Ben Gazzara (1930-2012)

Friday, February 03, 2012

Ben Gazzara (1930-2012)

Biagio Anthony Gazzara

The New York City-born actor passed away this afternoon at Bellevue Hospital after a 12+ year battle with cancer, first oral and then pancreatic which ultimately killed him.

His motion picture, television and stage career spanned seven decades and he was involved in two productions which have yet to be released.

Though I enjoyed Gazzara in films such as "Husbands," "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie" and "The Big Le­bowski," it was the 1963 Actors Studio revival of Eugene O'Neill's eight hour marathon, "Strange Interlude," at the Hudson Theatre for which I best remember him.

I twice ran across Gazzara in Westhampton Beach, the first time one Friday evening in the Summer of 1981 at Club Pierre-Alain where I had been summonsed by Thom and Kathie McVann for after dinner drinks so I could meet Kathie's cousin Merle, down for the weekend from Connecticut.

And while we were socializing on the porch, a small party was exiting from the restaurant, and I recognized a friend, the irrepressible Jody Winarick, who immediately threw open her arms and gave forth with a big "Deeean!"

I arose and responded to their location, greeting Jody and her husband Jules, and was introduced to their guests, Ben Gazzara and his companion, a woman I was mildly distressed to note was not his wife at the time1, the striking actress Janice Rule.

(It was brief, but impressed the bejabbers out of Merle!)

The second time was 1999 when the Performing Arts Center held a special film series hosted by some person­age whose name I disremember who would screen a movie and then have an interview session with one of those involved with the production.

One evening the film screened was John Turturro's "Il­luminata" and the special guest was Gazzara.

One thing had always bothered me about that Broadway production 36 years earlier. The great dramatist O'Neill was not known for comedy, yet there was a line of internal dialogue spoken by Gazzara, "There it is!," which caused an eruption of laughter from the audience.

It was the sole such moment in the entire nine acts and I'd long wondered if director Jose Quintero had spoken to his actor afterwards and worked on a different reading to prevent such a recurrance.

I got close enough to the actor at the end of the audience Q&A session and asked him straight out:

"In Strange Interlude was 'There it is!' a laugh line?"

The actor didn't hesitate.


I was impressed that he didn't even pause momentarity to identify the line.

But it set a new question into play... had it really been a reading intended to provoke a laugh, or was the man just quick enough on his feet to field my out-of-the-blue inquiry so adroitly?

And now I'll never know.

  1. Gazzara and Rule formally divorced six months later, and he and his companion of that evening, Elke Stuckmann, were married a month after that.


1. Rob F. said...

Gazarra is the last of a trio of friends that did some fine work both together and apart. We will never see the likes of Gazzara, Peter Falk and John Cassavetes again.

Aye that! I don't think that Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Kevin Smith will ever achieve that grade!

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