John Cazale was an American actor best remembered for playing the character of ‘Fredo Corleone’ in the Academy Award-winning movie ‘The Godfather’. He was one of the finest character actors in Hollywood and was regarded very highly by his peers and fellow actors. Cazale had actually worked in only five films and one television short film in his career which was cut short by his untimely death from cancer. However, within the short span of his career he established himself as a fine actor and worked alongside several big names like Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and Gene Hackman. Starting his professional career the hard way, he struggled a lot initially to establish himself. Cazale ultimately earned success and fame in the film industry through his dedication and hard work. His career was moving on the right track when he suddenly became ill and passed away within a year. In his memory, a documentary film titled ‘I Knew It Was You’ was screened at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. It featured many popular figures including his long-term friend and actor Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Richard Dreyfuss, Gene Hackman, Francis Ford Coppola, Steve Buscemi, and Sidney Lumet, giving their views and insight on his character and greatness.
Childhood & Early Life
John Holland Cazale was born in Revere, Massachusetts, on August 12, 1935. His father John Cazale was an Italian-American and his mother Cecilia Holland was an Irish-American. He was the middle child with an older sister Catherine and a younger brother Stephen.
Cazale went to Buxton School in Williamstown, Massachusetts to study drama and later enrolled at the Oberlin College in Ohio. He eventually transferred to Boston University to learn from Peter Kass.
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After graduating from the Boston University, John Cazale started to appear in stage productions and also drove a cab to earn his living. He worked for the Charles Playhouse and appeared in two of the productions, ‘Hotel Paradiso’ and ‘Our Town,’ in 1959. His performance in ‘Our Town’ was highly praised by critic Jean Pierre Frankenhuis, who hailed Cazale for his “stupendous”, “touching”, “thrilling” and “hilarious” acting.
For better prospects in acting, he moved to New York City, where he worked as a photographer to earn his living while he tried his luck in getting acting opportunities. He appeared in several plays before appearing in a short film titled ‘The American Way’, directed by Marvin Starkman in 1962.
Cazale had to wait a long time before he could venture into Hollywood, but eventually his hard work paid off and he landed the role of ‘Fredo Corleone’ in the Francis Ford Coppola film ‘The Godfather’ in 1972. He was picked for this role after coming to the notice of casting director Fred Roos who had seen him perform on the stage. In the film, Cazale acted alongside his friend Al Pacino.
After impressing Coppola with his short yet brilliant performance in ‘The Godfather’, he earned a role in another one of his movies, ‘The Conversation,’ in 1974. He played the role of ‘Stan´ in the film and acted alongside big actors like Gene Hackman. The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Film.
In 1974, John Cazale appeared in the second part of the ‘The Godfather’ franchise, reprising his character of ‘Fredo Corleone’. His character was assigned a more important role in this movie and the climax of the film touched many hearts and established him as a fine character actor.
In 1975, he appeared alongside Al Pacino in ‘Dog Day Afternoon’, an American crime drama film directed by Sidney Lumet and written by Frank Pierson. His performance of the character ‘Salvatore Naturale’ earned a lot of respect from the director, who, in his own words said that he had never seen anyone like Cazale who had the ability to inject tremendous sadness into the characters he played.
His next movie ‘The Deer Hunter’ is regarded as his best by many. By the time the shooting began, Cazale had already been diagnosed with cancer. With the consent of the others involved in the film, he decided to shoot all his scenes beforehand. His health deteriorated as the shooting progressed. Though he was able to complete the shooting while still in relatively stable health, he passed away before the film was released.
Awards & Achievements
Despite being a brilliant actor, John Cazale did not win any major awards in his short-lived career. He was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor for ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ in 1976 but did not win it.
John Cazale played the role of Fredo Corleone in the films ‘The Godfather’ and ‘The Godfather Part II’ which established him as one of the most popular character actors in Hollywood. He did full justice to the role with his poignant portrayal of the character.
Cazale was offered the role of ‘Salvatore Naturale/Sal’ in the film ‘Dog Day Afternoon’, directed by Sidney Lumet. He appeared alongside Al Pacino, James Broderick, and Charles Durning in the critically acclaimed hit film. He was nominated at the Golden Globe Awards for ‘Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture’.
John Cazale was in a relationship with actress Meryl Streep from 1976 till his death.
On April 29, 1977, he appeared in his last stage show, playing the title role of ‘Agamemnon’ at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre. He fell ill soon after and was diagnosed with lung cancer. He underwent different kinds of treatment but within a year the cancer metastasized to his bones.
He passed away on March 13, 1978 with Meryl Streep by his side. Meryl, who never left his side during his illness, was described by Cazale’s long-term friend Al Pacino as someone who was completely in love with him and devoted to him till the very end.
He was friends with the legendary actor Al Pacino with whom he had worked as a messenger at Standard Oil in his early 20s.
While pursuing his acting career, he also worked as a cab driver, a photographer, and a messenger to earn his living.