Ben Gazzara's long stage and screen career has included a love affair with a good smoke.
From the Print Edition:
Bill Cosby, Autumn 94
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"I wouldn't call it poverty,'' he says, "but it was a constant struggle. There was no steam heat. There was a coal-burning potbelly stove. When you got up to go to school in the winter and touched your feet to the floor it was difficult because the linoleum was ice cold. Once in a while my mother would say she wasn't hungry, because there wasn't enough food for everybody. But in the main I remember my childhood with great warmth, because our block was a real community. It was like a small town, half Irish and half Italian. There was animosity between the two groups, but there was also respect. And you were watched all the time. You were taken care of by surrogate fathers and surrogate mothers, the people who lived on the block, who made sure you kept your nose clean.''
Across the street from his tenement flat was the Madison Square Boys' Club, the organization that shaped his future. "A man named Howard Sinclair was in charge of the drama group,'' Gazzara remembers. "One day, I saw a friend of mine in a play. I hadn't even known he was rehearsing it. I listened to all the applause he got and I was jealous, so I told him to get me an audition. I had a deep voice even then, and Howard Sinclair gave me a role as a 72-year-old, bearded Arab in a play by Lord Dunsany. And that did it for me. The smells of the theater. The glue. The pancake makeup. And I got applause. So I knew I had to be an actor. I was in play after play. He gave me leading roles. I sat at his feet as he read Shakespeare. He became like a second father.''
After finishing eighth grade at parochial school, Gazzara was accepted at Stuyvesant High School, an elite New York City school specializing in science and math, for which entrance is by competitive examination. "It was a disaster for me,'' he says. "I thought I was bright. I was bright. I was even in a class that would graduate in three years instead of the usual four. But the other kids in the class! My God, what came out of their mouths! They were Einsteins. I'm sure one or two of them have won the Nobel Prize.''
Gazzara would spend his days dreaming--dreaming of becoming an actor. He would cut classes and go to the movies to see his favorite performers: John Garfield, Clark Gable, Edward G. Robinson. "I had this acting illness and I could not get over it.''
He left Stuyvesant after two years and returned to Catholic school. Then he spent two years at City College. "I told my mother I wanted to be an engineer. What I did was dabble in courses I wanted to take: history, literature and especially drama.''
Then one day he found a place called the Dramatic Workshop, which was headed by legendary German director Erwin Piscator, who had fled the Nazis during the Second World War. The Dramatic Workshop's members had included Marlon Brando, Walter Matthau, Rod Steiger and Shelley Winters. They had all moved on to the Actors Studio, which was led by Lee Strasberg and was the home of Method acting. So did Gazzara. "And there's where I really started my career.''
Gazzara's first Broadway role, at 23, was as Jocko de Paris, a psychopathic sadist, in "End as a Man,'' based on a novel by Calder Willingham set in a Southern military academy. He was an instant success and he proved that the success was no fluke when Elia Kazan cast him in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." Following "Cat'' came "A Hatful of Rain'' and then movies and television, including "Run for Your Life,'' which Gazzara unhesitatingly admits he "did for the money.''
Gazzara's more recent television appearances include "An Early Frost,'' one of the first films to deal with the AIDS crisis, in which he portrayed an AIDS victim's father. In the theater he has starred with his good friend Al Pacino in a two-character play, "Chinese Coffee,'' which they performed in Stamford, Connecticut. "The thought is that when we both have time, we're going to take it to a few places,'' he says. "Places like New York, Los Angeles and London.''
One thing he would very much like to do is direct. "I directed a film in Bali some years ago for an Italian producer and I really liked doing it. I'm working on developing something. You have to keep on working. John Cassavetes used to say to me that he invented work--that if he sat down he would die.''
Looking back on his long career, Gazzara says he has only one regret: "I turned down a lot of movies because I was so idealistic. I was so pure. I didn't really take advantage of the opportunities.'' If he had the same chances today, he says he would take them all because you never know where they will lead.
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