Childhood & Early Life
John Nicholas Cassavetes was born in New York City on December 9, 1929 to Katherine Cassavetes, an actress by profession, and Nicholas John Cassavetes, an immigrant from Greece. He went to Greece as a little child and returned at the age of seven. He didn’t speak English initially.
He attended Port Washington High School for two years and then went to Blair Academy in New Jersey. He later went to Champlain College for a period before being expelled for poor grades.
He attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts after being inspired by his friends. He met his future wife Gena Rowlands during her audition there.
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After graduating from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1950, John Cassavetes started playing minor roles in stage productions. Eventually, he began conducting a workshop in New York City where he taught his students an alternate style of method acting, something he himself was known for in the acting department.
He played some roles in a few low-budget commercial movies and television serials before getting his big break in the 1955 American crime film ‘The Night Holds Terror’, in which he portrayed the character of a vicious killer.
His initial success brought him popular roles in films like ‘Edge of the City’ in 1957. He later appeared alongside Robert Taylor in a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer production titled ‘Saddle the Wind’, directed by Robert Parrish.
In the mid-1950s, he was inspired to make his directorial debut ‘Shadows’, a film about interracial relations during the Beat Generation years in New York City. He managed to finance the film by raising funds from his close friends and from the audiences of Jean Shepherd's late-night radio talk-show ‘Night People’.
By making an independent movie, he wanted to dedicate something to the common people of the industry and the audiences, something the big productions in Hollywood failed to do. However, he couldn’t manage to get American distribution for the film. Nonetheless, he managed to win a Critics Award at the Venice Film Festival in 1959.
During the 1960s, he directed two popular films, ‘Too Late Blues’, a black-and-white American film starring Bobby Darin, Stella Stevens, and Everett Chambers, and ‘A Child is Waiting’, an American drama film written by Abby Mann. He then appeared in ‘Rawhide’, ‘The Lloyd Bridges Show’, and ‘Channing.’
His financial gains from the early 1960s gave him the freedom to move to California and start working on his desire of making independent films. He also acted in some films like ‘The Killers’, ‘Devil's Angels’, ‘The Dirty Dozen’, and ‘Rosemary's Baby.’
Among his many independent movies, ‘Faces’ in 1968 became his best creation with the film getting nominated for the Oscars. The film featured his wife Gena Rowlands, John Marley, Seymour Cassel, Lynn Carlin, and Val Avery.
Other than ‘Faces’ he also made several other great films like ‘Minnie and Moskowitz’ in 1971, ‘A Woman Under the Influence’ in 1974, ‘The Killing of a Chinese Bookie’ in 1976, and ‘Opening Night’ in 1977, with the last film featuring his wife Gena Rowlands playing the character of a struggling actress who faces a personal crisis after witnessing the death of a young fan. Gena delivered a stellar performance in the movie, unarguably her best.
John Cassavetes is best remembered as a pioneer of independent filmmaking and his first movie ‘Shadows’ in 1959 is regarded as a trendsetter. The movie was made with financial aid from his friends and family members and also with the donations from the audience of Jean Shepherd's late-night radio talk-show ‘Night People’. Cassavetes won the Critics Award at the Venice Film Festival even though the film was not a major commercial hit.
The film ‘Faces’ (1968), a drama film starring John Marley, Gena Rowlands (his wife), Fred Draper, Seymour Cassel, and Lynn Carlin, is counted amongst his greatest works. He financed the film from his own earnings and took three years to complete it. The film was shot mostly at his house and told the story of a slow disintegration of a contemporary marriage. It was nominated for the Academy Awards in three different categories, Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress.
John Cassavetes met Gena Rowlands at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1953 during her audition. They got married on March 19, 1954. The couple had three children, Nick Cassavetes, Alexandra Cassavetes, and Zoe R. Cassavetes. They remained married until Cassavetes’ death.
He died of liver cirrhosis on February 3, 1989, in Los Angeles, California. At the time of his death, he had a collection of over 40 unproduced scripts and three unproduced plays.