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The Vincent van Gogh of Acting? HINT: He Played "Fredo"

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
February 16, 2023 3:01 am

The Vincent van Gogh of Acting? HINT: He Played "Fredo"

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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February 16, 2023 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, it’s a well-known bit of movie trivia that all 5 films in which actor John Cazale appeared were nominated for Best Picture, and three of them received the Oscar. Further, he appeared posthumously in archival footage in The Godfather Part III, which was also nominated for Best Picture, maintaining his perfect record. He is the only actor in history to have this distinction. John Cazale played one of the most iconic characters in film history: Fredo Corleone from The Godfather. Yet today, most people don’t even know his name. Here to tell this story is Jonjo Powers, author of A Small Perfection: John Cazale and the Art of Acting.

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Find parts for everything from your classic coupe to your brand new truck at Let's ride. And we continue with our American Stories. It's a well-known bit of movie trivia that all five films in which actor John Cazale appeared were nominated for Best Picture. Three of them received the Oscar. Furthermore, he appeared posthumously in archival footage in The Godfather Part III, which was also nominated for Best Picture, maintaining his perfect record. He's the only actor in American history to have this distinction. John Cazale played one of the most iconic characters in film history, Fredo Corleone from The Godfather. Yet today, most people don't even know his name. Here to tell this story is John Joe Powers, author of A Small Perfection, John Cazale and The Art of Acting.

Let's take a listen. Even though it's been 50 years, I still remember the first moment I saw John Cazale. I had gone like most of the planet had gone to see The Godfather, a movie that had exploded onto the popular culture. If you were a young actor in the 70s, as I was, it was mandatory viewing because it showcased the once and future legends of film acting. Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, James Caan, Talia Shire, Diane Keaton, so many who would go on to other great performances. In the opening wedding scene, we're introduced to the main players in the film.

One by one, the major characters are featured for a moment or two, which brilliantly sets up the story. The last of them we meet is Fredo, naturally. In a family of strong, determined men, he's the weak one, the runt of the litter. He's the forgotten one. I remember when the camera finally fell on John Cazale as Fredo, I immediately thought, who is this guy? In a scene populated by so many wonderful actors, this guy wasn't acting. He was just Fredo, an ordinary guy in extraordinary circumstances. The guy we wouldn't think twice about if he weren't so perfectly out of place is one of the many ironies of John's life that this fellow who never seemed to be acting was, in fact, one of the greatest actors in cinematic history.

In the following six years, I would see him four more times. I found his portrayals riveting. His acting was audacious. In the company of some of the most celebrated actors of the age, I always considered him to be their equal.

Often they're better. Among the lovers and the heroes and the villains, he was the unforgettable forgotten one, the easy to pass over one, the weakling, the loser. He was the one in relief, set back from the spotlight.

When everyone else gathered in the center of the screen, John roamed the lonely edges, finding truth in each step. And he was fascinating in the process. John Cazale led a short, ironic life. He was primarily a stage actor, but made his feature film debut in one of the most influential films in cinematic history. It's a rather well-known bit of trivia that John is the only actor with multiple roles to appear in only films that were nominated for Best Picture. And every actor with whom he worked, people like Pacino, De Niro, Hackman, and Streep, all said the same thing. Working with John made them better. Yet, most audiences don't even know his name. Everything about John's participation in The Godfather is drenched in irony.

He was seen by director Francis Ford Coppola in an off-Broadway play called Line. Francis thought he was perfect for Fredo, and he was right. But at the same time, John's actor friend, Al Pacino, was having a very hard time holding on to the lead part of Michael. And the studio was completely opposed to the casting of one of John's idols, Marlon Brando, in the title role. For weeks, Francis, Marlon, and Al were always in danger of being replaced.

But John was safe from the start. Who cares about Fredo? It's another irony that in a film that runs just under three hours, and in which he's only on screen for about 10 minutes, John's acting has as much impact as the leads. He took the part that no other actor would choose, and by virtue of his portrayal, turned it into the role every actor wished he had played.

