John Cazale

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John Cazale
Cazale in Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Born(1935-08-12)August 12, 1935
DiedMarch 13, 1978(1978-03-13) (aged 42)
EducationOberlin College
Boston University (BFA)
Years active1959–1978
PartnerMeryl Streep (1976–1978)[1]

John Holland Cazale (/kəˈzæl/; August 12, 1935 – March 13, 1978)[2]: 8  was an American actor. He appeared in five films over seven years, all of which were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture: The Godfather (1972), The Conversation (1974), The Godfather Part II (1974), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and The Deer Hunter (1978), with the two Godfather films and The Deer Hunter winning. Cazale started as a theater actor in New York City, ranging from regional, to off-Broadway, to Broadway acting alongside Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, and Sam Waterston. Cazale soon became one of Hollywood's premier character actors, starting with his role as the doomed, weak-minded Fredo Corleone opposite longtime friend Al Pacino in Francis Ford Coppola's film The Godfather and its 1974 sequel, as well as Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon. In 1977, Cazale was diagnosed with lung cancer, but he chose to complete his role in The Deer Hunter. He died shortly after, in New York City on March 13, 1978.

Theatrical producer Joseph Papp called Cazale "an amazing intellect, an extraordinary person and a fine, dedicated artist".[3] David Thomson writes that "It is the lives and works of people like John Cazale that make filmgoing worthwhile."[4] A documentary tribute to Cazale, I Knew It Was You, was screened at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival featuring interviews with Al Pacino, Steve Buscemi, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Gene Hackman, Richard Dreyfuss, Francis Ford Coppola, and Sidney Lumet.[5]

Early life[edit]

Cazale was born in Revere, Massachusetts,[6] to an Irish-American mother, Cecilia Holland (1898–1997), and an Italian-American father, John Cazale (1897–1957).[7] He had an older sister, Catherine (May 28, 1931 – February 2, 2000), and a younger brother, Stephen.[8][2]: 20  He grew up in Winchester and attended high school at the Buxton School in Williamstown where he joined the drama club. He studied drama at Oberlin College in Ohio, transferring to Boston University, where he studied under Peter Kass.[9][10]


Theatre career[edit]

Upon graduation, Cazale worked as a cab driver, as he started his theatrical career at the Charles Playhouse in Boston, appearing in Hotel Paradiso and Our Town in 1959.[2] Reviewing his performance as George Gibbs in Our Town, critic Jean Pierre Frankenhuis said: "[Cazale's] portrayal is absolutely stupendous, hilarious, touching, thrilling. We found ourselves wishing that there were more scenes with him, such is the enjoyable performance he gives: a comedian of the first order!".[11] Cazale moved to New York City and supported himself as a photographer while looking for acting work. He made one of his first appearances there in the Equity Library's production of Sidney Howard's Paths of Glory.[2]

An Off-Broadway production of Archibald MacLeish's J.B. by the Equity Library Theatre followed on March 17, 1962, at the Master Theatre.[12] He also acted in a 1962 short film entitled The American Way, directed by Marvin Starkman.[13]

In 1965, Cazale was part of the National Tour of Lorraine Hansberry's The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window[14]

He worked as a messenger at Standard Oil, where he met Al Pacino, another aspiring actor. Pacino recalled: "When I first saw John, I instantly thought he was so interesting. Everybody was always around him because he had a very congenial way of expressing himself."[15] In 1966, the two were cast in a play by Israel Horovitz, The Indian Wants the Bronx, playing at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center in Waterford, Connecticut. They reprised their roles in 1968 at the Off-Broadway Astor Place Theatre, for which they both won Obie Awards.[16][17] That same year, Cazale won another Obie for his role as Dolan in Horovitz's Line.

