Tom Jolliffe looks back at the career of John Cazale…
On the 12th of August, John Cazale would have been 85. Who is John Cazale? Well here’s the thing…A late bloomer in Hollywood, Cazale broke into cinema at the same time as a good friend of his: Al Pacino. Pacino, five years Cazale’s junior, was a fresh and young actor. By the time he starred in The Godfather, he was already establishing himself as a promising young actor.
Cazale would get noticed treading the boards in a play called Line. Producer Albert Ruddy subsequently gave Cazale his first big screen role, and his most iconic, as Fredo, one of the Corleone children. When people think back to those iconic moments in the first two films involving Fredo they recollect those exchanges with Michael Corleone (Pacino). How many people can name the actor playing Fredo though? This is one of the great cinematic tragedies.
Cazale’s short career, before succumbing to lung cancer in 1978 (he was in a relationship with Meryl Streep at the time), consisted of five films. Three of those won Best Picture at the Oscars. The other two were nominated for Best Picture (one of those, The Conversation, lost out to…The Godfather Part II). Very much a character actor, Cazale played a diverse mix of characters. He was described by Pacino as his ‘acting partner.’ The pair starred together three times. Pacino became iconic. Cazale left before his chance to hold the limelight but left a CV of great films behind, in which he was never less than stellar.
As Fredo, Cazale was probably on any other film well worth Oscar recognition but given how many of his co-stars were lapping up the awards and nominations, it almost became a case of nothing left to give out. In the second instalment in particular, where Fredo is pretty central to the present day story, Cazale is decidedly unfortunate not to have received that recognition for what is an exceptional, and (in what is quite rare within the entire trilogy) quite poignant performance.
For me, his best role, and one in which he was again unfairly overlooked, was as Sal in Dog Day Afternoon. He’s the rather simple right hand man to Sonny, played by Pacino. Pacino would rightly receive an Oscar nomination. Chris Sarandon, playing (for the time) a surprisingly sensitively handled trans character, would also receive a nomination, even despite appearing in only two scenes. Both are worthy, most certainly, but Cazale is equally as good as Sal and it’s such an introspective role. He’s a character who is simple, but has a potentially dangerous impulse lurking within. Cazale plays Sal perfectly, with a mix of pathos, threat and occasional dashes of comedy. Sonny is a charismatic, smart talking character with persuasive charm. Sal seems like he’s been conned into what he’s doing. The Golden Globes would recognise Cazale for his performance, with a nomination.
Cazale’s final film would be The Deer Hunter. Another exceptional piece of cinema at the tail end of Hollywood’s nihilism fascination in the late 60’s through to 70’s. Desperately ill during production, his scenes were completed first, with Cazale and director Michael Cimino fully aware the end was almost nigh for Cazale. He went out, as he’d played every other role in his short lived career, in the shadow of the star names. The 1970’s were iconic as the era which gave us De Niro, Pacino, Nicholson, Hoffman, Walken, Streep and Hackman. They stepped into the forefront of cinema. They took the mantle from Brando. Cazale, like many exceptional performers of that era, gets lost a little in the background. Look for example at an actor as accomplished as Roy Scheider. A forever reliable second card. Even despite leading Jaws, and the criminally overlooked, Sorcerer with aplomb, he was always considered a great support more than leading man.
Cazale’s legacy is impressive, but deserving of more attention. His home run upon home run, in roles he dazzled in (quietly) were paving a way for potential greatness before his untimely passing. He would appear once more after death in The Godfather Part III in archival footage. The film was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. In somewhat bitter-sweet irony, this idea he was a kind of lucky charm seems to ring true, but sadly not for himself.