He stood equal to all the other brothers in the Corleone family, with as much importance to the story as Sonny, Tom, or Michael, but with a lot less screen time. Even so, he made Fredo truly iconic. After the movie was released, there was a joke that circulated for years. Someone would say something like, in our group, you're Fredo. And everyone would laugh because everyone knew what that meant. Weak, stupid, ineffectual.

No one had to explain the joke. It was clear and vivid, because John Cazal made Fredo clear and vivid, and very human. John excelled at bringing his characters to full human life. As Al Pacino said, he really occupied the space, meaning his characters had height, width, and depth.

He never seemed to be acting at all. In fact, he was so convincing as Fredo that casting directors often couldn't see him any other way. Meryl Streep, his co-star on stage and on screen, was a very good actor.

And his lover, Off, described his gifts perfectly, saying that he felt a responsibility to the fictional character as if it were a real soul. What a great sense of humanity for an actor to have. He was such a special human being and a uniquely talented actor. His compassion for his people that he was portraying, and the sort of responsibility he felt to a fictional character as if it were a real soul, that made him go that deep into his characters and do beautiful, beautiful work. After The Godfather wrapped, it was entirely possible that John might have returned to New York and worked the rest of his life on stage in relative obscurity.

But Francis had to leave the New York and work the rest of his life on stage in relative obscurity. But Francis Ford Coppola knew he had discovered a unique talent. He revised the screenplay he was writing for his next film, adding the part of an assistant to the main character specifically for John to play. As Stan in the conversation, John does the hardest thing an actor can do. He plays a guy who's just normal. No eccentricities, no quirks, just a guy who goes to work and does his job. Actors are so inclined to do something that they often are unable just to be normal.

It's deep within us to want to be noticed. But John had a way of being normal that made it impossible for an audience to overlook him. He was life in the midst of performance. He was reality in the midst of naturalness. Far from stealing the scene, John instead enriched it. He didn't detract anything from the other actors by creating vivid characters.

He added to their reality. Coppola would find himself competing against himself at the Golden Globes and the Oscars in 1975. The conversation was nominated as best picture for both awards, as was The Godfather Part Two, the continuing story of the Corleone family, which was, in fact, both a sequel and a prequel. As a further testament to John's talents, Francis and Mario Puzo, the co-writer of the films based on his novel, moved the character of Fredo into the center of the action.

For those of us who love John's acting, I call us kazellas. This film gave us what we were craving, the chance to see far more of John's daring talents and to see how the rest of Fredo's story played out. If The Godfather Saga, comprised of all three films, is the story of Michael Corleone, the first two parts can also be considered Fredo's story. They are the two characters who grow and change the most. Fredo is a prince that will never see the throne. He will never be head of the family, but will do instead the bidding of his younger brother, and he secretly resents it. This is the stuff of high drama.

It's Shakespearean in its structure. The man who sits in the seat of absolute power is betrayed by those around him. To retain his kingdom, he must destroy many of his subjects, all those he fears may be disloyal. That includes his brother. In another ironic twist, the least threatening of all the Corleone characters becomes the most dangerous when he's talked into a deal that promises that there might be something in it for him.

Instead, he becomes a traitor to his family. And you've been listening to John Joe Powers, author of A Small Perfection, John Kazall, and The Art of Acting. When we come back, more of the story of John Kazall, an American icon and actor's actor, here on Our American Stories.

Let's ride. And we return to Our American Stories. Here again is John Joe Powers, author of A Small Perfection, John Kazall, and The Art of Acting. Let's pick up where we left off with Kazall's performance as Fredo in Godfather II. Now, if a joke came from John's first appearance as Fredo, this one brought an imitation that was no less repeated. We just suddenly shout, I'm smart, not like people say, like dumb.

I'm smart and I want respect. It was Fredo's pathetic protest when Michael confronts him about his betrayal. Most actors would want to be up on their feet and in Michael's face to play a scene in which they finally get to vent their frustration. But John knew Fredo would never go toe to toe with Michael. So he played the whole thing laying in a lounge chair like a helpless turtle on his back, never daring to stand up.

And it's one of the most famous scenes in cinematic history. I've always taken care of you, Fredo. Taken care of me?

You're my kid brother. You take care of me? Did you ever think about that?