In 1968, Cazale appeared in his only television role, playing Tom Andrews in the episode "The Peep Freak" on the cop drama N.Y.P.D.[18]

In 1969, Cazale joined the Long Wharf Theatre Company, where he appeared for the next three seasons in a number of productions, including Tartuffe, The Country People, The Skin of Our Teeth, The Iceman Cometh, and You Can't Take It With You.[14]

Cazale reprised his role in Line in a 1971 production at the Theatre De Lys (now the Lucille Lortel Theatre). Appearing with him were Richard Dreyfuss as Stephen, Barnard Hughes as Arnall, John Randolph as Fleming, and Ann Wedgeworth as Molly.[19] During this run, Cazale was spotted by casting director Fred Roos, who then suggested him to director Francis Ford Coppola for the role of Fredo Corleone in The Godfather (1972).[6][20][21]

Film career[edit]

The Godfather films (1972–74)[edit]

The Godfather was Cazale's feature film debut. The film's star, Marlon Brando, was one of Cazale's idols.[citation needed] The film broke box office records and made Cazale and several other previously unknown co-stars famous. Coppola, impressed with Cazale's abilities in the small role, wrote the part of Stan for him in his next film, The Conversation (1974), in which he co-starred with Gene Hackman. In 1974, he reprised his role as Fredo Corleone, now significantly expanded, in The Godfather Part II. Bruce Fretts, in Entertainment Weekly, wrote that "Cazale makes his character’s wounded pride hauntingly palpable".[22]

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)[edit]

He again starred alongside Pacino in Sidney Lumet's 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon. The film's screenwriter Frank Pierson said "the film had been cast with many of the actors that Al Pacino had worked with in New York, including John Cazale, who was a close friend and collaborator in The Godfather".[23] For his role as Sal he was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor. Sidney Lumet declared:

One of the things that I love about the casting of John Cazale was that he had a tremendous sadness about him. I don't know where it came from; I don't believe in invading the privacy of the actors that I work with, or getting into their heads. But, my God—it's there—every shot of him. And not just in this movie, but in Godfather II also.[24]

Return to theatre[edit]

Public theatre (1975–76)[edit]

While achieving success in film, Cazale's commitment to the stage continued. In addition to his work with the Long Wharf Theatre, he appeared in a number of plays by Israel Horovitz. In May 1975, he returned to the Charles Playhouse to support Pacino in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. Ross Wetzston of The Village Voice, reporting on the production, said Cazale "may be the finest actor in America today".[25] In 1976, ten years after their first collaboration, Cazale and Pacino appeared together for the final time in the Public Theatre's production of The Local Stigmatic.

Measure for Measure (1976)[edit]

In the summer of that year, Cazale starred at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park with Sam Waterston in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. His leading lady was the recent Yale School of Drama graduate Meryl Streep. Mel Gussow of The New York Times wrote: "Mr. Cazale, often cast as a quirky, weak outsider, as in The Godfather, here demonstrates sterner mettle as a quietly imperious Angelo who sweeps down, vulturelike, to deposit virtue."[3] During the run of the play, Cazale and Streep began a romance and moved in together. Streep humorously praised her co-star's abilities by saying, "The jerk made everything mean something." Then she added, "Such good judgment, such uncluttered thought!".[26][27]

Agamemnon (1977)[edit]

Cazale's final stage appearance was on April 29, 1977, in the title role of Agamemnon at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre. He appeared only in the first preview. After the performance, he took ill and withdrew from the show. It was his only Broadway performance. Shortly afterwards, he was diagnosed with lung cancer.[28]

Final film role: The Deer Hunter (1978)[edit]

Despite the terminal diagnosis, Cazale continued work with his romantic partner, Meryl Streep, along with Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and John Savage in The Deer Hunter. According to author Andy Dougan, director Michael Cimino "rearranged the shooting schedule with Cazale and Streep's consent, so that he could film all his scenes first". He completed his scenes, but died before the film was released.[29] Cazale was considered all but uninsurable due to his illness, jeopardizing his participation in the film, but according to Streep the costs were paid by De Niro, who wanted Cazale to be in it.[30]


