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Friday, February 3, 2012

In Loving Memory

He's one of "the faces". You've seen him, and you know you know him from... somewhere. But you'll be damned if you know from where. He began his career in the late fifties, and has worked consistently until his death, today, at 81 years old. May he rest in complete peace. 

He left us today after a battle with pancreatic cancer. It's always sad to see someone you've known, even at a far, for so long go as a result, but we can't say he hasn't lived a full life. 

Born August 28th, in New York City, in 1930, to Sicilian immigrant workers, Biagio Anthony Gazzara fell in love with acting at an early age after seeing Laurette Taylor in The Glass Menagerie. He later studied with Erwin Piscator. 

The beginning of his "face"-dom began on Broadway, originating the lead roles in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Hatful of Rain, for which he was nominated for a Tony award. Before that, though, Ben was a member of the Actor's Studio in New York, helping assemble an improvised theatrical version of Calder Willingham's novel End as a Man. That play brought him to Broadway, and later to the world of film in 1957's The Strange One (a slightly different, but uniquely faithful film version of End as a Man), with Gazzara in the same role. Though the film wasn't a financial success, he had earned the respect of the critics the film reached. And in 1959, he would have a supporting role in Anatomy of a Murder, and the rest would be filmic history. 

In the 1960's, Gazzara bounced back and forth between television and cinema, starring in Italian films, struggling TV shows, and slightly underknown Hollywood productions. The Passionate Thief and Conquered City, his Italian-made films in 1960 and 1962 would come to garner more notoriety toward the 70's (even to now) than The Young Doctors and Convicts 4. Heard of them? Well, you should - especially those four as a unit. Gazzara was a compassionate actor, and almost the definition of gentle toward his co-workers. It was most likely his gentility that won him the heart of Audrey Hepburn, despite their committed (though admittedly very troubled) marriages. 

His work with directors John Cassavetes and Peter Bogdanovich would gain him more critical acclaim and "street cred", I guess you could call it, in the 70's than any of his previous works, starring in three films with Cassavetes (Husbands, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Opening Night) and two with Bogdanovich (Saint Jack, and They All Laughed - with Audrey Hepburn). And, I'm telling you, if you've never seen Bloodline - you're missing the hell out on something amazing. 

From the 80's until his passing, he bounced around from acclaimed director to mixed openings to little-known directors to... God knows what else. Working with the Coen brothers on The Big Lebowski in 1998, working with Spike Lee in Summer of Sam and Lars von Trier in Dogville (1999 and 2003), even in the the 80's he went from Tales of Ordinary Madness to Roadhouse, bookending the decade, so to speak. Go figure, right?  

It wasn't until 2003 that I saw Dogville and thought - wait. I know him. That's... *beep*. Him. He was in... Lebowski. And... THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE! That's Cosmo! 

Rest in peace, sir. You will be truly missed.