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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

(continued from page 1)

So he has come up with a strategy. "I smoke these small cigars because sometimes I can fool restaurateurs and patrons into thinking they're cigarettes. The small cigars don't seem as obtrusive. People don't seem as annoyed as when they see those big stogies.'' The strategy works sometimes. "But sometimes I get caught. There's always someone in the room who doesn't appreciate the good things in life and thinks he or she can live forever." When he is asked to extinguish the cigar he is polite and quietly does so.

"I'm smoking a small Royal Jamaica, which I got at the American Hotel in Sag Harbor, one of the civilized places in the world. They allow you to smoke cigars of any kind during dinner in any room. But except for a few other places--Elaine's, Le Cirque--restaurants are denying us the pleasure of having a cigar after dinner.''

At most restaurants, men are more often the complainers. "Women usually are nice,'' he says. "The cigar reminds them of when their fathers smoked. Most of the time the women say they love the smell of cigars.''

Gazzara and his wife of 13 years, Elke Stuckmann Gazzara ("my third and last marriage''), have an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, a home in Sag Harbor, New York, and a villa in Italy, where he lives about half the year and where he has made many movies in the past decade. "They're the kind of movies the Italians love, but that don't travel. You go where they love you.''

He says he smokes freely at home "unlike some guys, whose wives won't allow them. But I have to be honest. When my wife and I first were romancing, there would never be a comment about the cigar. Now I sometimes see her making a face and waving the smoke away. I sense the beginning of something, that there's going to be a complaint. But there haven't been any so far.''

Gazzara also enjoys a drink with his cigar. "I have returned after some years to the pleasure of a Martini before dinner. I think it's the greatest drink ever invented. Of course, you shouldn't drink too many of them.''

He also enjoys good wine with dinner. His Italian villa is in Umbria, about halfway between Florence and Rome--south of the medieval city of Todi, "which was once voted the most livable city in the world,'' in the region that includes Perugia, Orvieto and Spoleto. He is particularly partial to Umbrian wine. "The basis of Umbrian wine is the Sangiovese grape,'' he says, "which is very mellow, like a Merlot. Among the reds, Rubesco is particularly good. So is the Sangiovese wine itself. And there are many labels that you don't see [in the United States].''

Tuscan wines catch Gazzara's eye as well. "Last night at the American Hotel, which has a wine list par excellence that includes $1,400 bottles, I found a $25 bottle of Montepulciano 1990 that was superb.'' He also likes French white wines. "Italian whites are lightweight,'' he opines. "French whites have much more body. And of course French Bordeaux is exquisite, if you want to sit down to dinner and spend $400 on a bottle of wine.''

Despite all his years of success, Gazzara still finds a bit of amazement in the fact that he, the scion of a working-class family, can sit these days and talk about $1,400 wines. He was born a mere 45 blocks from where he is sitting, but it might as well have been a universe away.

His first home was a cold-water flat on East 29th Street between First and Second avenues. His parents, Antonio and Angela Gazzara, were Sicilian immigrants, and Ben spoke Italian before he learned English. His baptismal name was Biago Anthony, but from an early age he was always Ben. His father, who died when Ben was a child, was a roofer and carpenter.

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