Cazale was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1977 which was likely related to his history of chain smoking.[1] Despite trying a number of treatments and protocols, he rapidly declined as the cancer metastasized to his bones. On March 13, 1978, Cazale died at the age of 42. Meryl Streep was at his side, as the actress had been throughout his illness. Close friend and Godfather co-star Al Pacino said "I've hardly ever seen a person [Streep] so devoted to someone who is falling away like John was. To see her in that act of love for this man was overwhelming."[15] Pacino later lamented that Cazale was not better recognized for his skill, saying that Cazale "was one of the great actors of our time—that time, any time".[31]

His close friend and frequent collaborator, Israel Horovitz, wrote a eulogy, published in The Village Voice on March 27, 1978. In it, he said:

John Cazale happens once in a lifetime. He was an invention, a small perfection. It is no wonder his friends feel such anger upon waking from their sleep to discover that Cazale sleeps on with kings and counselors, with Booth and Kean, with Jimmy Dean, with Bernhardt, Guitry, and Duse, with Stanislavsky, with Groucho, Benny, and Allen. He will make fast friends in his new place. He is easy to love.[32]

Cazale was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Malden, Massachusetts.[33]


Cazale appeared in five full-length feature films, all of which were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, and The Deer Hunter won the award.

Year Title Role Director Notes
1962 The American Way Beatnik Marvin Starkman Short film
1968 N.Y.P.D. Tom Andrews David Pressman Episode: "The Peep Freak"
1972 The Godfather Fredo Corleone Francis Ford Coppola
1974 The Conversation Stan Francis Ford Coppola
1974 The Godfather Part II Fredo Corleone Francis Ford Coppola
1975 Dog Day Afternoon Salvatore Naturile Sidney Lumet
1978 The Deer Hunter Stanley 'Stan' Stosh Michael Cimino Posthumous release

Theatre credits[edit]

Year Title Role Theatre
1962 J.B Performer Master Theatre, New York
1968 The Indian Wants the Bronx
It's Called the Sugar Plum
East Indian
Astor Place Theatre, Off-Broadway
1969 Line Dolan Astor Place Theatre, Off-Broadway
1970 Spoon River Anthology Performer Long Wharf Theatre, Off-Broadway
1970 Country People Vassya Long Wharf Theatre, Off-Broadway
1970 Black Comedy & The White Liars Performer Long Wharf Theatre, Off-Broadway
1971 Acrobats & Line Dolan (line) Lucille Lortel Theatre, Off-Broadway
1972 The Iceman Cometh Performer Long Wharf Theatre, Off-Broadway
1973 Alfred The Great Will Pittsburgh Playhouse, Off-Broadway
1975 The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui Performer The Public Theatre, Off-Broadway
1976 The Local Stigmatic Performer The Public Theatre, Off-Broadway
1976 Measure for Measure Angelo Delacorte Theatre, Off-Broadway
1977 Agamemnon Agamemnon
Vivian Beaumont Theatre, Broadway

Awards and nominations[edit]

Cazale was cited twice for "Distinguished Performance" by the Off-Broadway Obie Awards in the 1967−1968 season for his performances in Israel Horovitz's plays The Indian Wants the Bronx and Line. His only major film acting recognition came in 1976, when he was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor for Dog Day Afternoon. He lost to Richard Benjamin, who won the award for his work in The Sunshine Boys.

Although Cazale never received an Oscar nomination, according to Bruce Fretts, he "was the walking embodiment of the aphorism, 'acting is reacting', providing the perfect counterbalance to his recurring co-stars, the more emotionally volatile Al Pacino and Robert De Niro".[citation needed] Cazale had learned to put the lack of recognition into context. While filming The Deer Hunter, he said to Pittsburgh Press reporter Edward L. Blank:

If you have any inclination toward paranoia, that sort of thing will bring it out in you. You say to yourself, "What do I have to do to get recognition of that sort?" Then you put it back into perspective and ask yourself how much that or any award really matters.[34]

Despite his personal lack of awards recognition, Cazale is distinguished by the fact that all five feature films he starred in were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. Even a sixth film, The Godfather Part III, in which archive footage of him was shown, received this nomination.

