Ben Gazzara

The actor: Ben Gazzara, who studied with The Actors Studio in the ‘50s before moving on to Broadway—where he originated the role of Brick in Tennessee Williams’ Cat On A Hot Tin Roof—and then, inevitably, Hollywood. Gazzara starred in two TV series (Arrest And Trial and Run For Your Life) in the ‘60s, but didn’t really find his niche until he connected with indie auteur John Cassavetes, who cast Gazzara in three of his best ‘70s films (Husbands, The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie, and Opening Night) and helped establish the air of grumbly, barely contained menace that defines a Gazzara performance. In the decades since, Gazzara has maintained a busy schedule bouncing between character parts on TV and in movies. He can currently be seen in Looking For Palladin, playing a reclusive actor being courted for a movie by a young Hollywood player.

Looking For Palladin (2009)—“Jack Palladin”

Ben Gazzara: The city of Antigua is so beautiful and charming, filled with history, and I had a wonderful time down there. I played a character I liked to play, and lived a life I liked. One of the pleasures of being an actor is that it takes you places you wouldn’t ordinarily go, and you don’t enter as a tourist, you really enter the life of the place.

The A.V. Club: How long were you on location?

BG: Oh, about 9 weeks, 8 weeks.

AVC: So you really got to be an Antiguan for a while.

BG: That’s right, that’s right. That’s the point. We actors don’t travel as tourists with a camera, we really get to enter the life of a place and get to know it. 

AVC: Do you find you enjoy working on these smaller independent films?

BG: Oh sure. You can do more of them. A Hollywood picture, you’ll do one a year, one of those big blockbusters, right? Then you’ve gotta go to the gym to get in shape to do all of the running and shooting and diving and falling and hitting and all that stuff they do today. 

AVC: So it’s much easier to just go to Antigua? 

BG: Well, it’s easier to play a human being than it is to chase people, or whatever they do today. [Laughs.] I don’t see those pictures anyway.

Husbands (1970)—“Harry”

BG: That movie I remember more than anything, because it was a movie about friendship, and John [Cassavetes] and I were not friends when it started. We became lifelong friends working on the friendship of the characters in the picture. It was a great, great, great friendship.

AVC: And you and Peter Falk as well.

BG: Yes. You know, Peter’s very ill. He has Alzheimer’s, unfortunately. And I’m really so sorry about that. You think of all the time he worked so hard in his life, and now in the time when he should be able to enjoy the fruits of all those hours and hours spent shooting that Columbo series, and he gets this horrible disease. Terrible.  

AVC: You directed two Columbos, didn’t you?

BG: Yeah, yeah, I had fun. And I did three films with John, yeah. The terrific film The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie, and Opening Night, about the theater. And he was planning another one when he died, actually.

AVC: When you have a close friendship with the person who’s writing and directing the films you’re in, how does that relationship work?

BG: It deepens the friendship. It only gets better. Because John really loved actors, and I think he found his films through the actors. Having been a terrific actor himself, I think John made his films to treat actors the way he would like to have been treated by other directors. He gave you a freedom to explore, to be the best you could be. You could do no wrong, and you can only do right by him. He was extraordinary.

Buffalo ’66 (1998)—“Jimmy Brown”

BG: Ah, yeah, I hadn’t thought of that picture for a long time, actually. I think Vincent Gallo did a wonderful job, and it was a personal story for him. It was about him, actually; him and his mother and father. And the work was enjoyable. I enjoyed Anjelica Huston, and I had never been to Buffalo before, just as I had never been to Antigua before, you see? So I was able to see a part of America that I probably never would have gotten to if I weren’t an actor. 

AVC: Was Buffalo as fun as Antigua?

BG: [Laughs.] Different.  

AVC: Vincent Gallo has a reputation as being… odd. 

BG: He wasn’t up there. He was taking care of his movie, his personal movie, and he was really zeroed in on it and focused. So he behaves himself when he has to, yeah.

The Big Lebowski (1998)—“Jackie Treehorn”

BG: Well, The Big Lebowski was the oddest thing. They called me, and there was really no part. I mean, it’s a little part, but they go and say "Look, Sam Elliot is doing this, and this guy’s doing that, and that guy’s doing this." I said, “Well, let me read it.” And I read it, and I couldn’t stop laughing. I said, “I gotta be a part of it. This is too funny.” So I had a lot of fun doing it. It took me a couple of days. I flew there and I was back in New York in three days.

AVC: Do the Coens give a lot of direction to actors, or do they sort of just let you do what you do?

