Ben Gazzara was a Sick Fuck

by: Paul Gutkowski

One year ago the world lost a legend, today we pay respect to a true “sick fuck”….

Ben Gazzara was a sick fuck. He went toe to toe with Jimmy Stewart in Anatomy of a Murder at the age of 29. He smuggled a Czech waitress out of Prague after the Soviet invasion in 1968.  He fucked Audrey Hepburn.

Biagio Anthony Gazzara was born in the Lower East Side of New York to Sicilian immigrant parents attempting to grind out a life in America.  As a child, his family moved to 29th Street and 1st Avenue.  Gazzara was a corner boy, involved in petty crime and standard poor kid neighborhood bullshit.  At the age of 12 he went to see a friend perform in a play put on by the Madison Square Boys Club across the street from his tenement building.  Gazzara was jealous as fuck at the applause his friend received, and he coveted the same attention. He auditioned for the theater troupe and blew the mind of Howard Sinclair, the troupe’s director and a man Gazzara later referred to as a second father.  For his first role, Sinclair cast Gazzara as a 72 year old Arab man.  After studying engineering at City College for 2 years he stopped lying to himself and everybody else about what he wanted from life. and went back to acting.

Like Brando, Gazzara studied with Erwin Piscator at The Dramatic Workshop before studying method acting at Lee Strasburg’s Actor’s Studio.  This is where shit got real.  Gazzara went on a tear of being cast as emotionally disturbed, brutally intense men, including his Broadway debut as a psychopathic sadist in End As a Man, and as the lead role of “Brick” in Tennessee Williams’, Elia Kazan directed Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Gazzara’s early stage dominance opened up the doors to Hollywood.  A few small supporting roles eventually led to his breakthrough screen role as Lieutenant Manion, an enigmatic soldier who brutally kills the man who rapes his wife, in Otto Preminger’s seminal courtroom film Anatomy of a Murder.  Gazzara’s performance is brilliant, and the mental jujitsu between he and Jimmy Stewart is engrossing.

With the acclaim garnered from his silver screen success came the golden handcuffs of television and like many before him, Gazzara chased the easier money.  He spent the better part of the 60s coasting through less challenging but more lucrative TV roles, before a serendipitous meeting with a budding sick-fuck auteur, John Cassevettes.  Gazzara, literally walking away from his role on the TV drama Run For Your Life, bumped into Cassavettes on the back lot of Columbia Pictures.  Cassavettes had a plan: make a film, largely improvised, about a group of middle age men dealing with the sudden and tragic loss of a dear friend.  The result is Husbands, an existential exploration of the male psyche unmatched to this day.  Peter Faulk, Cassevettes, and Gazzara all approach perfection in their portrayal of 3 men trying to figure out what the fuck it all means while mourning the death of their friend through a manic, booze fueled bender.  The men find more pathos than catharsis along the way, and are ultimately left with the choices they have made and the lives they have built.  The 3 actors developed a life long friendship, producing some of the most intense, honest improvisational acting ever caught on film.

Cassavettes and Gazzara would collaborate on two more pictures in the 70s, 1976’s Killing of a Chinese Bookie and 1977’s Opening Night, also starring Cassevettes wife (Gena Rowlands).  Those films, in addition to the 1979 Peter Bogdanavich directed Saint Jack, find Garraza delivering signature character studies of complex, conflicted men. The sorts of men who at once intimidate the shit out of you, and also make you want to slug whiskey with them; all heart, instinct, sex, fury, and yet somehow demanding empathy and understanding.

For much of the 80s, Gazarra retreated to his parents’ native Italy, living in a villa in Umbria.  He spent much of the next decade and a half starring in Italian film and television, including his bruiting, balls out performance as Charles Bukowski in Tales of Ordinary Madness.  Gazzarra returned stateside to deliver one of his seminal roles as sociopathic super villain Brad Wesley opposite Patrick Swayze in Roadhouse. 

Gazzara enjoyed a career renaissance in the late 90s, with an incredible run of roles in 1998.  In one year Gazzara played smarmy porn producer Jackie Treehorn in The Big Lebowski, despondent and dead on the inside Lenny Jordan in Happiness, and most importantly, Jimmy Brown in Vincent Gallo’s indie masterpiece Buffalo 66.  As the volatile, abrasive father of the films down and out protagonist, Gazzara wholly and totally dominates every scene he graces with his presence.  Once again, Gazzara is an emotional wrecking ball, a hulking mass of ego, pride, and pain.

Gazzara continued to work well into his 70s, even after beating throat cancer in 1999, and suffering a stroke in 2005. He passed at the age of 81, finally succumbing to pancreatic cancer in 2012.  Gazzara is survived by his wife, Elke Stuckmann and his daughter, Elizabeth Gazzarra.

Ben Gazzara was a sick fuck.  A sick fuck who opened his heart and brain in search of truth and art, and who did it all with STYLE.

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