Ben Gazzara, an intense actor whose long career included playing Brick in the original “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” on Broadway, roles in influential films by John Cassavetes and work with several generations of top Hollywood directors, died on Friday in Manhattan. He was 81.
The domineering cadet at a Southern military college has successfully covered up two hazing crimes by intimidating his classmates and manipulating his superiors. Now he’s been unmasked and cornered by a lynch mob of fellow cadets; he’s lost his edge but not his edginess. “My name is Jocko de Paris,” he shouts defiantly. “That’s right. And that name means guts and brains and willpower!”
At the climax of his feature-film debut, The Strange One in 1957, Ben Gazzara was articulating the alpha-male gifts he would display in an acting career that spanned nearly 60 years and all the major media. As the original Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on Broadway, as Al Capone in the movies and as the thrill-seeking lawyer under a death sentence on the ’60s TV drama Run for Your Life, Gazzara was Mr. Tough Guy, Method branch. His surly sexuality could turn any dialogue with man or woman into armed combat; his insolent smile passed judgment on all who dared tangle with him; his hoarse, potent baritone, which he rarely needed to raise, gave him the aura of an Old Testament God’s most implacable enforcer. Gazzara, born a street kid in Manhattan, died there on Friday, at 81, of pancreatic cancer—one of the few opponents tougher than he was.
Mr. Gazzara studied with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio in Manhattan, where the careers of stars like Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger were shaped, and like them he had a visceral presence. It earned him regular work across half a century, not only onstage — his last Broadway appearance was in the revival of “Awake and Sing!” in 2006 — but in dozens of movies and all sorts of television shows, including the starring role in the 1960s series “Run for Your Life.”
“When I became hot, so to speak, in the theater, I got a lot of offers,” he said in a 1998 interview on “Charlie Rose.” “I won’t tell you the pictures I turned down because you would say, ‘You are a fool.’ And I was a fool.”
And yet Mr. Gazzara’s enduring reputation may well rest on his film work, specifically the movies he made with Mr. Cassavetes, the actor and director revered by cinephiles for his risk-taking independent projects and a directorial style that encouraged spontaneity.
The two had had bit parts in the 1969 comedy “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium,” but it was in “Husbands” (1970), directed by Mr. Cassavetes, that they, along with Peter Falk, really made an impression as unhappily married men out for a drunken night on the town together. As Mr. Gazzara wrote in his autobiography, “In the Moment” (2004), the on-camera camaraderie was so convincing that people assumed the three men had been lifelong friends; in fact they had barely known one another when the filming began, though they became friends during it.
Mr. Gazzara’s most important role for Mr. Cassavetes was in “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” (1976), in which he played a strip club owner in debt to the mob. “It’s a thoughtful, intelligent interpretation of a role that just may not have as much depth to it as he’s ready to give it,” Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote of Mr. Gazzara’s performance.
In 1977 Mr. Gazzara had a supporting role behind Mr. Cassavetes and his wife, Gena Rowlands, in the backstage story “Opening Night,” with Mr. Cassavetes again directing. Speaking of Mr. Cassavetes recently, Mr. Gazzara said, “He set the climate for an actor to feel free to give whatever, and if it didn’t work, it didn’t work.” Mr. Cassavetes died in 1989.
Two years after making “Opening Night,” Mr. Gazzara joined forces with another important director, Peter Bogdanovich, who gave him a rare leading role in “Saint Jack,” an adaptation of Paul Theroux’s novel about an American who operates a brothel in Singapore. He worked again for Mr. Bogdanovich in “They All Laughed” (1981), as a private detective who falls in love with the woman he is assigned to follow. The woman was played by Audrey Hepburn, with whom Mr. Gazzara had a brief romance after they met on the set of the 1979 film “Bloodline.”
Mr. Gazzara worked with numerous other notable directors, among them Otto Preminger, whose courtroom drama “Anatomy of a Murder” (1959) featured Mr. Gazzara as a military man who is tried for killing his wife’s rapist and defended by James Stewart’s small-town lawyer. In David Mamet’s 1997 film, “The Spanish Prisoner,” he played the possibly duplicitous boss of an inventor who has come up with a valuable idea. Wearing a slick white suit, he was a producer of pornographic movies in the Coen brothers’ “Big Lebowski” in 1998. In Spike Lee’s “Summer of Sam” in 1999, he was a mobster.
