of Shadows has a voice-over commentary by Seymour Cassel. Mistakes about the first and second versions of the film are documented on Ray Carney's web site.

Cassavetes is the subject of several books about the actor/filmmakers life. Cassavetes on Cassavetes is a collection of interviews collected or conducted by Boston University film scholar Ray Carney, in which the late filmmaker recalls his experiences, influences and outlook in the film industry. In the Oscar 2005 edition of Vanity Fair magazine, one article features a tribute to Cassavetes by three members of his stock company: Rowlands, and actors Ben Gazzara and Peter Falk.

In popular culture

In the British comic 2000AD, the death of Cassavetes was the trigger (albeit hundreds of years in the future) for Judge Dredd's disillusionment with Mega City One's fascistic social repression, and his subsequent resignation, as told in 1989's The Dead Man story arc.

In the Robert Crais books The Monkey's Raincoat and Stalking the Angel, the main character Elvis Cole is noted to look like John Cassavetes '20 years ago'. He also uses the name Johhny Staccato when giving his details to an apartment guard.

Washington D.C. band Fugazi recorded a tribute on 1993 record In on the Kill Taker called "Cassavetes".

Jem Cohen's film about Fugazi, 'Instrument' is dedicated to Cassavetes, as well as D. Boon of the 1980s punk rock band the Minutemen.

New York City band Le Tigre released 'What's Yr Take On Cassavetes?', on their self-titled album, featuring a debate between two individuals on the actor.

On the album The Gap (2000) by Chicago band Joan of Arc, is a song titled "John Cassavetes, Assata Shakur, and Guy Debord Walk Into a Bar.."

The season finale of Moral Orel entitled "Nature, Part 2" on July 15, 2007 was dedicated to John Cassavetes.

Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky (1976), featuring Falk and Cassavetes, was an overt homage to Cassavetes in cultural / thematic scope, cinematography, and the improvisational nature of the acting.

In the 1993 Denis Leary song "Asshole", Leary states he is going to get "The Duke" (John Wayne), John Cassavetes, Lee Marvin, Sam Peckinpah and a case of whiskey...

The Hold Steady's 2008 album Stay Positive makes various allusions to Cassavetes's Opening Night.


As director

  • Shadows (1959)
  • Too Late Blues (1961)
  • A Child is Waiting (1963)
  • Faces (1968)
  • Husbands (1970)
  • Minnie and Moskowitz (1971)
  • A Woman Under the Influence (1974)
  • The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)
  • Opening Night (1977)
  • Gloria (1980)
  • Love Streams (1984)
  • Big Trouble (1986)

As actor

  • Taxi (1953)
  • I'll Cry Tomorrow (1955)
  • The Night Holds Terror (1955)
  • Crime in the Streets (1956)
  • Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1956) Episode: "You Got to Have Luck"
  • Edge of the City (1957)
  • Affair in Havana (1957)
  • Virgin Island (1958)
  • Saddle the Wind (1958)
  • Shadows (1959)
  • The Webster Boy (1962)
  • Too Late Blues (1962)
  • The Killers (1964)
  • The Dirty Dozen (1967)
  • Rome Like Chicago (1967)
  • Bandits in Rome (1967)
  • Devil's Angels (1967)
  • Rosemary's Baby (1968)
  • Machine Gun McCain (1969)
  • If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium (1969)
  • Husbands (1970)
  • Minnie and Moskowitz (1971)
  • Capone (1975)
  • Two-Minute Warning (1976)
  • Mikey and Nicky (1976)
  • Opening Night (1977)
  • Brass Target (1978)
  • The Fury (1978)
  • Flesh and Blood (TV) (1979)
  • Whose Life Is It Anyway? (1981)
  • The Incubus (1981)
  • Tempest (1982)
  • The Haircut (1982)
  • Marvin and Tige (1983)
  • Love Streams (1984)
  • Terror in the Aisles (1984)

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