5 Things You Didn't Know About John Cazale

Jim Valentine, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0
Jim Valentine, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0 / Jim Valentine, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

John Cazale may not be a household name, but if you enjoyed classic films from the 1970s, chances are you'd recognize the vulnerable Italian-American character actor from his handful of memorable roles in films like The Godfather, where he played doomed Corleone brother Fredo. Although Cazale's career was cut short when he died from bone cancer at just 42, his brief stay in Hollywood generated one of the more interesting bodies of work in modern film. Let's take a look at five things you might not have known about Cazale:

1. He Batted a Thousand With the Academy

Getty Images

While Cazale never earned an Oscar nomination himself, his films fared significantly better; every feature film in which he appeared received a nomination for best picture. Three of his films, The Godfather, The Godfather: Part II, and The Deer Hunter took home the top prize. The other two films Cazale made during his life, The Conversation and Dog Day Afternoon, both got nominations but didn't win. Here's the real kicker, though: The Godfather: Part III, which didn't come out until 12 years after Cazale's 1978 death, featured archival footage of Cazale in the Fredo Corleone role. It got a best picture nod, too.

2. Cazale and Al Pacino Worked the Oil Biz Together

cazale-pacino.jpg /

Cazale studied acting at Oberlin College before transferring to Boston University, where he trained with Olympia Dukakis. Acting gigs weren't easy to come by, though, so after graduation Cazale found himself working as a messenger for Standard Oil. Through his job, he met a fellow aspiring young actor named Al Pacino, and the two became fast friends, even living together in a communal house.

The two friends wouldn't stay in the oil business for long, though. Eventually they ended up performing in an off-Broadway performance of Israel Horovitz's one-act play The Indian Wants the Bronx in 1968. The play was an immediate hit with critics, which earned Pacino an Obie Award for Best Actor, while Cazale grabbed the Obie for Best Supporting Actor.

The Pacino-Cazale hookup wasn't finished bearing fruit, though. Cazale supposedly auditioned for his role in The Godfather at Pacino's invitation. Although the "I know it was you" scene between Cazale's Fredo and Pacino's Michael is one of the most memorable parts of the whole trilogy, the two buddies might have clicked even better in Dog Day Afternoon, the often hilarious adaptation of a bizarre real-life bank robbery. Although Pacino allegedly had to hound director Sidney Lumet to even give his buddy an audition for the film, Cazale's subtly nervous, sad-eyed portrayal of the gunman Sal provides the perfect counterpoint to Pacino's addled, hyperkinetic bank robber Sonny. (If you haven't seen Dog Day Afternoon, check it out; it's one of the most thoroughly entertaining movies you'll ever see.)

3. He Could Ad Lib a Line

Cazale ad-libbed one of Dog Day Afternoon's most memorable lines as he and Pacino's Sonny character discuss the specifics of their getaway. Rather than spoil the line, here's a not-so-great YouTube clip of the Cazale's improvised response to the Pacino's question of whether or not there's any special country he'd like to go to:

4. He Was Lucky in Love

Although Cazale was already famous as Fredo Corleone by 1976, he was still spending some time working in theater. That summer he starred in the New York Shakespeare Festival's performance of Measure for Measure. Although Cazale was 40, the 27-year-old blonde Yale grad playing Isabella caught his eye. The actress was unknown at the time, but you'll undoubtedly recognize her name now: Meryl Streep. After the play's premiere, Cazale and Streep admitted they had feelings for each other, and she moved into his apartment. Cazale soon proposed to Streep, and they would have eventually been married if not for his terminal bone cancer diagnosis. When Cazale was ill, Streep put her career on hold to live with him in his hospital room in an effort to cheer him up.

They weren't just romantic partners, though; Cazale and Streep had good luck in their one piece of screen work together. They co-starred in the Vietnam drama The Deer Hunter, which wasn't released until after Cazale's death, and Streep received a Best Supporting Actress nomination (the first of many Oscar nods) for her portrayal of Christopher Walken's fiancé.

5. He Was Tough to Insure

When casting for The Deer Hunter began, Cazale had already received his terminal bone cancer diagnosis. Director Michael Cimino really wanted Cazale to play the role of Stanley, but since the severe nature of Cazale's illness made the actor uninsurable, the studio wasn't so keen on the idea. Cimino stood his ground, though, and apparently Streep and De Niro both threatened to walk if Cazale didn't get the part. Eventually, the studio relented; Streep later theorized that the studio gave in after De Niro secretly secured the bond for Cazale's casting. The cancer had so weakened Cazale that Cimino had to film all of Cazale's scenes before shooting any other part of the movie.