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He built a career playing con-artists, criminals, pimps, cheats, and drunks, yet somehow you couldn’t help but believe every word that came out of Ben Gazzara’s mouth.

Biagio Anthony Gazzarra was born August 28, 1930 on New York's Lower East Side. In 1954, Gazzara dropped one of the “r’s” from his surname and set his sites on the Broadway stage. He was one of those them thar highfalutin method actors who looked down his nose at the very thought of lending his art to film let alone, I dare say, television. In a 1998 interview with Charlie Rose, Gazzara confessed that he began as a haughty “thee-a-tuh” actor who eschewed work anywhere but on the stage, and eventually succumbed to the lure (and big bucks) of movies and TV. There was a period in the late-‘70’s, early-’80’s when it was impossible to find a project Gazzara said no to. (Natural disasters like Voyage of the Damned, Bloodline, and Inchon come to mind.)

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Frederick Manion.

Thespians gotta’ eat, too, and Gazzara burst onto the movie scene in the late ‘50’s playing two charming, but thoroughly detestable military types. He made his debut in The Strange One (1957), a fascinating hit with the critics that failed to catch fire with the paying public. Gazzara stars as Jocko De Paris, a calculating, homophobic sadist riding herd over a group of cadets in a Southern military academy. I was shocked to learn that his second role didn’t earn him at least a best supporting actor nomination. Gazzara brings a seldom rivaled intensity to Frederick Manion, the suave sociopathic army lieutenant (who can’t seem to smoke a cigarette unless it’s in a holder) on trial in Otto Preminger’s spellbinding Anatomy of a Murder. (Peter Ustinov won that year for Spartacus.)

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Jack Flowers.

Gazzara will be remembered by many for his on and off screen pairings with boozing-buddies John Cassavetes and Peter Falk, but the three peak performances in my personal Gazzara Pantheon are Jack Flowers, John Russo, and Charles Serking.

The first two roles were for Peter Bogdanovich. They met on the set of Cassavetes’ Opening Night and Bogdanovich fell instantly in love with Gazzara. Saint Jack was already in the works and Bogdanovich knew he’d be perfect for the role of Jack Flowers, an American pimp operating out of Singapore during the Vietnam war. “He wasn't afraid to talk loudly and cause a scene in a restaurant,” Bogdanovich told IndieWire, “and that's the way the Jack character was.”

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Johnny and Angela.

They All Laughed was Bogdanovich’s valentine to “Ben and Audrey,” and arguably the last grand “door-slamming” romantic comedy made with Hollywood’s Golden Age in mind. The film continued an off-screen romance between Gazzara and Miss Hepburn that sparked on Bloodline. Their love affair could have conceivably started on the set of King Vidor’s War and Peace had Gazzara not declined the offer to appear in the picture.

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Charles Serking.

Gazzara was a risk-taker and no role characterized his resolute abandon better than Charles Serking in Marco Ferrari’s adaptation of Charles Bukowski’s Tales of Ordinary Madness. Whether he’s getting rolled by a midget posing as a 13-year-old hooker or throwing an obese, and more than slightly addled, neighbor broad a few bucks so that he may reenter her womb head first, I doubt you’ll find another major actor with the daring and conviction to read Bukowski’s text let alone star in the movie version.

Parting glances were bittersweet at best. The last time I saw Gazzara in 35mm was at the Hillcrest. He played “Ben” opposite Gena Rowlands’ “Gena” in Frédéric Auburtin’s Quartier Latin segment of the romantic anthology, Paris, je t'aime (2006). He looked chipper just three years earlier in Dogville (2003), but time was rapidly catching up with him. I gasped when he first appears, a grey, shrunken-hull where once walked a giant. A copy of The Strange One appeared at Big!Lots and the supplementary interview with Gazzara, recorded in 2009, revealed an man barely able to choke out a word.

Ben Gazzara died on Friday in Manhattan after a long-suffering bout with pancreatic cancer. He was 81. Bukowski’s poem that opens Tales of Ordinary Madness is as fitting a remembrance as any:

“Style is the answer to everything. A fresh way to approach a dull or dangerous thing. To do a dull thing with style is preferable to doing a dangerous thing without it.To do a dangerous thing with style is what I call art.”

Thanks for having the balls to live and share your life as an artist, Mr. Gazzarra. Goddamn, I going to miss you.

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Comments

denfrank Feb. 5, 2012 @ 1:04 p.m.

Verklempt: Gena Rowlands quoted:

Rowlands, who was married to Cassavetes, recalled in 1998 in The [LA]Times: "John and Benny had a great artistic understanding, and I think Benny was relieved to find someone like John, who took things as seriously as he did."

"It breaks my heart to have this era come to an end," Rowlands said in a statement that referred to the deaths of Cassavetes in 1989, Falk last year and now Gazzara. "Ben meant so much to all of us. To our families. To John. To Peter. To have them gone now is devastating to me."

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denfrank Feb. 6, 2012 @ 12:38 p.m.

not in the least bit, I truly was teary reading it.

