Scion of renowned maverick director John Cassavetes and extraordinary actress Gena Rowlands, Nick Cassavetes was an actor for over a decade before he added writing and directing to his Hollywood repertoire. Born and raised in New York, Cassavetes appeared in two of his father's films, Husbands (1970) and A Woman Under the Influence (1974), while growing up. The sturdy, 6'4" Cassavetes did not, however, want to be an actor and attended Syracuse University on a basketball scholarship. After an injury ended his collegiate athletic career, Cassavetes re-thought his aspirations and headed to his parents' alma mater, the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
Though he scored his first role as an adult in Peter Bogdanovich's acclaimed drama Mask (1985), Cassavetes made his living appearing in numerous B-movies during the 1980s and early '90s. Along with such actioners as Black Moon Rising (1986), Under the Gun (1988), and The Wraith (1987) (with fellow Hollywood offspring Charlie Sheen), Cassavetes also starred in several softcore movies, including Body of Influence (1991). By the mid-'90s, Cassavetes left B-movies for a role as Dorothy Parker's lover, writer Robert Sherwood, in Alan Rudolph's Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994) and his own debut as a movie writer and director. Drawing on his mother's experience after his father's 1989 death and featuring a superb performance by Rowlands, Unhook the Stars (1996) was a perceptive slice-of-life drama about a widow's relationship with her young single-mother neighbor. Further paying homage to his roots, Cassavetes then directed one of his father's unproduced screenplays, She's So Lovely (1997). Starring Sean Penn and Robin Wright Penn as a couple that defines l'amour fou and John Travolta as Wright Penn's tough yet paternal second husband, She's So Lovely was true to the elder Cassavetes' distinct, keen voice and won prizes for cinematography and Penn's flamboyant performance at the Cannes Film Festival. Cassavetes also appeared onscreen that same year with Travolta, as super criminal Castor Troy's bald cohort Dietrich in John Woo's summer blockbuster Face/Off (1997). Appearing in higher profile fare than most of his prior acting work, Cassavetes followed Face/Off with roles in the Johnny Depp-Charlize Theron sci-fi thriller The Astronaut's Wife (1999) and Ted Demme's Eddie Murphy-Martin Lawrence prison movie Life (1999). Continuing his associations with Demme and Depp, Cassavetes subsequently co-wrote the director's final film Blow (2001), about the rise and fall of a 1970s and '80s American cocaine kingpin.
Returning to the director's chair for a project that spoke to his experience with his own daughter's heart disease, Cassavetes took on his first big-budget Hollywood genre film, John Q. (2002). Starring Denzel Washington as a desperate working-class father who turns to violence when his HMO won't cover his son's heart transplant, this unconvincing piece of schlock received devastating reviews across the board. American critics described it, alternately, as "So lacking in shame that it finally seems laughable, "[a] movie [that] transcends stupidity and soars into the empyrean of true idiocy," and "A shamelessly manipulative commercial on behalf of national health insurance." The director fared immeasurably better in 2004 with The Notebook. As penned by Jeremy Leven and Jan Sardi, this gentle and evocative adaptation of Nicholas Sparks' bestselling novel follows an elderly man (James Garner) who reads a heartbreaking period love story aloud to a female nursing home resident (Gena Rowlands). The film then plays out the story-within-the-story, about a couple who share the greatest summer of their lives with one another, and are then irrevocably separated by their parents and the rise of World War II. The press responded far more kindly to The Notebook when it premiered in the U.S. on June 25, 2004. Michael Wilmington's comments typified the response: "[It] may be corny," he noted, "But it's also absorbing, sweet, and powerfully acted. It's a film about falling in love and looking back on it, and it avoids many of the genre's syrupy dangers." Audiences flocked to the picture, and turned it into one of the sleeper hits of the year.
Cassavetes' fifth directorial outing, Alpha Dog (2007), constitutes a biopic of Jesse James Hollywood (played by Emile Hirsch), a young murderer, thief, kidnapper, junkie, and dealer who became one of the youngest individuals in history to make the FBI's 10 Most Wanted List. The film finds Hollywood foolishly attempting to clear the account of one of his clients by nabbing the boy's younger brother and holding him for ransom. He thus sets into motion a horrifying cycle of violence that precipitates his own demise. The picture co-stars Justin Timberlake and Sharon Stone.
Over the coming years, Cassavetes would direct movies like My Sister's Keeper.