Actor Ben Gazzara Dies at 81

Ben Gazzara Portrait - H 2012
Getty Images

Ben Gazzara Portrait - H 2012

He was a member in John Cassavetes’ independent troupe and starred in the popular 1960s NBC series “Run for Your Life.”

Ben Gazzara, the gritty actor who was a member of John Cassavetes' independent troupe after attaining TV fame for starring in the 1960s NBC series Run for Your Life, died Friday afternoon in Manhattan, The New York Times reported.

The actor died of pancreatic cancer at Bellevue Hospital Center, his lawyer, Jay Julien, told the newspaper. Gazzara lived in Manhattan.

Noted for his naturalistic performances, Gazzara played in three Cassavetes films during a seven-year span in the 1970s: Husbands, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Opening Night. He also starred as an alcoholic Italian writer in Marco Ferreri’s Tales of Ordinary Madness (1981).

While linked aesthetically with Cassavetes and independent-minded films, Gazzara also excelled in mainstream movies including Road House (1989), starring Patrick Swayze. Even in the broadest of such popular entertainments, he invested his supporting characters with gritty dimensions, as in the 1999 remake of The Thomas Crown Affair.

A native of New York's Lower East Side, Gazzara played Brick in the original Tennessee Williams Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, starred in the 1959 classic Anatomy of a Murder and won an Emmy in 2003 for his supporting role in the HBO telefilm Hysterical Blindness.

Throughout his career, Gazzara positioned himself for “creative elbow room,” seeking edgy characters in non-mainstream productions or infusing mainstream productions with idiosyncratic supporting turns. But he always felt he should have done more.

“I turned down so many movies because I was idealistic,” he once said. “If I had the same chances today, I would take them all because you never know where it will lead.”

Born Biagio Anthony Gazzara on Aug. 28, 1930, he grew up in a cold-water flat, speaking Italian as his first language. Despite the hardships, Gazzara persevered to study engineering at City College of New York but gravitated to acting, going on to study with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio.

Gazzara made it to Broadway in 1953 as a manipulative cadet in End as a Man. Two years later, he co-starred in Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and followed with a starring role in A Hatful of Rain. Despite acclaimed performances, Gazzara was not selected to play either role in the film adaptations: Paul Newman got the part in Cat, and Don Murray starred in the movie version of Hatful.

However, End was made into a 1957 film, now titled The Strange One, and his intense performance attracted attention.

Gazzara was next cast in Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959), playing a belligerent Navy officer and murder defendant whom lawyer Jimmy Stewart gets off — and who then skips town without paying his legal bill. The film earned seven Oscar nominations, and Gazzara’s strikingly sinister portrayal led to similar roles including a turn in Convicts 4 (1961), in which he played a hostile inmate whose life changes when he discovers art.

Gazzara’s ability to show multiple dimensions, from amoral toughness to sensitivity, led to meaty roles. He thrived on playing highly conflicted and desperate characters. In 1963, he co-starred with Chuck Connors in the 90-minute series Arrest and Trial. Two years later, he gained national attention with his performance as a lawyer with a short time to live in Run for Your Life.

The series ran for three seasons. At his peak of popularity and recognition after Run, Gazzara starred in TV’s first miniseries, QB VII (1974), an adaptation of Leon Uris’ best-selling novel.

During this period, Gazzara hooked up with Cassavetes, his acting-school buddy. Cassavetes’ psychologically turbulent subject matter, often involving personal demons and midlife crises, was a fitting canvas for Gazzara’s searing portrayals. Along with Cassavetes and Peter Falk, Gazzara co-starred in Husbands (1970), playing one of three middle-aged men whose best friend’s death triggers their panicky spiral into debauchery in New York and London.

Next for Cassavetes, Gazzara starred as a seedy L.A. strip-club operator who is deep in hock to the mob in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976). He took a supporting role in Cassavetes’ next opus, 1977's Opening Night, which starred Gena Rowlands as an actress traumatized by witnessing the accidental death of a longtime fan.

Gazzara also starred with Cassavetes in the oddball disaster film Capone (1975), which Gazzara ratcheted up as the dying, syphilis-ridden gangster. (Cassavetes did not direct the film.)

Amid such dark peculiarities, Gazzara played in lighter fare during the late 1960s and ’70s, including If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium, The Neptune Factor, High Velocity and Sidney Sheldon’s Bloodline.

He also hooked up with director Peter Bogdanovich, starring in Saint Jack (1979) and They All Laughed as well as the Reverend Sun Myung Moon-produced Korean War extravaganza Inchon, the latter two released in 1981. In addition, Gazzara brought his mix of surly toughness and psychological complexity to mainstream roles, most notably his intimidating performance as a bisexual thug in Road House.

In the '90s, a new generation of independent filmmakers, weaned and schooled on Cassavetes fare, cast him in their movies: In three 1998 films, Gazzara was featured as a pornographer in the Coen BrothersThe Big Lebowski; played an obsessed father in Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo '66; and portrayed a husband walking away from a 40-year-marriage in Todd Solondz’s Happiness. The same year, he was featured in Too Tired to Die, as an artist romancing a much younger Korean girl, and as a senile actor in John Turturro’s Illuminata.

A year later, Gazzara brought his gritty intensity to the role of a Bronx crime lord in Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam.

Starting in 2003, Gazzara portrayed New York Yankees legend and linguist Yogi Berra in the off-Broadway production Nobody Don’t Like Yogi and appeared in Lars von Trier’s controversial Dogville (2003). Despite being treated for throat cancer, which made his voice gravelly, Gazzara brought his one-man Yogi to such New York venues as Sag Harbor and Syracuse. He also was featured in a segment of the 2006 collaborative film Paris, Je T’aime.

Gazzara had been married to actress Elke Krivat since 1982 and had previous marriages to actresses Louise Erickson and Janice Rule. In addition to Krivat, survivors include two daughters and a brother.