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Scott Marks Feb. 6, 2012 @ 2:21 p.m.

"Ferklempt" is not a term of praise, so you had me wondering.

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SurfPuppy619 Feb. 5, 2012 @ 2:04 p.m.

He was awesome in "Convicts 4" and I really loved him in "Roadhouse" too......."Capone" so so.

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Scott Marks Feb. 5, 2012 @ 8:39 p.m.

The irony is more people have seen "Roadhouse" than all the Cassavetes' and Bogdanovich's combined. As guilty pleasures go, it's not bad!

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SurfPuppy619 Feb. 5, 2012 @ 9:01 p.m.

Roadhouse is a great show IMO. It is a movie that did fair at the Box Office but developed a cult like following (much like Al Pacino's Scarface) on TV. I love Roadhouse and have seen it numerous times. Musician Jeff Healy played a big part of the show and was another reason it reasonates witrh me.

Convicts 4 is an awesome film, it was filmed in black and white which to me makes it even more appealing to me. If you have not seen it I recommend it.

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Scott Marks Feb. 5, 2012 @ 9:46 p.m.

I've seen and enjoyed "C4," but with all due respect, I was in it for Sammy, not Mr. Gazzara.

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Twister Feb. 5, 2012 @ 3:55 p.m.

The last I heard, Gena was sitting on Cassavetes' pictures.

Anybody know why?

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Scott Marks Feb. 5, 2012 @ 8:37 p.m.

Sitting on them? Haven't they all been released on home video?

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Twister Feb. 5, 2012 @ 8:49 p.m.

The rumor I heard was that she wouldn't let them be re-released. I don't know the details. If they're on home video, I'd like to know where I can get them.

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Scott Marks Feb. 5, 2012 @ 9:44 p.m.

Here you go!

http://tinyurl.com/7vnjlta

"Husbands" & "Minnie and Moskowitz" are also out.

And if you don't want to own them, rent the DVDs at Kensington Video. Tell 'em Scott sent you!

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Scott Marks Feb. 6, 2012 @ 4:49 p.m.

Anytime you get in another spot, Twister, just call on me. ;)

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David Elliott Feb. 6, 2012 @ 12:40 p.m.

With all due credit to Ben and Sammy and a tremendous cast, the great scene-stealer of Convicts Four was (as always) the indescribably weird Timothy Carey. He has a swell scene with a slab of cake.

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Scott Marks Feb. 6, 2012 @ 5:48 p.m.

Did you post a clip from a Todd Solondz-z-z-z film on one of my articles?! Shaking fist! Without Wiener Dog, he's nothing!

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Colonna Feb. 6, 2012 @ 1:24 p.m.

Mr. Marks once sent me a tape full of "Stuttering John" highlights from back in the day and it featured a quick interview with Ben Gazzara.

To hear Ben explode at the Wack Packer was truly a delight - I wish I had the tape still.

Ben, you don't have to "Run For Your Life" any more or hear "Tales Of Ordinary Madness" again. Rest in peace.


Gazzara, Falk & Cassavetes on "Cavett" discussing "Husbands":

Part 1 - www.youtube.com/watch?v=4NiThZ8tJLI

Part 2 - www.youtube.com/watch?v=h-dClTQ7yPc

Part 3 - www.youtube.com/watch?v=HC5uTO7YukE

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Ghost_of_dolores_hope Feb. 8, 2012 @ 8:27 a.m.

Thanks to Colonna to posting those great clips. Amazing how whisky and cigarettes can quick one thin and fit.

Picked up They All Laughed again, and it keeps getting better. Amazing to see NYC when it was still cool and one could afford to live there, and even be able to park your car.

They All Laughed is sure a diamond in the rough. When I first saw it, I must confess I didn't get it at all and wrote it off. No wonder it only gets three stars on IMDB. Good to see Benny as a playboy who gets all the chicks. It's a great male fantasy about having affairs and nobody gets hurt. Peter even managed to coax a good performance out of a couple of models. Talk about miracles. No extras on the streets either. They hired extras to block the camera from view. Peter also kept the union crew blocks away to avoid crowd distraction. They All laughed would make a nice triple bill with Taxi Driver and Hannah and her Sisters.

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Ghost_of_dolores_hope Feb. 8, 2012 @ 8:36 a.m.

According to Peter B. on the extras to They All Laughed, Ben and Audrey affair began on Bloodline. Never heard of it till now.

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SurfPuppy619 Feb. 8, 2012 @ 9:40 a.m.

I never heard of it either, until now.

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Scott Marks Feb. 8, 2012 @ 9:48 a.m.

Thanks, Dotty, for keeping me honest. I was truly saddened while writing this and forgot that "Bloodline," the worst film both Ben and Audrey ever appeared in, came before TAL. I went back and "fixed" the text. I'm glad you watched it again. I saw it at a press preview at the Chicago Theatre screening room with Sisky in attendance and in spite of that, I loved it.

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