Beginning in the early 1980s Mr. Gazzara spent substantial stretches of time acting in movies in Italy, where he had a villa in Umbria. He appeared in Marco Ferreri’s 1981 adaptation of Charles Bukowski’s “Tales of Ordinary Madness”; “Il Camorrista” (1986), directed by Giuseppe Tornatore; and Stefano Mignucci’s “Bandits” (1995).
“You go where they love you,” he said in a 1994 interview with Cigar Aficionado, explaining his work in Italy.
Mr. Gazzara had parallel careers on the stage and in television. His first significant stage role was as a two-faced bully named Jocko in “End as a Man,” about life in a Southern military academy. Developed at the Actors Studio, it opened on Broadway in 1953. “Jocko is attractive, clever and alert on the surface, but evil at the core,” Brooks Atkinson wrote in The Times, “and Mr. Gazzara’s acting perfectly expresses this ambivalence.”
Then, in March 1955, came “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” in which he played the alcoholic son Brick to Burl Ives’s Big Daddy in the Tennessee Williams classic, with Barbara Bel Geddes as Maggie. Elia Kazan directed. The play ran till November 1956, but Mr. Gazzara left the cast early to take another Broadway role, in “A Hatful of Rain,” which opened in the fall of 1955. He played a dope addict named Johnny Pope, and the performance earned him a Tony Award nomination.
But his next Broadway venture, “The Night Circus,” closed in less than a week in 1958, and he did not return to Broadway until a revival of Eugene O’Neill’s “Strange Interlude” in 1963. His other Broadway work included a 1976 production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” opposite Colleen Dewhurst, which earned him another Tony nomination, as did his dual roles in a 1975 double bill of O’Neill’s “Hughie” and David Scott Milton’s “Duet.”
Mr. Gazzara also acted in Off Broadway and regional productions, among them “Nobody Don’t Like Yogi,” a one-man show about Yogi Berra, which Mr. Gazzara began performing in 2003 and took all over the country for two years.
He was a familiar presence on television. “Run for Your Life,” in which he played a terminally ill man, was seen on NBC from 1965 to 1968, earning him two Emmy nominations. He was nominated again for his role as the father of a young man with AIDS in the 1985 television movie “An Early Frost”; his old friend Ms. Rowlands played his wife. He won a supporting-actor Emmy for his work in the 2002 HBO film “Hysterical Blindness,” playing the romantic interest of a character again played by Ms. Rowlands.
Mr. Gazzara was born Biagio Anthony Gazzara on the East Side of Manhattan on Aug. 28, 1930, the son of Antonio Gazzara, a laborer who did carpentry and laid bricks, and the former Angela Cusumano. Both his parents had immigrated from Italy, and they often spoke Italian at home, giving Mr. Gazzara a language skill that served him well when he began making films there. He grew up in a building at 29th Street and First Avenue, where, he wrote in his autobiography, he slept on the fire escape in summer and occasionally heard screams from the patients at Bellevue psychiatric hospital.
When he was about 11, he saw a friend act in a play at the Madison Square Boys Club and was bitten by the acting bug himself. He performed in shows there and, when he was older, found his way to the Dramatic Workshop in Midtown. A radio actress he met there, Louise Erickson, who would become his first wife, told him about the Actors Studio, and in 1951 he successfully auditioned for it.
That marriage ended in 1957. In 1961 he married the actress Janice Rule, whom he had met in 1958 when they appeared in a short-lived production of “The Night Circus.” They had a daughter, Elizabeth. That marriage, too, ended in divorce, not long after Mr. Gazzara met a German model, the former Elke Stuckmann, while filming the war movie “Inchon” in Seoul in 1979.
They were married in 1982; she and his daughter survive him, as does another daughter, Danja, his wife’s child from a previous relationship, whom Mr. Gazzara adopted. A brother, Anthony, also survives.
Mr. Gazzara was treated for oral cancer in 1999, but he said his bigger health battle was against depression, lasting on and off for decades. In a 2005 appearance before a group of mental health professionals, he recalled dealing with the condition 25 years earlier while shooting “They All Laughed.”
“I was in a depression during the whole shooting, and I was terrific in that film,” he said. “And I don’t remember doing it.”