25 Years Ago

Unfortunate Son

Remembering John Cazale's big-screen brilliance. Starting with his debut as Fredo in ''The Godfather,'' the actor was on a roll. But his remarkable film career came to a heartbreaking end before Oscar ever noticed

Five movies. Five masterpieces. The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather Part II, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Deer Hunter -- all Best Picture nominees, and all costarring John Cazale. His hit streak was worthy of Joe DiMaggio, but 25 years ago on March 12, 1978, it was cut tragically short when Cazale died of bone cancer. He was 42.

Despite the fact that he spent his entire cinematic career in Oscar contenders, Cazale himself never received a nomination. Perhaps his work was too subtle to command the Academy's attention. The walking embodiment of the aphorism acting is reacting, he provided the perfect counterbalance to his recurring costars, the more emotionally volatile Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. ''All I wanted to do was work with John for the rest of my life,'' Pacino says. ''He was my acting partner.''

His indelible debut film role, as The Godfather's Fredo, the hapless middle brother of the Corleone clan, pigeonholed him into playing weak-willed losers on film. So did his looks: From his half-moon hairline to his dark, deep-set eyes, everything about him seemed to recede. Yet Cazale radiated a profoundly sympathetic vulnerability reminiscent of his idol Montgomery Clift (who also died in his 40s).

Born on Aug. 12, 1935, in Boston, Cazale studied drama at Oberlin College and Boston University. He moved to New York City and worked as a messenger at Standard Oil, where he met another aspiring actor, Al Pacino. ''When I first saw John, I instantly thought he was so interesting,'' recalls Pacino. ''Everybody was always around him because he had a very congenial way of expressing himself.''

While living together in a communal house in Provincetown, Mass., Cazale and Pacino were cast in a play, Israel Horovitz's The Indian Wants the Bronx. The production, which transferred to Off Broadway in 1968, featured Cazale as an East Indian harassed by a hood played by Pacino. Both actors won Obies. Cazale's award also recognized his work in Horovitz's Line, which attracted the attention of Godfather casting director Fred Roos, who suggested him to director Francis Ford Coppola.

Billed 14th in the credits (after Abe Vigoda), Cazale received scant screen time in the first Godfather, but he made the most of it. In one of the film's most affecting scenes, Fredo fails to protect his father, Vito (Marlon Brando), from an attempted hit, bobbling a gun and dissolving in tears. Fredo is subsequently passed over as head of the Family in favor of younger brother Michael (Pacino), and Cazale makes his character's wounded pride hauntingly palpable.

''In an Italian family, there are always brothers who are made fun of.... Maybe I was in that category at the time,'' said the director, who had grown up in the shadow of a more accomplished sibling, writer-professor August Coppola. ''I empathized a little bit with Fredo.'' As did Cazale's costars. ''Johnny's work was so strong in that part,'' says Pacino. ''We all thought he was going to get a nomination.''

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