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Running Cool

Ben Gazzara's long stage and screen career has included a love affair with a good smoke.
Mervyn Rothstein
From the Print Edition:
Bill Cosby, Autumn 94

His hair is gray now, thick at the neck but thinning on top. The deep, gruff voice is the same. The face, tough yet charming, looks much as it did three decades ago on stage, screen and television. He is relaxed and smiling, unlike the restless, brooding, dynamic characters for which he is known. But after all these years there still exudes from his persona and from his perceptive hazel eyes, the old-fashioned, confident masculinity that is his acting trademark.

Ben Gazzara is sitting, Royal Jamaica cigar in one hand and Absolut on the rocks in the other, in the elegantly formal Polo Lounge at the Westbury Hotel on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The lounge features red leather chairs, red carpet, paisley banquettes and rich, dark wood. Portraits of champion horses line the walls. Gazzara, however, is informal as ever, in keeping with his performing image: the collar of his blue shirt is open and his safari jacket is khaki.

"The taste of a good cigar is like the taste of good food,'' the 63-year-old actor says, taking a gentle puff. The cigar seems right, as if it has been part of him forever, an attribute of assurance, assertive yet undemanding. He has in fact been smoking cigars for more than 30 years. "I love the ritual of lighting one,'' he continues, "making sure it's good, comparing it to others. It's so relaxing. The whole posture: your head goes back; you just sort of slow down. My whole body slows down when I smoke. I'm not as wired. Cigars help me pause and reflect on things.''

Gazzara has much to reflect on. His acting career spans more than 40 years. On Broadway in the 1950s he was the original Brick, the alcoholic husband in Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,'' and the drug-addicted Johnny Pope in "A Hatful of Rain." His movies include The Strange One, Anatomy of a Murder (he was the defendant represented by Jimmy Stewart), Saint Jack and Husbands with John Cassavetes and Peter Falk. His many television roles include Paul Bryan in the 1960s series "Run for Your Life,'' in which he portrayed a young man with a terminal illness who, week after week, seeks adventure after adventure to bring as much excitement as possible to his ever-dwindling existence.

Gazzara's most recent acting adventure is the movie "Parallel Lives'' for the Showtime cable network this summer; it is a tale of a university reunion in which he costars with Liza Minnelli, Dudley Moore, Jim Belushi and Gena Rowlands.

The joy of cigars entered Gazzara's life in the early 1960s. "I used to smoke four packs of cigarettes a day,'' he says. "It was 1963. I had a whistle in my bronchial tubes, which kept me awake at night. And then the Surgeon General's report came out. I read it and I said, 'that's it. I'm never going to smoke another cigarette again.' "

But he soon found that cigars were a different story. The Surgeon General didn't warn against them, and Gazzara decided to try one. He began simply. "I started with Tiparillos,'' he says with a laugh. "Remember Tiparillos? It was like smoking paper.''

His tastes soon improved. "I went to Dunhill in Beverly Hills and I bought some good Caribbean cigars,'' he says. "Then I bought a humidor, a beautiful, big, mahogany humidor. And I starting sending for Cuban cigars wherever I could find them. So it became a hobby that started for two cents and turned expensive. Fine cigars are expensive. Taste is what ruins you. Good taste is going to cost you money.''

But he thinks it is worth it. "Most especially there's the pleasure of not inhaling,'' he says. "Not having to inhale to enjoy a smoke.''

These days his cigar choices are eclectic. "I adore Montecristo No. 1's from Havana. Whenever I get to Spain I load up on them and find a way to get them into this country.'' But like all cigar smokers, Gazzara's indulgences are diminished by a dearth of smoke-friendly venues.

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