Did you ever once think about that? Send Fredo off to do this. Send Fredo off to do that.

Send Fredo to pick somebody up at the airport. I'm your older brother, Mike, and I was stepped over. That's the way Pop wanted it.

It ain't the way I wanted it. I can handle things. I'm smart, not like everybody says.

Like dumb, I'm smart and I want respect. Three films into his movie career and John was showing just how deep his talent went. Still in reviews, in award shows, he wasn't noticed.

Like Fredo, he was passed over. But it was impossible to ignore him in his next film. Many believe it may be his crowning achievement in movies.

And it almost didn't happen because ironically, he was wrong for the part. Dawn Day Afternoon was based on a real incident, a Brooklyn bank robbery that turned into a hostage situation. The film was developed as a vehicle for Al Pacino, who by then was one of the hottest stars in movies. Al had a slight resemblance to the actual robber, but in real life, the enforcer, the gunman who assisted the robbery was an 18 year old kid named Sal.

Sidney Lumet, the brilliant director, was determined to make the film as realistic as possible, building a replica of the bank in an abandoned store, lighting the interior with fluorescent bulbs, and even asking the actors playing the bank personnel to bring in their own wardrobes from home. To find just the right actor for Sal, he auditioned every 18 year old actor he could find. Then Al Pacino made a suggestion.

Read John Cazale for the part. Well, Sidney was hesitant, feeling that same actor who had convinced the world he was Fredo Corleone was completely wrong. And he was too old, 39 at the time of filming. Still, Sidney had a great relationship with Al, having just directed him two years prior in Serpico. So John read three lines for the skeptical director and Sidney relented.

He broke my heart, the director later confessed. I remember we were casting and Sidney Lumet wanted a 19 year old boy. He thought that would be very important. And he was sort of right.

I'd been reading a lot of people for it. And Al kept asking me to, to read John. So of course, Sidney got with John.

That's not what I'm thinking. John Cazale, not a guy who did Fredo. No, finally, because I've got such respect for Al, John came in. I was just stunned.

He could not have looked wronger. And then he read. And it was just the most extraordinary connection. Heartbreaking scene.

And what are we talking about? Talking about a totally antisocial, probably terrible man. And Cazale broke your heart. Despite diverging wildly from his historic counterpart, John created a character unlike any other. Sal was completely closed tight against the rest of the world. A total enigma. Sal is unpredictable in the truest sense of the word.

Tightly wound with a history of military service and prison and isolation. No one, not even Al Pacino Sonny, can know what he's thinking or when he may come unwound. He's the ticking time bomb that gives the film its relentless suspense. And strangely enough, he also gives the film its heart. One of John's greatest gifts was his ability to draw compassion, even love from the audience for the many portrayed. He didn't play good guys. He played a pimp, a thief, and perhaps a killer.

A braggart who waves a gun in the face of his friends and at least once punched a woman. The most normal of his characters was a professional voyeur. Yet somehow, we have affection for each of these men.

That's because John never judged the characters he portrayed. He understood them. Such understanding can only come through exploring their human motivations by asking perpetual questions.

According to Meryl Streep, John was known as 20 questions in the industry because he never stopped asking them. And nowhere else and nowhere was his gift for exploration so completely demonstrated than in Sal. There was behind those sunken eyes a deep well of sadness, sorrow even. And our inexplicable urge is to know what had wounded him so savagely. We want to get to know the guy with the gun better. Ironically, we never do. There's no big moment for Sal when he reveals his pain.

Instead, as the situation grows more and more desperate, he retreats further and further into himself growing ever more still, ever more quiet, and ever more dangerous. Dog Day Afternoon, like the previous films in which John appeared, was nominated for both the Golden Globe and the Oscar for Best Picture. And like the three previous times, there was no Oscar nomination for John. But the Golden Globes gave him his only nomination for movie work when they put him up as Best Supporting Actor. Richard Benjamin took home the award that year. If the lack of award recognition bothered John, he didn't complain much about it. He was far more interested in art than in awards.

While making his final film, he was asked about it and responded by saying, if you have any inclination toward paranoia, that sort of thing will bring it out in you. You say, what do I have to do to get recognition of that sort? But then you put it back in perspective and ask yourself how much that or any award really matters.

