Hey guys. Quint here to put a few words down about Ben Gazzara who just passed away at the age of 81 after a fight with pancreatic cancer.
While most modern movie geeks would know him for his bit part as Jackie Treehorn in The Big Lebowski or as Jimmy Brown in Buffalo ‘66, the man had an incredible career on the stage and in film starting in the ‘50s. Most notable was his work with John Cassavetes in Husbands, Opening Night and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie.
Gazzara studied with Lee Strasberg at the Actor’s Studio and had that same naturalistic, authentic feel to his performances that Brando and other Actor’s Studio graduates made famous. On stage he originated the character of Brick in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. Paul Newman portrayed the character in the film version.
But Gazzara always followed the beat of his own drum, taking character roles that interested him while passing on leading roles that would have made him a star.
Two of my favorite Gazzara performances are as the famous gangster in CAPONE alongside Cassavetes, Sly Stallone and Dick Miller and in Peter Bogdanovich’s Saint Jack.
Saint Jack is a forgotten masterpiece that was introduced to a theater full of nerds by Tarantino at one of the QT Fests. If I’m not mistaken it was actually Bogdanovich’s personal, never-run 35mm print that was screened and blew everybody away. Set in Singapore, Gazzara plays a hustler named Jack Flowers who has to juggle his nefarious activities with the onset of the Vietnam war. Denholm Elliot and George Lazenby co-star in this really bizarre character study of a movie, but it’s Gazzara himself who elevates this story through sheer likeability. It’s an amazing performance.
Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is always going to be the jewel in Gazzara’s crown, though. That’s the one film scholars will study for decades and teach to eager young film-loving kids. His Cassavetes work is exemplary and is just one of those perfect matches of material, actor and director. They worked perfectly together. And it made his appearance with Gena Rowlands in Paris je t’aime even that much more poignant.
Whether it was Husbands or Anatomy of a Murder or Road House, Gazzara always brought a little class to everything he was a part of. There aren’t a lot out there like Gazzara and he will be greatly missed. My thoughts are with Gazzara’s friends, family and fans.