Ben Gazzara, an actor known for several film collaborations with writer-director John Cassavetes, as well as numerous television projects, including the ’60s series Run for Your Life, died February 3, 2012, in his native New York City. He was 81.
According to news report, the cause was pancreatic cancer.
Born August 28, 1930, to Sicilian parents, his given name was Biagio Anthony Gazzara.
Gazzara, whose gravelly voice was familiar to decades of television viewers and filmgoers, began his career in the theater. At 13, he appeared in a play staged at a local Boys Club, and the sound of the applause spurred him to devote himself to acting. After high school, he earned a scholarship to Manhattan’s Dramatic Workshop and in 1951 was accepted into the renowned Actors Studio.
He first garnered attention with a role off-Broadway in the Calder Willingham play End as a Man. The production later moved to Broadway — Gazzara’s first experience at that level.
In 1955 he originated the role of Brick in the Tennessee Williams play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, directed by Elia Kazan. The same year, he returned to Broadway in A Hatful of Rain, by Michael V. Gazzo, for which Gazzara received a Tony Award nomination.
Gazzara also received a Tony nomination in 1975 for Hughie/Duet and in 1977 for a revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
He first worked in television work in the 1950s, including roles in such series as Treasury Men in Action, The United States Steel Hour, Danger, Playhouse 90, Kraft Theatre and others.
His first feature film came in 1957, with the release of The Strange One. Attention came two years later with a role in Anatomy of a Murder, directed by Otto Preminger.
In 1963, Gazzara was a regular cast member of the ABC television series Arrest and Trial, opposite Chuck Connors.
From 1965 to 1968, he starred in Run for Your Life, an NBC series about a successful lawyer who sets out to live life to the fullest after being diagnosed with a terminal illness. He earned two Primetime Emmy nominations for his work on the show.
After completing his final episode of Run for Your Life on the Universal lot, Gazzara encountered Cassavetes, who had met years earlier in New York. Cassavetes, an actor who had begun writing and directing, told Gazzara that they would do a film together.
Their first collaboration came in 1970 with Husbands, which starred Gazzara, Cassavetes and Peter Falk.
Gazzara also starred in the Cassavetes films The Killing of a Chinese Bookie in 1976 and Opening Night in 1977.
Other features of note for Gazzara included Bloodline, They All Laughed, The Spanish Prisoner, The Big Lebowski, Buffalo 66, The Thomas Crown Affair and Summer of Sam.
He also continued to work frequently in television. He received an Emmy nomination for the 1985 made-for-television movie An Early Frost, in which he and Gena Rowlands starred as a couple whose gay is dying of AIDs. He won his only Primetime Emmy for another collaboration with Rowlands, the 2002 HBO drama Hysterical Blindness. He was honored in the category of Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie.
He reflected on his personal and professional exploits in a 2004 memoir, In the Moment: My Life.
Gazzara’s first two marriages — to actresses Louise Erickson and Janice Rule — ended in divorce. He is survived by his third wife, Elke, to whom he was married for 30 years, as well as a daughter and a brother.