Today marks the birthday of one of cinema’s most influential actors, the late John Cazale, who, although he passed away almost 35 years ago, is still fondly remembered by his peers and moviegoers alike for having the distinction of appearing in some of the best remembered and well known movies of the 1970s, including The Godfather.
Cazale’s resume, although short, spanning only five films, still remains one of the most well rounded pedigrees of any actor before or since. Each of the films he appeared in either won or was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award: The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Deer Hunter. Cazale played the slow, strangely confident, yet ultimately tragic “runt of the litter” Corleone brother Fredo in the first two Godfather films (also appearing posthumously in more ways than one in the third Godfather installment); he played Gene Hackman’s assistant who helped with the paranoid, sly surveillance company that Hackman ran by the seat of his pants in The Conversation (all three aforementioned films were written or co-written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola); he was the dim-witted yet ruthless bank cohort to Al Pacino’s main protagonist/antagonist in Dog Day Afternoon (directed by Sidney Lumet), and finally, was the third wheel to the group of tight friends in the intense and memorable Vietnam production The Deer Hunter (directed by Michael Cimino). In The Deer Hunter, released shortly after his death from bone cancer in 1978 at the young age of 42, Cazale clearly looks rather emaciated, but still gives the type of performance and characterization he was best remembered for in his brief career.
A 2009 documentary, entitled I Knew It Was You, (which is a famous line from The Godfather Part II) showcased the sparkling career of Cazale, as he’s lauded by great contemporary after contemporary, the likes of which were Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Richard Dreyfuss, Coppola and Lumet, and his love interest at the time who was with him when he died, Meryl Streep. Described as mostly shy and reserved, Cazale provided a perfect counterbalance to the mostly out-of-control fiery uncontrollable volatility of his fellow actors who he worked with — just witness him acting alongside Pacino or Hackman or DeNiro. Cazale never received an Oscar nomination for his work, but he got plenty of metaphoric bouquets always from the people he worked with who remember him and will never forget him, alongside with the countless cinema fans who still trumpet him to this very day.
Cazale’s memory and image lives on from his masterful work in cinematic productions that were equally as masterful. All five films he appeared in are arguably the cream of the crop of 1970’s cinema. There’s no telling what he may have done if he had lived into the 1980s and beyond, the rich characterizations and energy he would have lent to so many wonderful productions which followed in the footsteps of those five films. John Cazale was indeed someone who deservedly will always not be just a footnote, but someone who will always shine brightly in the floodlights as part of the legacy of those who made and carved their niche in Hollywood.