Ben Gazzara

By: Mike Fleisch
August 28, 2015

Ben Gazzara, center, with Peter Falk and John Cassavetes
Ben Gazzara, center, with Peter Falk and John Cassavetes

They’ll be sitting in a fifth-wave coffee and whiskey hub in 2045, media sophomores batting about names, deciding whether the antiquated 20th-century conceptions of performance and representation have anything to offer anymore, and one of them will say, “Which one is Gazzara?” The others will glance and grin, “He played Bukowski… No, he was the guy in Buffalo ’66, The Big Lebowski, and Happiness, all in one year… Wait, wasn’t he in Road House?” Suddenly the coolest one will shout, “Terrible… TERRIBLE,” before sucking down something like tobacco, then calmly and definitively asserting that BEN GAZZARA (1930–2012) made John Cassavetes, John Cassavetes. And maybe he’s right; improvisation as a unifying mode of character development, screenwriting, and film acting found its perfect vessel in old Benny, a Sicilian New Yorker whose simmering, smug intensity and lightning-strike outbursts produced at least as much humor as fear. Again and again in Husbands, you watch Peter Falk arrive at a movement’s terminal location, discovered and revealed on the map by actor-director Cassavetes, but it’s Gazzara who chooses the adventures, knocking narrative thrust out of its situational groove and bringing everyone back to the shocking pleasures of character. If there’s one role (out of hundreds) he was born to inhabit, it was Cosmo Vitelli, the war-vet striptease club-owner with an artist’s heart in Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Tacking from unsuccessfully manipulative self-reflection to the masculine aggressions Cosmo thinks people like him should be slinging, Gazzara’s face melts into a warm smile when he recognizes the irony of an action hero vulnerable only to himself; we’re treated to the vision of a man pretending to be in control, unaware that he actually is, at a different intersection of time and place. Someday they’ll wonder if we knew what we had on our hands.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Jack Kirby, George W.S. Trow, Morris Graves, Donald Evans, Edward Burne-Jones, Bernard Wolfe, C. Wright Mills.

READ MORE about members of the Postmodernist Generation (1924-33).


HiLo Heroes, Movies