In one respect, I'm sorry awards can generate other work. No actor knew as much about being a supporting actor. That was never truer than in Dog Day Afternoon, in which his Sal urged Al Pacino to one of his greatest portrayals. I've done a lot of work with John, so I know I did a lot of theater with John. And he became whoever it was he was playing.

And John would be Fredo, you'd believe that's who he was, of course. And I watched him do whatever he wrote. I did Dog Day with him.

I did several plays with him. And it was amazing to watch me. It was a lesson in itself. I think I learned more about acting from John than anybody. And that was Al Pacino's voice you which is listening to. And you're hearing the story of John Cazale as told by Jean-Jo Powers. His book, A Small Perfection, John Cazale and the Art of Acting is available at Amazon and all the usual suspects.

John never judged the men he played. He understood them. And it's so true. And at its best, that's what acting is. It's an exercise in superhuman empathy.

When we come back, more of this remarkable life story. And if you get a chance with your family, watch Godfather One, then watch Godfather Two. I mean at the age appropriate time, because it is Shakespearean.

The acting is remarkable. The discussion points for a family, they don't get better. What is the nature of man? What is good? What is evil? This is not a movie that glamorizes evil. There are consequences.

The story of John Cazale, his work and his profession here on Our American Stories. So you're in the garage working on your car and you need the valves you bought last week. You look in the cabinets and on the shelves. But the parts are never in the right place. eBay Motors has the car parts you need. Over 122 million of them all in one place and all at the right prices.

Find parts for everything from your classic coupe to your brand new truck at eBay Let's ride. And we return to Our American Stories. Let's return to John Joe Powers, author of A Small Perfection, John Cazale and the Art of Acting. Powers picks up his story with John and his Dog Day Afternoon co-star Al Pacino. Pacino went overboard in trying to impress him. And every single thing I did, every scene I did, I was trying to impress John. And I knew I'm doing this.

I'm saying, I'm not doing this. I'm trying to impress John. And it was over and I was really unhappy because I knew I hadn't done it. And John came back and he said, very impressive. Very impressive. I thought, yes, John. I said, you know what? I said, he was so graceful though. He was so gracious about it all.

But I said, I knew you were there and I was trying to, I was doing everything twice as much as I had to do it. He says, it was good, Al. It was good. It was good.

He said, you don't know. You don't realize that you've been there yet. But I knew I had. So I was very, you know, he was like one of my idols.

So that when he was coming to see me, it was, and that's the worst thing you can do is try to impress your, your friends who you love. Ironically, Dog Day Afternoon, their greatest of all onscreen pairings would be their last. The next year, John and Al would appear together on stage for a final time, 10 years after they shared their acting breakthroughs. That same year, 1976, John shared the stage with another actor whose work would become legendary. While in rehearsals, he confided to Al that he had met the greatest actress in the history of the world. Her name was Meryl Streep, and she was at the start of a career in quickly gaining a reputation that supported John's assessment. During the production of Measure for Measure, John and Meryl fell in love and moved in together. Their lives on stage and off were colored by a devotion for one another that intrigued both audiences and friends. At 41, John was a bona fide actor with a rapidly growing reputation on stage and on screen. He was beloved by his friends and in love with Meryl Streep, and he was on his way to Broadway.

But irony can be cruel. John played the first preview in the title role of the Broadway production of Agamemnon. Then he began to cough up blood.

He never returned to the show. An obsessive smoker, John was diagnosed with advanced stage lung cancer. One of his first concerns was, will they let me work?

As it turned out, they would one last time. Robert De Niro and Michael Cimino were preparing The Deer Hunter, an epic film about a group of friends who work in the steel mills of Pennsylvania and how their lives were changed by their service in the Vietnam War. For the role of Stan, a braggart who is always trying to be a bigger man than he's capable of being, both wanted John Cazale. As talks about his participation went on, there was good news and bad news. The good news was that if John was in the film, Meryl Streep agreed to play the rather uninteresting role of Linda, a girlfriend to one of the main characters, in order to stay close to John during the shooting.

