Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Late Great Ben Gazzara

Ben Gazzara, who appeared in movies from Anatomy of a Murder (1959) to The Thomas Crown Affair (1999) and starred in the classic TV show Run For Your Life, passed yesterday, 3 February 2012, at the age of 81. The cause was pancreatic cancer.

Ben Gazzara was born Biagio Anthony Gazzara in Manhattan, New York City on 28 August 1930. His parents were both Italian immigrants, so that Mr. Gazzara grew up speaking both Italian and English. It was a skill that would prove useful in his acting career. It was when he was 11 that he attended a play in which a friend was acting at the Madison Square Boys Club. It was this event that spurred his interest in acting. He participated in several plays at the Madison Square Boys Club afterwards. Mr. Gazzara attended Stuyvesant High School and Our Lady of Angels High School before taking classes at the Dramatic Workshop at the New School. Afterwards he joined the Actor's Studio.

Ben Gazzara made his debut on Broadway in 1953 in the play End as a Man. He would return to Broadway many times over the years. In the Fifties he appeared in the productions of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Hatful of Rain, and The Night Circus. In the Sixties he appeared in the play Traveller without Luggage. In the Seventies he appeared in revivals of Hughie and Duet, and a revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. In the Nineties he appeared in Shimada. In the Naughts he appeared in a revival of Awake and Sing.

Mr. Gazzara made his television debut in an episode of Treasury Men in Action in 1952. In the Fifties he appeared on such shows as Danger, The United States Steel Hour, Playhouse 90, Kraft Theatre, and The DuPont Show of the Week.

In the Sixties he played the lead on two different shows: Arrest and Trial and Run For Your Life. While Arrest and Trial only lasted one season, it is remembered for its format, which was a forerunner of Law and Order. The first half of each episode would centre on police detectives Nick Anderson (Ben Gazzara) and Dan Kirby (Roger Perry) as they conducted a criminal investigation. The second half of the show followed defence attorney John Egan (Chuck Connors) as he defended he person the two detectives had arrested. This meant that invariably either the detectives or the defence attorney would be proven wrong. Run For Your Life is better remembered than Arrest and Trial. In fact, it may be the one work in any medium that most people over a certain age remember Ben Gazzara from. Mr. Gazzara played lawyer Paul Bryan, who when informed by doctors that he only has eighteen months to live, decides to travel the United States. Despite being given eighteen months to live, Run For Your Life ran for three seasons and would prove successful in reruns. During the Sixties Mr. Gazzara also appeared on the shows Kraft Suspense Theatre and Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre.

In the Seventies Mr. Gazzara appeared in several TV movies, including The Family RicoManeater, and The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald. He appeared in the miniseries QB VII. In the Eighties he appeared in such TV movies as A Question of Honour, A Letter to Three Wives, and People Like Us. In the Nineties he appeared in such TV movies as Blindsided, Convict Cowboy, and Protector. In the Naughts he guest starred on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit and such TV movies as Hysterical Blindness, Pope John Paul II, and Empire State Building Murders.

Ben Gazzara made his film debut in 1957 in The Strange One. In the Fifties he would go onto appear in the films as Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and Risate di gioia (1960).  In the Sixties he appeared in such films as The Young Doctors (1961), Convicts 4 (1962), A Rage to Live (1965), If It's Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium (1969), The Bridge at Remagen (1969), and Husbands (1970). In the Seventies he appeared in such films as The Neptune Factor (1973), Capone (1975), The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), High Velocity (1976), Voyage of the Damned (1976), Saint Jack (1979), and Bloodline.

In the Eighties Mr. Gazzara would appear in such films as Inchon (1981), They All Laughed (1981), A Proper Scandal (1984), Don Bosco (1989), Road House (1989), and Quicker Than the Eye (1990). In the Nineties he appeared in such films as Sherwood's Travels (1994), Bandits (1995), The Spanish Prisoner (1997), The Big Lebowski (1998), Happiness (1998), The Thomas Crown Affair (1999), Blue Moon (1990), and The List (2000). In the Naughts he appeared in such films as Home Sweet Hoboken (2001), Bonjour Michel (2005), Looking For Palladin (2008), 13 (2010), Christopher Roth (2010), and Chez Gino (2011). His last films will be The Wait and Max Rose, both set to be released this year.

In many ways it seems impossible to me that Ben Gazzara is dead. This is not simply because he is one of my favourite actors, but also because he seemed very nearly unstoppable. All throughout his life Mr. Gazzara was a very prolific actor. For example, one can look at the year 1964. He appeared on Broadway in Traveller Without Luggage and in the TV series Arrest and Trial. What is more, 1964 is not an isolated. It seemed that most years of Ben Gazzara's life he often appeared in multiple movies and made multiple appearances on television. This is even more amazing when one considers that Mr. Gazarra's career spanned sixty years. He made his first appearance on television in 1952 and his last films will be released in 2012. He continued his hectic pace of acting right into his seventies.

Of course, the reason Ben Gazzara was so prolific was that he was gifted with a most singular talent. He was incredibly versatile. In Anatomy of a Murder he played the rather rough and boorish Lt. Manion. It was only two years later he played the earnest, clean cut Dr. Coleman in The Young Doctors. Throughout the years Mr. Gazzara played everything from a stage director dealing with a mentally unstable actress (Opening Night) to a porn director and loan shark (The Big Lebowski). Mr. Gazzara played all of these roles quite convincingly. Indeed, such was Mr. Gazzara's skill as an actor that he could convey more emotion simply with his eyes than many actors could with their whole body. He was an incredible actor and one who will surely be missed.

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