February 28, 2012 by staff
Ben Gazzara, Ben Gazzara, whose powerful dramatic performances brought an intensity to a variety of roles and made him a memorable presence in such iconic productions over the decades as the original “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” on Broadway and the film “The Big Lebowski,” has died at age 81.
Longtime family friend Suzanne Mados said Gazzara died Friday in Manhattan. Mados, who owned the Wyndham Hotel, where celebrities such as Peter Falk and Martin Sheen stayed, said he died after being placed in hospice care for cancer. She and her husband helped marry Gazzara and his wife, German-born Elke Krivat, at their hotel.
Gazzara was a proponent of method acting, in which the performer attempts to take on the thoughts and emotions of the character he’s playing, and it helped him achieve stardom early in his career with two stirring Broadway performances.
In 1955, he originated the role of Brick Pollitt, the disturbed alcoholic son and failed football star in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” He left the show after only seven months to take on an equally challenging role, Johnny Pope, the drug addict in “A Hatful of Rain.” It earned him his first of three Tony Award nominations.
In 1965, he moved on to TV stardom in “Run for Your Life,” a drama about a workaholic lawyer who, diagnosed with a terminal illness, quits his job and embarks on a globe-trotting attempt to squeeze a lifetime of adventures into the one or two years he has left. He was twice nominated for Emmys during the show’s three-year run.
Gazzara made his movie debut in 1957 in “The Strange One,” Calder Willingham’s bitter drama about brutality at a Southern military school. He had previously played the lead role of the psychopathic cadet, Jocko de Paris, on Broadway in Willingham’s stage version of the story, “End of Man.”
He followed that film with “Anatomy of a Murder,” in which he played a man on trial for murdering a tavern keeper who had been accused of raping his wife.
After “Run for Your Life” ended in 1968, Gazzara spent the rest of his career alternating between movies and the stage, although rarely with the critical acclaim he had enjoyed during his early years.
In the 1970s, he teamed with his friend director John Cassavetes for three films, “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” and “Opening Night.” In another Cassavetes film, he appeared with Falk, and the two became friends (it was Cassavetes who introduced them to the Wyndham Hotel, according to a 1982 article in New York magazine).
Gena Rowlands appeared with Gazzara in “Opening Night,” which also starred Cassavetes. Cassavetes and Rowlands were married; he died in 1989. Falk died last year.
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