Ben Gazzara

Active - 1955 - 2011  |   Born - Aug 28, 1930 in New York, New York, United States  |   Died - Feb 3, 2012   |   Genres - Drama, Crime, Thriller

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Biography by Hal Erickson

Both an accomplished character actor and leading man, Ben Gazzara made a name for himself on the stage, screen, and television. The son of an Italian immigrant, Gazzara was born in New York City on August 28, 1930. He channeled his excess energy into acting after dropping out of the engineering department at the City College of New York. After studying at the Actors Studio and with private coach Erwin Piscator, Gazzara exploded onto the Broadway scene in 1953, playing warped military academy upper-classman Jocko De Paris in End as a Man. He went on to create the role of Brick in the original 1955 production of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. He later starred in Michael V. Gazzo's A Hatful of Rain, only to see his role go to Don Murray in the 1957 movie version, just as Paul Newman would portray Brick in the 1958 film version of Cat.

Fortunately, Gazzara was permitted top film billing in 1957, reprising his stage role in End as a Man in the heavily laundered film-version, The Strange One. Two years later, Gazzara played arrogant murder-trial defendant Lieutenant Manion -- the one with the "irresistible impulse" -- in Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder, slyly stealing scenes from the film's "official" star, James Stewart. After this promising beginning in films, Gazzara had trouble finding adequate movie roles. He turned to television in 1963, first as a co-star with Chuck Connors in the experimental 90-minute crime weekly Arrest and Trial. In 1965, Gazzara starred as Paul Bryan, an ex-lawyer with only a short time to live, on the TV popular series Run for Your Life; in spite of his character's fatal illness, Gazzara was able to remain with Run for three healthy seasons.

With 1970's Husbands, Gazzara made the first of four film appearances under the direction of his old Actors Studio buddy John Cassavetes. Four years later, Gazzara starred as the Leon Uris counterpart in television's first miniseries, QB VII (1974). In the decades that followed, Gazzara took roles that, while not always prestigious, permitted him ample creative elbow room; a fascinating example of this was his bisexual villain in the Patrick Swayze vehicle Road House (1989). In 1998, he did some of the best work of his career portraying a series of beautifully dysfunctional characters in Buffalo '66, Happiness, and the Coen Brothers' The Big Lebowski. The following year, he traveled into the realm of slick international caper with a supporting role in The Thomas Crown Affair, and then returned to his New York roots to portray the leader of organized crime in the Bronx in Spike Lee's Summer of Sam. Gazzara remained active up through the end of the following decade, continuing to make onscreen appearances even after severe throat cancer that ravaged his vocal chords. He tackled two of his last assignments in the 2006 omnibus picture Paris, je t'aime and the 2008 comedy-drama Looking for Palladin, prior to his death at age 86 in early February 2012.

Gazzara was divorced from the late actress Janice Rule.

Movie Highlights

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  • Attended, on a scholarship, Erwin Piscator's Dramatic Workshop of the New School for Social Research.
  • In 1953, made his Broadway debut as the lead in the play End as a Man
  • Made his film debut in the 1955 drama I'll Cry Tomorrow.
  • Cast in the original 1955 Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
  • Wore three hats---actor, cowriter and director---for the 1990 Italian movie Oltre l'oceano (Beyond the Ocean). 
  • Wrote his autobiography, titled In the Moment: My Life as an Actor, in 2004.
  • In 2005, was awarded the Erwin Piscator Award for his acting achievements. 
  • Passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2012.