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Posted on Sun, Jan 17, 2010 : 5:25 a.m.

John Cazale: The movies' unsung legend

By Josh Kaplan


John Cazale

No one in movies has a better track record than John Cazale. He had his first role in 1972, and died of bone cancer 6 years later. During that timespan, he was in five movies, all of which were nominated for Best Picture, and three of them won. They are "The Godfather," "The Conversation" (a tense, classic thriller from Francis Ford Coppola), "The Godfather: Part II," "Dog Day Afternoon," and "The Deer Hunter." And yet, a vast majority of the population hasn’t heard of him. Why?

Granted, one can be in great movies and not do anything memorable in them. However, Cazale was not just an extra; he had major supporting roles in every one of his films. In the "Godfather" movies, he played Fredo, the sleazy brother who gets “offed” by Pacino in a very memorable scene at the end of Part II, and delivers a fabulous and very understated performance as Pacino’s insane, apathetic, and extremely creepy partner in "Dog Day Afternoon." He did his scenes in "The Deer Hunter" while fighting cancer, and died shortly after the film's completion. He was extremely close with Al Pacino, and was the fiancée of Meryl Streep. However, it seems in order to be remembered, you need to be young, handsome and go out with a bang.

John Cazale in a pivotal scene of "Dog Day Afternoon":

I have no doubt Cazale would have gone on to greatness given the chance. Just look at the other legends that got their start with the same movies: Pacino, DeNiro, Streep, Duvall, Ford, Walken, Caan... the list goes on and on. These are films that serve as a veritable who’s who of acting. Yet Cazale’s name doesn’t even appear in 501 Movie Stars, an otherwise very complete reference for stars of cinema, but from which he was ousted by the likes of Jet Li, Ben Stiller and Cheech and Chong. I really can see no reason that he isn’t remembered like James Dean and Heath Ledger other than the fact that he was considerably less attractive and died from cancer, as opposed to an OD or a wild car crash.

Is our society really so superficial that people won’t recognize a great artist if his life doesn’t make for some juicy tabloids? Then again, I would venture to guess that more people know Van Gogh gave his ear to a prostitute than have ever seen or even heard of "The Starry Night."

Still, it doesn’t seem fair that Cazale gets the short end of the stick due to the fact that he was a fairly ordinary man, wholly uninteresting to your average reader. Don’t get me wrong; I in no way mean this as a slight to Dean or Ledger. They are certainly worthy of their fame; they’re amazing actors. However, John Cazale deserves to be celebrated as the great actor that he was, not just have the occasional sad rant about him in a local newspaper.

Josh Kaplan is a student at Pioneer High School.


Danielle Stewart

Tue, Feb 15, 2011 : 8:47 p.m.

I was really pleased to find this. I was just scrolling through pictures on Google Image of Cazale to see what he was doing now. Imagine my sadness at discovering he is no longer with us and all that time ago and I had no idea! I have had a real liking for John Cazale since childhood, I just found him fascinating and I totally agree with your assertion that he has been very underrated as an actor. He may not have been blessed with a long career in film, but it was certainly a very good one. I agree it's a shame more people are not aware of him. Had no idea he was engaged to Meryl Streep either; how sad for her to have lost him.

Heather Heath Chapman

Sun, Jan 17, 2010 : 7:38 p.m.

Great article. Really interesting--made me want to learn more. Thanks.


Sun, Jan 17, 2010 : 10:13 a.m.

This is a tremendously well written and thoughful commentary on John Cazale's unfortunately brief contribution to filmdom. I was surprised to see it was written by a local high school student. Well done!