For many, Ben Gazzara (who passed away on February 3) will always be Jackie Treehorn, the porn king in Joel and Ethan Coen‘s The Big Lebowski. And though after that he worked with such directors as Spike Lee and Lars Von Trier, the cult following of Lebowski is enough that many thought of that first when Gazzara passed away. Of course, the main reason why he worked with those people is because of his collaborations with John Cassavetes.
Gazzara hit Hollywood in the 1950′s. He worked in television, with the occasional meaty big screen role (most notably in Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder). It wasn’t until 1970 when he worked with Cassavetes and Peter Falk in Husbands and became a part of Cassavetes’s troupe of players that his status as a legend was cemented. Gazzara also appeared in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Opening Night for John, and those three films are some of his finest work.
It’s hard to gauge how well the mainstream knows Cassavetes’s work. Though he’s been canonized by The Criterion Collection, he seems better known by filmmakers than the general population. But John’s influence over filmmaking is evergreen, and even filmmakers who might not have seen his films may be influenced by those who had (Martin Scorsese has always talked about how he was a huge influence on Mean Streets). In terms of independent cinema, Cassavetes is Prometheus. He self-financed a number of his films, and focused on human drama in a bracing and real way.
But though his work with Cassavetes turned him into a legend, Gazzara spent his entire career as a working actor, doing TV movies and such. Though Peter Bogdanovich cast him in the lead of 1979′s Saint Jack, it took a while for the cinematic world to catch up. That is to say, it’s unlikely that Rowdy Herrington cast Gazzara in 1989′s Road House because of Cassavetes, but Ben was game for that film as well. Somewhere around the time of Lebowski, he started appearing in more notable movies, from John Turturro’s Illuminata to Todd Solonz’s Happiness. The filmmakers who loved Cassavetes wanted to pay tribute, and you can see him (and Seymour Cassell) working in roles that treat them with great fealty. It was earned.
What’s your favorite Ben Gazzara role?