Why you should care
Because this overlooked actor influenced the biggest film stars of his generation.
It’s a classic “Fredo scene,” of which there are many in the first two Godfather films, released in 1972 and 1974. As rival mob hit men descend on Don Corleone, the Mafia kingpin’s simple son fumbles for his pistol. Fredo Corleone’s momentary lapse ultimately leaves the family patriarch lying wounded in the street, fighting for his life, while his eldest son slumps to the curb, weeping.
To this day, the character is an unwelcome comparison for any individual. Essentially, a “Fredo” is a weak link, a dimwit incapable of overcoming his intellectual shortcomings. Naturally, it took one of Hollywood’s greatest — and most overlooked — actors to portray him. And when it came to the craft of acting, John Cazale was no Fredo. By the time of his death 40 years ago, Cazale had appeared in only five full-length feature films. Remarkably, all of them received an Academy Award nomination for best picture, and three won the top prize (The Godfather, The Godfather Part II and The Deer Hunter).
Meryl Streep said, ‘I learned more about acting from John [Cazale] than anybody.’
Richard Shepard, documentary filmmaker
But the Corleone characer is how most film fans remember him. “Fredo’s character and Fredo’s issues were so far from what John’s were,” says Arvin Brown, who directed Cazale onstage. “John had this tremendous sense of inner worth and the kind of strength and courage when you’re secure in your own skin. So it’s all the more remarkable that’s the role that has defined him.”
Brown discovered Cazale and Al Pacino during a late-1960s off-Broadway production of a one-act play by Israel Horovitz, The Indian Wants the Bronx. It was in that production that Brown first witnessed the powerful dynamic between Cazale and Pacino. Their explosive onstage chemistry would continue in the palpable on-screen tension in the first two Godfather films, as well as in 1975’s Dog Day Afternoon. “I’ve written and talked many times about the terror that one felt from Pacino’s performance, but a lot of that was furthered by Cazale’s vulnerability and precariousness as a character,” says Brown. “That increased the sense of tension coming from Pacino.”
Born in Boston, in 1935, and coming of age as a theater actor in New York, Cazale crammed decades’ worth of indelible performances into his brief, brilliant career. By the time he died of lung cancer on March 12, 1978, at age 42, he had become a standard-bearer for a generation of performers who changed the art form. “Brando influenced Pacino and De Niro — they were in awe of Brando. But Cazale was a contemporary, and they were in awe of what he was doing,” says filmmaker Richard Shepard, whose 2009 documentary I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale has become the definitive work on the actor.
“Meryl Streep was the third interview we did,” says Shepard. “It took us a year to get her to talk to us. She said, ‘I learned more about acting from John than anybody.’ I was like, ‘What?’ Pacino basically said the same thing. I realized that ability to be so influential on the best actors who have influenced a whole new generation of actors is truly his legacy.”
Streep, who was in a relationship with Cazale when they co-starred in 1978’s The Deer Hunter shortly before his death, was just one of the big names to share the stage and screen with the actor. Olympia Dukakis and Richard Dreyfuss were Cazale’s theater contemporaries before he made his film debut as Fredo. (In addition to the two Godfather films, director Francis Ford Coppola cast him in 1974’s The Conversation.) Even after Cazale was an established film star and just weeks from waging the battle with the disease that ultimately took his life, he remained devoted to the theater.
“I was preparing to direct Agamemnon at Lincoln Center [in New York] and searching for a special actor to play the lead,” says director Andrei Serban. “At the time John was already a very sought-after actor,” but Serban managed to land him for the role of the Greek king. The 1977 revival of Aeschylus’ greatest play would be the actor’s final stage performance.
“The time spent rehearsing was short, but highly inspiring because of his total commitment and dedication to search for Agamemnon inside himself,” Serban tells OZY. “But the abrupt stop came the day he found out about his illness. Even then, he acted with a certain heroism. Rather than sending a message via his agent, he came in person to tell us about his difficult decision to withdraw. In that last handshake I felt that I was touched by a hero — by Agamemnon himself.”
After Cazale was diagnosed with cancer, he became the center of a heated dispute around the production of The Deer Hunter. Unable to insure the dying actor, the production company demanded that Cazale’s role be recast. Years later, Michael Cimino, the film’s director, detailed how he spent hours on the phone pleading Cazale’s case. Streep eventually revealed in an interview that it was co-star Robert De Niro who agreed to pay the cost of insurance so that Cazale could appear in the film.
The reverence his contemporaries had for Cazale seems especially meaningful considering the respect he had for his own on-screen predecessors. That admiration was even evident during the filming of Cazale’s first film, when he got to act alongside one of his idols. “He and Talia Shire would sneak onto the set of Godfather and hide in the bushes — just to watch Brando work,” says Shepard.
On the anniversary of the actor’s tragic death, today’s audiences may not all be familiar with John Cazale. But they all know Fredo Corleone.