“The one who made the best spaghetti was Ben Gazzara,” said photographer Sam Shaw. “We used to have [a competition]…It would have take him four hours in the kitchen all by himself, steaming the tomato sauce.” It’s a charming anecdote and one that feels well-suited for the brilliantly impassioned and intense force that was Gazzara. As an actor in the truest sense—taking on the stage, television and film—he possessed a rare indefinable quality that’s difficult to articulate or pinpoint but always strongly felt in everything he did. With a presence that was at once deeply masculine and brimming with maniacal energy—yet hushed and stewing from the inside out—he worked for nearly half a century, playing roles that walked the line between everyday men and those psychologically teetering on the edge.
Born in 1930, Gazzara began his early acting days at the Lee Strasberg Actors Studio alongside the likes of Marlon Brando, appearing in the original performance of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and getting his footing in the world of theater. “When I became hot, so to speak, in the theater, I got a lot of offers,” he said. “I won’t tell you the pictures I turned down because you would say, ‘You are a fool.’ And I was a fool.”
But in was his relationship with director John Cassavetes that brought forth his most fascinating work. Gazzara truly came to life and appeared at home in the director’s raw and emotional world, sharing the screen with Peter Falk and Gena Rowlands. They all operated in Cassavetes’ specified cinematic style—one which allowed the audience to get close to the characters in a way that almost feels intrusive—never knowing if you should turn away and allow them to have this private moment, both exposing the character while making us reveal ourselves as well.
Cassavetes said that Gazzara was always playing up to different variations on himself, and with his incredible performances in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Husbands and Opening Night, perfected characters with very particular male sensibility that could never have been portrayed by anyone but him. So as today is his birthday, we’re taking a look back on some of his tremendous work with our favorite Gazzara moments—from interviews and documentaries to his work on film and television. Enjoy.
The Killing of Chinese Bookie
Run For Your Life
Gazzara, Cassavetes, and Falk on The Dick Cavett Show
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie Opening
Husbands (Entire Movie)
Ben Gazzara New York
The Making of Husbands
Ben & Gena on Opening Night
The Spanish Prisoner
End of a Love Affair
Phone Scene, Killing of a Chinese Bookie