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June 10, 2018

John Cazale’s Unparalleled Cinematic Legacy

The character actor only appeared in 5 movies before his death at age 42, but every single one was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture.

You may not know him by name, but you probably recognize John Cazale. And you likely do know him by a name: Fredo Corleone. The middle brother from Francis Ford Coppola‘s The Godfather trilogy, senior to Al Pacino’s Michael and junior to James Caan’s Sonny. And to be surrounded by such star power was standard for Cazale. Five of the greatest films to come out of the 1970s featured him playing tragic, soft-spoken supporting roles alongside some of the greatest American actors and directors of all time. His small but mighty filmography should be considered essential viewing for all.

The Godfather (1972) & The Godfather Part II (1974)

Fredo Corleone has always been a part of the pop culture lexicon, but even more prominently so lately, thanks to the 2016 presidential election. But really, Fredo deserves much better than to be repeatedly compared to the callous, bumbling idiots that are the Trump brothers Eric and Donald Jr. Instead, when you think of Fredo, you should think of the brilliant actor who brought the character to life.

It’s really something to stand out in a cast that’s comprised of names like Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, and so on, but Cazale pulls it off. It’s also one hell of a way to make your feature film debut. Before The Godfather, Cazale had essentially only done theatre acting, until he was spotted by casting director Fred Roos, who recommended him to Coppola for the role of Fredo.

Coppola was so impressed with Cazale’s performance in The Godfather that he expanded Fredo’s storyline significantly for Part II and also wrote a role for him in his 1974 film The Conversation.

Cazale brought an inimitable and genuine human suffering to all of his roles, but especially so when he played Fredo. This viscerally heartbreaking moment with his brother Michael showcases it best:

The ending of The Godfather Part II is a real gut punch, and I think Cazale is largely to thank for why it succeeds. When Michael (spoiler) has Fredo killed, it’s the tipping point for him as a character. At that moment we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that any shred of innocence or decency that remained within Michael is long gone. It’s a tough pill to swallow. The reason we care so much, and the reason we feel so betrayed by Michael –who we thought would’ve, at the very least, had some kind of soft spot for his dear brother– is because Cazale created a brilliantly layered and incredibly human character with Fredo. If we didn’t care about him, the ending of the film wouldn’t be nearly as powerful.

Actor Sam Rockwell put it best in the 2009 documentary I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale:

“[Cazale] plays these characters that you shouldn’t like, but you like him. You really care about him. He betrays his brother, but you end up disliking Michael in Godfather 2 more than Fredo.”

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Dog Day Afternoon marked Cazale’s third film collaboration with Al Pacino. But the two actually met in 1965 and worked together in many stage productions before The Godfather. So if you’re still not convinced of Cazale’s talents, don’t take my word for it, take Pacino’s:

“All I wanted to do was work with John for the rest of my life. He was my acting partner (…) I learned more about acting from John than from anybody.”

And when watching Dog Day Afternoon, it’s really not hard to see what Pacino means. The film is a landmark cinematic feat for many reasons. Chief among them is Pacino’s brilliantly manic performance, the film’s intense realism and willingness to tackle ideas about sexuality and gender identity that remain controversial in 2018 with deft sensitivity, and of course: ATTICA! ATTICA! ATTICA!.

But even amidst all of that, it’s impossible to walk away from this film without thinking about Cazale’s turn as the sickly-looking bank robbery accomplice of Sonny (Pacino), Sal Naturale.

We never learn too much about his character, but Cazale makes every moment of his screen time count. He’s incredibly timid, but also wielding a huge automatic weapon and insisting to Sonny that he’s ready to start “throwing bodies out the front door.” Through this sporadic and violent insistence, we catch a glimpse of a man deeply affected by traumatic military service and jail time. The way he constantly insists that he’s “never going back to prison” with a dead look in his eyes is haunting and makes us wonder what he’s willing to do to make sure he never has to.

Director Sidney Lumet had this to say about Cazale’s knockout performance:

“One of the things I loved 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 I work with or getting into their heads. But my God, it’s there — every shot of him.”

He also maintains a terrifying unpredictability throughout the film. He’s eerily calm a lot of the time, but the ever-present glean of sweat on his forehead and his perpetually bulging eyes always suggest otherwise.  He’s an enigma. A man who is robbing a bank, and threatening murder while simultaneously warning his hostages about the dangers of cigarette smoking:

Simply put, it almost seems like Sal shouldn’t work as a character, but he does. And I think you’d be hard-pressed to find an actor who could pull off these scenes better than Cazale.

The Conversation (1974)

1974 was a fantastic year for director Francis Ford Coppola, who went to The Oscars with two films competing for Best Picture: The Conversation and The Godfather Part II, the latter ultimately taking home the prize.

But The Conversation remains an underseen gem, as well as a film that was just as deserving a contender for the coveted best picture win. In essence, the film is paranoia put to screen. A fantastic tale of obsession, guilt, and anxiety featuring a career-defining performance from Gene Hackman. And once again, Cazale in a supporting role. It’s no coincidence that when you look at a great actor like Hackman’s filmography (Or Christopher Walken’s, or Robert De Niro’s, or Al Pacino’s, or James Caan’s, or Diane Keaton’s, etc.) that some of their best work happened alongside Cazale. As Richard Shepard, the director of I Knew It Was You, said:

“His greatest ability was making the actors and filmmakers around him look really good (…) These people wanted to continue to work with him because they knew he made them better.”

The Deer Hunter (1978)

Cazale only appears in a few brief scenes in The Deer Hunter, but the story behind how the film’s cast came together once again exemplifies the fact that so many of the greats considered him to be the greatest.

Cazale was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1977 and The Deer Hunter would be his final film role– he passed away before the film was released. Due to his illness, the studio demanded Cazale be re-cast, but his long-time girlfriend and co-star Meryl Streep, as well as director Michael Cimino, threatened to walk if Cazale was dropped from the project. When the studio continued to protest, saying they couldn’t afford to insure Cazale, co-star Robert De Niro put up the money for his insurance to keep him in the film.

Cimino then decided to shoot all of Cazale’s scenes first to ensure they’d be able to film them all before he got too sick. The entire cast was heartwarmingly devoted to making sure he ended up in the film.

I’ve made my case and now you are all hopefully convinced of what I consider an indisputable truth: John Cazale is the owner of what is perhaps the greatest cinematic legacy of all time.

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