Running Cool

Ben Gazzara's long stage and screen career has included a love affair with a good smoke.
By Mervyn Rothstein | From Bill Cosby, Autumn 94
Running Cool

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.

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.

"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.

"Here's a perfect example. In 1979, the director Terence Young called me. I had just made a movie for him called Bloodlines with Audrey Hepburn. He asked me to come and star in South Korea in a movie called Inchon. I knew that working with Terence was wonderful. The picture might not work, but you would have a good time. You would have caviar and Champagne and the living would be good and you would be paid top dollar. But then I read the script and I said no. It was difficult to say no to a friend, but I did.''

A month later, however, Young called again. "He said to me, 'Are you stupid, dear boy? Larry is coming to do it'--Larry Olivier--'and you're not going to do it?' So I said, 'OK, Terence, I'll be there.' And I went.''

The movie turned out to be very forgettable, but the experience was not. In fact, it was memorable in a way that would permanently affect Gazzara's life. It was proof positive that one never knows where something will lead.

"The point of the story is that that's where I met my wife, who changed my life. At that time I was so unhappy. I don't know if I would have changed without her. If Terence had just accepted my first refusal, I'd probably be dead now.''

The woman he would marry was in South Korea producing a television program for Young about the making of the movie. "She was supposed to meet me at the airport to welcome me,'' Gazzara says, "but she became ill. She had never heard of me. She made a sign for the guy who met me to hang up. It said Beng Azzara. I fell in love with her.''

He concludes this proves that one must have a positive attitude. He declares he most certainly has. He takes a puff of his Royal Jamaica, savors the flavor and releases the smoke. "These days,'' Gazzara says, "I turn nothing down.''

Least of all, a good cigar.

Mervyn Rothstein is a reporter for The New York Times.

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