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Obituary: Ben Gazzara

Ben Gazzara

Obituary by Jack Foley

BEN Gazzara, the gritty character actor known for films such as Road House and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, has died at the age of 81.

The actor passed away on Friday afternoon (February 3, 2012) in Manhattan, according to The New York Times. He had been suffering from pancreatic cancer and was being cared for at Bellevue Hospital Center, according to his lawyer, Jay Julien.

Gazzara was a well known and highly respected member of John Cassavetes’ independent troupe after shooting to TV fame in the 1960s NBC series Run For Your Life.

Born Biagio Anthony Gazzara in New York on August 28, 1930, Gazzara was the son of Italian immigrants Angelina (née Cusumano) and Antonio Gazzarra, a laborer and carpenter.

Growing up on New York’s tough Lower East Side, he later attended New York City’s Stuyvesant High School where he credited the discovery of his love for acting as saving him from a life of crime during his teen years.

But that didn’t stop him from initially opting to attend City College of New York to study electrical engineering before giving that up after two years in favour of classes in acting at the Dramatic Workshop of The New School in New York.

Having rediscovered his passion for acting, Gazzara wasted no time in making a name for himself, having tweaked his name to Ben Gazzara and landing roles in NBC’s legal drama Justice in 1954, as well as various Broadway productions, including Tennessee Williams’ Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1955).

He lost out to Paul Newman when the film version was cast but joined other Actors Studio members in the 1957 film The Strange One before landing his big break as a soldier on trial for avenging his wife’s rape in Otto Preminger’s courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder (1959).

Thereafter, he split his time between the big screen and small screen, becoming something of a household name for his portrayal of a terminally ill man trying to get the most out of the last two years of his life in Run For Your Life, which ran from 1965 to 1968.

He also scored lots of critical acclaim for his performances in three Cassavetes films during a seven-year span in the 1970s: Husbands, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Opening Night, as well as yet more praise for his portrayal of an alcoholic Italian writer in Marco Ferreri’s Tales of Ordinary Madness (1981).

One of his most popular roles came as the villain of cult action movie Road House (1989), which pitted him against Patrick Swayze’s bouncer.

In the ’90s, a new generation of independent filmmakers discovered him after having been inspired by his work in Cassavettes’ movies.

In three 1998 films, Gazzara was featured as a pornographer in the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski, an obsessed father in Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo ’66 and a husband walking away from a 40-year-marriage in Todd Solondz’s Happiness.

A year later, he stood out among a strong ensemble in the role of a Bronx crime lord in Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam.

Gazzara continued to work into the Noughties despite battling throat cancer, appearing in Lars von Trier’s controversial Dogville (2003) as well as a segment of the 2006 collaborative film Paris, Je T’aime.

Also starting from 2003, Gazzara portrayed New York Yankees legend and linguist Yogi Berra in the off-Broadway production Nobody Don’t Like Yogi and continued to take it to New York venues as Sag Harbor and Syracuse.

Gazzara had been married to actress Elke Krivat since 1982 and had previous marriages to actresses Louise Erickson and Janice Rule. He is also survived by two daughters and a brother.