Year Association Category Work Result
1975 Golden Globes Best Supporting Actor Dog Day Afternoon Nominated


Cazale was described by those close to him to be "often shy" and "very emotionally sensitive". He collaborated with a number of artists repeatedly: Israel Horovitz dedicated the entire cycle of his "Wakefield Plays" to Cazale's memory, saying he "played in most of my plays, from 67–77, including Alfred the Great and Our Father's Failing".[35] Directors James Hammerstein and Arvin Brown used him multiple times. He did two plays for Joseph Papp. Francis Ford Coppola was responsible for the majority of Cazale's film roles, having cast him three times. Meryl Streep acted with him twice. Close friend and frequent co-star Al Pacino collaborated with him six times: on three films and three stage productions. Pacino once commented: "All I wanted to do was work with John for the rest of my life. He was my acting partner."[15]

In an interview celebrating The Godfather 50th anniversary, when asked about actors that did not get enough credit, Al Pacino said:

John Cazale, in general, was one of the great actors of our time — that time, any time. I learned so much from him. I had done a lot of theater and three films with him. He was inspiring, he just was. And he didn't get credit for any of it. He was in five films, all Oscar-nominated films, and he was great in all of them. He was particularly great in Godfather II and I don't think he got that kind of recognition.[36]

In following generations, celebrated actors such as Philip Seymour Hoffman, Steve Buscemi, Sam Rockwell, and Michael Fassbender named Cazale as an influence.[37]

The Boston Globe asked: "Why was Cazale so influential? In part, it was because of his commitment to the craft of acting." To Streep, he was "monomaniacal", which had an effect on his co-stars, who were then "challenged to take their own games up a notch".[38]

Cazale has a theater named after him, the McGinn/Cazale Theatre (currently inhabited by the company Second Stage Theatre), located at 2162 Broadway at 76th Street in New York City. The theatre is co-named for Cazale and his friend, the actor Walter McGinn, who had died in a car accident in 1977. The theatre was dedicated on March 12, 1984.[39]

His life and career were profiled in the documentary film, I Knew It Was You, directed by Richard Shepard, which premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.[5]

All five of the films that he starred in would later be selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.[40]


^n1 Cazale died at approximately 3 a.m. on Monday, March 13, 1978, which is the date on his gravestone and confirmed by his brother, Stephen.[2]: 8  His date of death has been commonly reported as March 12, 1978, due to contemporary newspaper reports referencing his death occurring on "Sunday night".[3]