Cimino offered to let her develop the character and add more depth to it. The bad news was that John was dying. The cancer had metastasized to his bones.

Despite trying different protocols, the prognosis remained grim. The studio backing the film opposed his casting, worried that he would die before his scenes were finished. It was only the united front of Cimino, De Niro and Streep insisting that he stay in the film or they'd resign that convinced the studio to relent. The shooting schedule was drawn up, putting all of John's scenes as the first to be filmed.

In a hot June of 1977, they began shooting the cold autumnal scenes that would open the movie. For the fifth and final time, John Cazale would show actors everywhere how it's done when it's done to perfection. There is no hint of his personal struggles.

His Stanley once again is a fully drawn human being alive and compelling and the most fascinating character on the screen. Once his and Meryl's scenes were wrapped, they retreated to their loft in New York City, where John tried to remain optimistic in the face of his deterioration. Early in 1978, it was clear that he wouldn't beat the cancer as he had predicted.

About 3 a.m. on the morning of March 13th, John died. He would not live to see his final film be nominated for the Golden Globe and win the Oscar for Best Picture, nor would he see the woman he once called the greatest actress in the history of the world receive her first Oscar nomination. I've come to regard John rather like the Vincent van Gogh of acting. Vincent worked obsessively at his art during his short lifetime, largely without recognition. While John routinely drew glowing reviews for his stage work, film critics largely ignored him and, as mentioned, he was passed over for awards.

I've long thought that was because no one knew he was acting. Far from the isolated, damaged losers he portrayed, John was a gregarious, curious, funny man who had a type of charisma that drew others to him. But he, like Vincent, had a singular vision that created art that confounded the viewer. John's ability to access the deepest pain of his characters gave them an uncomfortable vulnerability that made us wonder if we should be watching.

His art disturbed us, but in a way that compelled us to keep looking. And like Vincent, John's notoriety has grown throughout the decades. Six years after he died, the McGinn-Kazal Theater was dedicated in New York to him and his close friend, the actor Walter McGinn, who had died the year before John. In 2009, the filmmaker Richard Sheppard directed a documentary, appropriately short, called I Knew It Was You, Rediscovering John Gazal. The publicity from the film generated scores of appreciative essays. Then in 2015, a Czech film festival celebrated John's legacy at their 50th anniversary by running that documentary, along with the Godfather part of two and Dog Day Afternoon. That was the same year I published my book, A Small Perfection, John Gazal and the Art of Acting.

It coincided with the 80th anniversary of John's birth. I had by then watched the five films in which John had acted over and over for years and had realized that aside from being five of the best portrayals in screen history, there were lessons in John's work every actor should learn. It's intentionally not a biography, although it has some biographical notes, but I found myself reluctant to delve too deeply into his personal life. John, like Vincent before him, was an artist. If you really want to know an artist, you look at his work. That's where you'll find the truest biography. John and Vincent both had their legacies deepened by premature death.

They were halted at perfection and left us without explanation of their art, nor a need for it. John Gazal left us at the height of his promise, with all of the anticipation of his next appearance still thick in the air. All of us who love acting and love his acting will try forever to describe that deep intangible essence of John Gazal. If you want to know about him, watch his five films. The devotion, generosity, humanity, and responsibility he displayed as an actor is all we really need to see in order to know the man he was.

The rest is just a mystery, but mystery is what keeps us asking questions, and asking questions is what keeps actors alive. And a terrific job on the production, the editing by our own Greg Hengler, and a special thanks to John Joe Powers, author of A Small Perfection, John Gazal and the Art of Acting. And I was a young actor in the early 1980s for a very short time, and I got to see what John did up close and personal. I saw him perform on the stage, I saw Pacino perform on the stage with him, and I got to see Meryl Streep in Measure for Measure. These were things you saw as a young actor, and you knew these were god-given talents, and none more respected and revered than John. The Vincent Van Gogh of acting, both men's body of work shortened by death. The story of an actor's actor, all five of his films nominated for Best Picture Oscars. John Gazal, his story here on Our American Stories.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-02-19 15:14:11 / 2023-02-19 15:25:10 / 11

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