When I think about what John Cazale accomplished in just seven years working in movies, my jaw hits the floor. He appeared in five films over those years. All of them were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture: The Godfather (1972), The Conversation (1974), The Godfather Part II (1974), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and The Deer Hunter (1978). Each of these films greatly benefitted from what Cazale could do as an actor. He drew in empathy and complications, often playing characters that required range and depth.
Check out this video from Brickwall Pictures, and let's talk after.
What we can learn from Cazale
I first became aware of Cazale as many people do, while watching the greatest movies of all time. But I didn't really understand his impact until I went to Boston University, where Cazale had studied theater. And then when I Googled him to try to watch everything he's done, I realized these five classics were the only movies he gave us before he passed away due to lung cancer.
His legacy is unattainable by modern actors. But the lessons he left about dedication and disappearing into a character stand the test of time.
He was the ultimate worker, so dedicated to the craft. In fact, his cancer diagnosis came before The Deer Hunter. He was going to not be able to be in the movie, but Michael Cimino redid the shooting schedule and Robert De Niro paid the overages to make sure he was in the film. He died before it could be released.
Cazale gave all of himself to the movies, elevating each of those titles. Parts of those movies hinge on his performance. If he had messed up, maybe those stories wouldn't hold up today. Maybe they don't even then. But he's frequently stealing scenes and challenging those across from him.
In a New York Times interview celebrating The Godfather's 50th anniversary, Al Pacino called Cazale an actor who didn't get enough credit.
He said, "John Cazale, in general, was one of the great actors of our time—that time, any time. I learned so much from him. I had done a lot of theater and three films with him. He was inspiring, he just was. And he didn't get credit for any of it. He was in five films, all Oscar-nominated films, and he was great in all of them. He was particularly great in Godfather II and I don't think he got that kind of recognition."
That seems like an understatement.
If you're interested in learning more, check out the documentary I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale.
What's your favorite Cazale performance? Let us know in the comments.