As Fredo, the runt of The Godfather‘s litter, actor John Cazale revealed his gift for playing weak, dim-witted souls. Helplessly watching two Mafia henchmen riddle his father with bullets, Fredo fumbles with his pistol, collapses on the curb, and begins to cry, eliciting both contempt and compassion. That 1972 performance marked Cazale’s feature-film debut — and began his streak of portraying luckless characters in five of the most acclaimed films of the ’70s. Then his own luck ran out: On March 12, 1978, Cazale died of bone cancer at age 42.
A Boston native who arrived in New York City in 1962 after studying drama at Boston University, Cazale supported himself with stints as a cabbie and a messenger before two 1968 Obie awards — for The Indian Wants the Bronx (starring fellow messenger Al Pacino) and Line — brought him to the attention of Francis Ford Coppola. The young director cast Cazale in The Godfather, The Godfather Part II (1974), and The Conversation (1974), in which he played Gene Hackman’s befuddled wiretapping assistant. His most prominent role followed in 1975: In a Golden Globe-nominated performance, he portrayed Pacino’s edgy and hapless bank-robbing partner in Dog Day Afternoon.
A year later, Cazale met a little-known 27-year-old stage actress named Meryl Streep. They were cast as the leads in Joseph Papp’s production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure — and ended up falling in love and living together. ”[He] made everything mean something,” Streep later said. ”Such good judgment, such uncluttered thought.” But by mid-1977, when the pair arrived in Ohio to film The Deer Hunter, Cazale was already dying of cancer. Streep accepted the role largely to stay close to him, while director Michael Cimino had to fight to keep Cazale, by then uninsurable, in the cast. After her next project, the TV miniseries Holocaust, Streep put her work on hold to care for Cazale, and when he was admitted into New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center she moved in with him. Comically mimicking the brassy delivery of TV announcers, she read him the sports pages every day until his last. Recalling Cazale’s performance in The Deer Hunter, Streep has remarked, ”What he did was funny, but it breaks your heart.” As did every character in Cazale’s all-too-brief career.
Time Capsule: March 12, 1978
Moviegoers welcomed Coming Home; readers chased down James F. Fixx’s The Complete Book of Running; TV viewers kept it All in the Family; and Andy Gibb’s ”(Love Is) Thicker Than Water” jammed the airwaves.