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Ben Gazzara: An appreciation of a one-of-a-kind actor

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When Ben Gazzara passed away on Friday, he left behind a six-decade legacy on stage and screen. He was one of those rare, unique actors whose sly grin and sandpaper voice could make any scene he was in instantly memorable…and he will be missed by everyone who loves movies.

Gazzara’s career began in earnest in the mid-’50s, when starred in a pair of Broadway hits. First was Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in which he played Brick (the role later went to Paul Newman when director Richard Brooks turned it into a movie). Next was A Hatful of Rain, which earned him a Tony nomination. Just like that, Gazzara’s career was off and running. In 1959, he had his breakthrough role on screen in Otto Preminger’s controversial courtroom drama, Anatomy of a Murder, playing a lieutenant on trial for murdering the man he believes raped his wife. Even with a powerhouse cast that included Lee Remick, George C. Scott, and Jimmy Stewart, the smoldering Gazzara stood out. Not that you could tell that from the film’s hokey, old-timey trailer.

In the mid-’60s, Gazzara landed the lead role in the NBC TV series Run For Your Life, playing a lawyer named Paul Bryan, who is given nine months to live. Ironically, the show lasted for three seasons.

Gazzara’s greatest artistic collaboration was with actor-director John Cassavetes. Decades before independent film as we know was born, Cassavetes and his pair of macho pals, Gazzara and Peter Falk, created a new kind of down-and-dirty cinema. It was emotionally messy, raw, and true. 1970’s Husbands is a perfect example.

Here’s a clip of the three amigos (Cassavetes, Falk, and Gazzara) giving the usually unflappable talk show host Dick Cavett a hard time while promoting the film.

My personal favorite of all of Gazzara’s performances is in Cassavetes 1976 bleak and ballsy drama The Killing of Chinese Bookie. He plays the blowhard owner of a seedy strip club who loses money gambling to the wrong people and is forced to pay off his debt by committing the sin of the film’s title. It’s a harrowing movie — and Gazzara is tragic and electric.

Gazzara wasn’t all Method seriousness, though. He could a mischievous prankster, too. Take his performance as the baddie who sends his goons after Patrick Swayze in 1989’s Road House. There are plenty of great Gazzara scenes in this pop-culture guilty pleasure, but my favorite will always be when he, without a care in the world, swerves behind the wheel of his convertible while singing the doo-wop oldie “Sh-Boom”.

In the later years of his career, Gazzara worked non-stop, often giving small character parts his own unique, indelible stamp. One of the best is his role as porn kingpin Jackie Treehorn in 1998’s The Big Lebowski. After the film became a cult hit, Gazzara explained that even though his role was a nothing part, he agreed to do it because he couldn’t stop laughing when he read the Coen brothers’ script.

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