Cassavetes regular and ‘Lebowski’ star Ben Gazzara dies at age 81 in NYC

Ben Gazzara was never the top box-office draw of the year.  He was never the guy every studio was dying to be in business with so he would headline blockbuster after blockbuster.  He was never the guy directors cast if they wanted the ladies to line up out the door.  But for filmmakers who wanted an actor with a quiet magnetism and an emotional weight that could not be faked, Gazzara was a treasure, and he made everything he touched more honest simply by virtue of who he was.

81 years old is hardly young, but even so, it seems unfair to lose a guy who was still working consistently and who still had that same fire that made him such a gift in so many of his roles.  It’s hard for actors of a certain age to find quality material, but a guy like Gazzara had a way of taking a fairly thin role and making it count simply because he counted.  He was real in a way that many Hollywood types never are, no matter how many roles they play.  It is little wonder that as many of his films were European as American, because he was drawn to small stories, human stories, films where he was allowed to show some nuance and some soul.

One of his best collaborators was writer/director/actor John Cassavetes, who recognized a kindred spirit in Cassavetes.  I’m still missing Peter Falk, another Cassavetes regular, and losing both of those guys within a year only underlines how completely and utterly the age of Cassavetes is over.  The three of them starred together in “Husbands,” and their work in that film is amazing and totally grounded.  Gazzara was trained at the Actor’s Studio, one of the first generation of guys who brought the Method to the bigscreen, and his work on live television and in “Run For Your Life” and in films like “Anatomy Of A Murder” helped shake up the status quo.  He ushered in a new standard of realism, and he held himself to that standard over the 50-plus years he appeared in front of the camera.

That’s amazing, isn’t it?  To have a career that can run all the way from a worthwhile but largely forgotten film like “The Strange One” in 1957 to his iconic role in the cult sensation “The Big Lebowski,” where he was Jackie Treehorn, the laconic pornographer, that’s not something that many actors can pull off.  Gazzara was always in demand.  There are movies of his that I adore, and I can’t imagine anyone else playing the roles he played.  “Saint Jack,” for example, is a lesser-known Peter Bogdanovich film that was produced by Hugh Hefner in the ’70s, the story of a hustler living in Singapore, getting by with some pimping and some other unsavory deals.  It’s a wonderful, well-observed movie that depends largely on the relationship etched between Gazzara and the equally-great Denholm Elliot.  It was unavailable for years, but Quentin Tarantino eventually stumbled across a print (almost literally) and now you can get the film on DVD.  I urge you to track it down.  It has a sensibility and a structure all its own, and Gazzara’s world-weary attitude was rarely better used.

I would also strongly encourage you to seek out what is probably the defining role of his career, the Cassavetes film “The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie.”  He plays a small-time gambler who frequently loses more than he can afford.  When he goes in the hole for over $20,000, he is given a quick way out, told to kill someone to erase his own debt.  The way Gazzara wrestles with the decision, desperate to hold onto both his soul and his life, is heartbreaking and almost too raw to watch.  It took me several viewings to really be able to open myself up fully to the film’s brute force observations, and once I did, I found myself flattened by it.  That was Gazzara, though.  He could sneak up on you, never really showing you all the work he was doing, but somehow affecting you just the same.

He tried his hand at directing a few times, but it never stuck, and he would occasionally sing in a film or on a soundtrack with a rough sort of old-style crooner’s voice, but ultimately, Gazzara will be remembered as one of our great actors, and I’m not sure there’s anyone working today who can hold the same sort of space he did.  He will be immeasurably missed.

Ben Gazzara died of pancreatic cancer in New York, and it seems like there’s nowhere else he could have been when the end finally came.