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John Cazale 1935-1978

Country : Boston, MA
Profession : Actor
Date of birth : 1935-08-12
Date of death : 1978-03-12
Cause of Death : Bone cancer

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John Cazale ( August 12, 1935 – March 12, 1978) was an American actor in film and theatre, whose career included five widely acclaimed films including the first two "Godfather" movies. They were all nominated for "Best Picture" at the Academy Awards (the other three being Dog Day Afternoon, The Conversation and The Deer Hunter).

From his start as an acclaimed theater actor, he became one of Hollywood's premier character actors, starting with Coppola's The Godfather, in which he played Fredo, the weak link in the Corleone crime family. "Cazale broke hearts on screen with portrayals of volatile, vulnerable, vacillating men, including Pacino's tragic bank-robbing partner in Dog Day Afternoon," writes David Germain, of the Associated Press. He is described as an actor "whose intense face is known to just about any serious cinema fan but whose name often escapes them."  In his final film, The Deer Hunter, he chose to continue acting despite being diagnosed with terminal bone cancer, and died shortly after completing his role. He was 42.

Cazale was characterized as "an amazing intellect, an extraordinary person and a fine, dedicated artist" by Joseph Papp, producer of the New York Shakespeare Festival. A film documentary and tribute about Cazale, titled I Knew It Was You, was an entry at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, and features interviews with Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Gene Hackman, Richard Dreyfuss, Francis Ford Coppola, and Sidney Lumet.

Early career

An Italian American, Cazale was born in Boston. He studied drama at Oberlin College and Boston University, from which he graduated. He then moved to New York City and worked as a messenger at Standard Oil, where he met Al Pacino, another aspiring actor.

"When I first saw John, I instantly thought he was so interesting," recalls Pacino. "Everybody was always around him because he had a very congenial way of expressing himself."  While living together in a communal house in Provincetown, Mass., Cazale and Pacino were cast in a play by Israel Horovitz, The Indian Wants the Bronx, for which they both won Obie Awards. He later won another Obie for the leading role in Mr. Horovitz's Line, where he was noticed by Godfather casting director Fred Roos, who then suggested him to director Francis Ford Coppola.

Cazale had acted on stage with Robert De Niro and Cazale's fiancée at the time of his death, Meryl Streep, whom he met when they were both in the Public Theater's 1976 production of Measure for Measure. In that role, wrote Mel Gussow of The New York Times, "Mr Cazale, often cast as a quirky, weak outsider, as in The Godfather, here demonstrates sterner mettle as a quietly imperious Angelo who sweeps down, vulturelike, to deposit virtue."


The Godfather and The Godfather Part II

Cazale made his movie debut, alongside old friend Al Pacino, playing the role of Fredo Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather. The film broke box office records and made Pacino, Cazale and several previously unknown co-stars famous, and won him a Golden Globe nomination.

He acted in the same role in 1974 in The Godfather Part II. Bruce Fretts, in Entertainment Weekly, wrote, "Cazale's devastatingly raw turn intensifies the impact of the drama's emotional climax, in which Michael (Pacino) orders Fredo's murder. "John could open up his heart, so it could be hurt," said Dominic Chianese. "That's a talent few actors have."

Twelve years after his death he appeared in a sixth feature film, The Godfather Part III (1990), in archive footage. The Godfather Part III was also nominated for Best Picture. This marks the unique achievement of John Cazale having every feature film in which he appeared be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Also in 1974, he co-starred with Gene Hackman in Coppola's The Conversation.

Dog Day Afternoon

Cazale again starred alongside Pacino in Sidney Lumet's 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon. The film's screenwriter, Frank Pierson, said "the film had been cast with many of the actors that Al Pacino had worked with in New York, including John Cazale, who was a close friend and collaborator in The Godfather."  For his role as Sal, he was nominated by the Golden Globe for "Best Supporting Actor."

Sidney Lumet commentary
"In the screenplay, Cazale's role was written to be a smart-ass street kid. But Al came to me and said, 'Sidney, please, I beg you, read John Cazale for it.' And when John came in I was so discouraged and thought 'Al must be out of his mind.' This guy looks thirty, thirty-two, and that’s the last thing I want in this part. But Al had great taste in actors, and I hadn’t yet seen him in the Godfather. And Cazale came in, and then he read, and my heart broke. . . .

"One of the things that I love about the casting of John Cazale ... was that he had a tremendous sadness about him. I don’t know where it came from; I don’t believe in invading the privacy of the actors that I work with, or getting into their heads. But my god - it’s there - in every shot of him. And not just in this movie, but in Godfather II also.

"When Al asked him during a scene, 'Is there any country you want to go to?' Cazale improvised his answer by saying, after long thought, 'Wyoming.' To me that was the funniest, saddest line in the movie, and my favorite, because in the script he wasn’t supposed to say anything. I almost ruined the take because I started to laugh so hard... but it was a brilliant, brilliant, ad lib."

Al Pacino commentary
"It's great working with John because he has a way of getting involved - in the whole thing, in the characters. He asks so many questions - he was just brilliant. It was tough to sell Johnny, but once Sidney got to see him read, and work with me, it turned out great."

The Deer Hunter

In his final screen role, and despite being diagnosed with terminal bone cancer, Cazale continued work with his girlfriend Meryl Streep in The Deer Hunter. "I've hardly ever seen a person so devoted to someone who is falling away like John was," said Pacino. "To see her in that act of love for this man was overwhelming."

Director Michael Cimino "rearranged the shooting schedule," wrote author Andy Dougan, "with Cazale and Streep's consent, so that he could film all his scenes first." He completed all his scenes, but died soon after, on March 12, 1978, before the film was finished.  He was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Malden, Massachusetts.


He was described by those close to him to be "often shy" and "very emotionally sensitive." Close friend and frequent co-star Pacino collaborated with him on three films and various theater productions. Although he never received an Oscar nomation, wrote Bruce Fretts, he "was the walking embodiment of the aphorism acting is reacting, providing the perfect counterbalance to his recurring costars, the more emotionally volatile Al Pacino and Robert De Niro." Pacino once commented, "All I wanted to do was work with John for the rest of my life. He was my acting partner."

Cazale's image was used for The Godfather video game, as his character, Fredo. He has a theater named after him, the McGinn/Cazale Theatre (currently inhabited by the company Second Stage Theatre), located at 2162 Broadway at 76th Street. Cazale was cited as a "Distinguished Performance" by the Off-Broadway Obie Awards for the 1967-68 season for his performance in Israel Horovitz's play The Indian Wants the Bronx.

His life and career has been profiled in the documentary film, I Knew It Was You, directed by Richard Shepard, which premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival and will be shown on HBO.


John Cazale appeared in five films while alive, plus a sixth using archival footage after his death. All six films were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. Three of the films won the Award: The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, and The Deer Hunter.




March 15, 1972

The Godfather

Fredo Corleone

April 7, 1974

The Conversation


December 12, 1974

The Godfather: Part II

Fredo Corleone

September 21, 1975

Dog Day Afternoon

Salvatore Naturile

December 8, 1978

The Deer Hunter

Stanley "Stosh"

December 25, 1990

The Godfather: Part III

Fredo Corleone (archive footage)

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