  1. ^ a b Callahan, Maureen (April 23, 2016). "The tragic romance that shaped Meryl Streep's life". New York Post.
  2. ^ a b c d e Powers, Jonjo (2015). A Small Perfection: John Cazale and the Art of Acting. foreword by Israel Horovitz. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. ISBN 978-1515069539.
  3. ^ a b c "John Cazale, Actor on Stage and Screen". The New York Times. March 14, 1978. Retrieved October 13, 2009.
  4. ^ Thomson, David. The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (Fifth ed.). p. 166.
  5. ^ a b AP Movie News (January 18, 2009). "Sundance doc wants people to know 'it's Cazale'". The Insider. Associated Press. Archived from the original on January 23, 2009. Retrieved November 23, 2009.
  6. ^ a b Piccalo, Gina (May 31, 2010). "John Cazale, A Godfather of Acting". The Daily Beast. Retrieved January 22, 2012.
  7. ^ "John Cazale profile". TVGuide. Retrieved March 7, 2015.
  8. ^ "Profile - John Cazale". TCM.
  9. ^ Weber, Bruce (August 7, 2008). "Peter Kass, 85, Bold Teacher of Acting, Is Dead". The New York Times.
  10. ^ "Who's Who in the Cast - Agamemnon". Playbill.
  11. ^ "Review - Our Town" (PDF). The Tech. Vol. LXXIX, no. 24. May 26, 1959. p. 2.
  12. ^ "J.B." Lortel Archives. Archived from the original on October 11, 2012.
  13. ^ "The American Way (1962)". Retrieved October 13, 2009.
  14. ^ a b "Inside Playbill Gallery". Playbill. Retrieved February 6, 2018.
  15. ^ a b c Fretts, Bruce (February 21, 2003). "Unfortunate Son". Entertainment Weekly. Archived from the original on November 2, 2014.
  16. ^ "1967–1968 Obie Awards". Retrieved June 24, 2015.
  17. ^ "New York News and Events". The Village Voice. Archived from the original on March 25, 2015. Retrieved June 24, 2015.
  18. ^ "The Peep Freak". December 3, 1968. Retrieved February 6, 2018.
  19. ^ Lortel Archives
  20. ^ Seal, Mark (February 4, 2009). "The Godfather Wars". Vanity Fair. Retrieved September 26, 2017.
  21. ^ Jones, Jenny M. (2009). Annotated Godfather: The Complete Screenplay with Commentary on Every Scene, Interviews, and Little-Known Facts. Hachette Books. ISBN 978-1-60376-372-1. Retrieved September 26, 2017.
  22. ^ Fretts, Bruce (February 21, 2003). "Remembering John Cazale's big-screen brilliance". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved November 25, 2022.
  23. ^ Pierson, Frank. Dog Day Afternoon, interviews
  24. ^ Lumet, Sidney. Dog Day Afternoon, feature commentary
  25. ^ Yule, Andrew (1992). Life On the Wire: The Life and Art of Al Pacino. New York City: SPI Books. ISBN 978-1-56171-161-1.
  26. ^ Schulman, Michael (2016). Her Again - Becoming Meryl Streep. New York City: HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0-06234-286-7.
  27. ^ Power, Ed (December 9, 2019). "He taught Pacino how to act: the brief, brilliant life of Deer Hunter star John Cazale". The Daily Telegraph.
  28. ^ "Agamemnon – Broadway Play – 1977 Revival". Internet Broadway Database. Retrieved February 6, 2018.
  29. ^ Dougan, Andy (2002). Untouchable: A Biography of Robert De Niro (2nd ed.). New York City: Thunder's Mouth Press. ISBN 978-1-56025-469-0.
  30. ^ Swerling, Gabriella (December 7, 2019). "De Niro saved The Deer Hunter by paying for co-star's medical insurance when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer". The Daily Telegraph.
  31. ^ Itzkoff, Dave (March 9, 2022). "Al Pacino on 'The Godfather': 'It's Taken Me a Lifetime to Accept It and Move On'". The New York Times.
  32. ^ John Cazale, A Eulogy Israel Horovitz, 1978
  33. ^ "John Cazale: Irish American Hollywood icon". Irish Central. January 10, 2022. Retrieved February 12, 2022.
  34. ^ Blank, Edward L. (July 17, 1977). "Deer Hunter star John Cazale likes to meet local fans". Pittsburgh Press.
  35. ^ The Wakefield Plays, Israel Horovitz, 1985
  36. ^ Itzkoff, Dave (March 9, 2022). "Al Pacino on 'The Godfather'". The New York Times.
  37. ^ McGovern, Joe (September 2, 2016). "Alicia Vikander, Michael Fassbender on The Light Between Oceans". Retrieved February 6, 2018.
  38. ^ Aucoin, Don (June 1, 2010). "A-list actors recall a short but sterling career".
  39. ^ Second Stage Playbill DEDICATION OF THE WALTER McGINN / JOHN CAZALE THEATRE, March 12, 1984
  40. ^ "U.S. National Film Registry – Titles". Carnegie Mellon University. Retrieved July 22, 2009.

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