BG: They don’t over-direct at all, no. Actually, they give a lot of freedom to do what you do, yeah.

Dogville (2003)—“Jack McKay”

BG: Dogville, yeah. Listen, I was told before I went there, “Hey, Lars von Trier, he’s tough with actors.” Not at all. I really got along with him famously, and had a great time, a great time. Nicole Kidman was there at her best; she was terrific. The whole cast was terrific. And it was an interesting experiment, because he shot it in digital, and was able to load the camera with an hour’s worth of film, so you weren’t reloading every 10 minutes. And he was running… well, we shot it all indoors in a studio, you know, and the whole set was in one, without walls around anything, so he was able to run back and forth, up and down, shooting. You gotta be on your guard with his camera. It was very, very interesting to work on it. Much like theater, because you were not interrupted. You can go on and on and on, and of course it was on a stage; it took place in one space. In that regard, it was very much like theater.

AVC: So you had to be there on the set even when you weren’t necessarilyw…

BG: That’s right, you had to be an extra. You had to dress up the scene.

AVC: You mentioned that von Trier can shoot a scene for as long as it takes because he’s working in digital. Back when you were shooting with John Cassavetes, he also had scenes that went on for a long time—

BG: Yeah, but he had to reload. [Laughs.]

AVC: So what happened if you were in the middle of a long—

BG: You gotta reload. That’s all there is to it. [Laughs.] 

AVC: You just stopped what you were doing?

BG: And you’d get so angry, especially when you’re on a roll as an actor and you really think you’re doing great, and you hear, “Reloading!” Oh, shit! I used to say, “Listen, we went to the moon. Can’t we find a way not to have to reload?” [Laughs.]

Road House (1989)—“Brad Wesley”

BG: I had fun making that picture. Patrick [Swayze] was very nice, a very sweet boy. He was a boy then, actually. Well, a young man. And just tasting the fruits of newly found stardom. And I remember he was very nervous about it, very apprehensive. He cared a lot, and he was very tense about doing a good job. And so we’d talk and walk, and walk and talk. I liked him, and we liked each other. 

AVC: That movie wasn’t that big a deal when it first came out, but it’s become a much bigger deal.

BG: Oh, no, it didn’t do well at the box office, as a matter of fact. Now they’re playing it in Italy at night, too! [Laughs.] They play it at least three times a year, or more. People see it all the time. 

AVC: That’s been kind of a common pattern for you, because the same thing could be said of The Big Lebowski, which wasn’t that big a deal when it first came out. And the Cassavetes films were barely released.

BG: That’s right, that’s right.

AVC: Are you drawn to those kind of films that sort of creep up on people, or is it just an accident of your career? 

BG: No, they come my way because directors think of me as someone who works outside of the system. Because of my films with Cassavetes, et cetera. So they come my way. Yeah, I like that. I like to do those kind of things. To go to Sweden and work with Lars von Trier… that probably would not have occurred if he wasn’t such a fan of the Cassavetes films. So it all comes around, you know? 

Anatomy Of A Murder (1959)—“Lt. Frederick Manion”

BG: There I had a wonderful time. I got to work with my first movie star, Jimmy Stewart, a star that I grew up trying to imitate as a kid. And there I was acting with him in the same scene. I was so really overjoyed to be doing that, and proud. And then he liked me, which made me even prouder. He invited me to dinner, mano-a-mano, more than once, and I really appreciated that. He took an interest in me, and I watched him work. I watched how hard he worked, how he never schmoozed. He was never around between takes; he was in a room working with his assistant on the scene that was going to be shot next. Never wasting a moment’s time. A real lesson in discipline.

AVC: Coming out of the Actors Studio tradition, did you find that the way you worked was different from the way Jimmy Stewart worked, or were you essentially doing the same thing?

BG: Well, I worked in a looser fashion. I never locked myself in with anyone to go over what we were going to do. I’d do it in my mind, or alone in a corner or something. But I must say, though, he had a great deal of dialogue in the picture, playing a lawyer, and I think that was probably part of the reason he took to another room to go over his lines. 

AVC: The subject matter for that film was somewhat daring. Your career has spanned from an era when there were things you couldn’t say onscreen to an era where you can say pretty much whatever you want. 

BG: I think it’s better today that you can be more daring with what you do. If you do it well. With that comes a responsibility not to bore people with vulgarity and all that stuff. To know how to do it right, know how to lay it out there.

I have to add that on Anatomy Of A Murder, there was not a human being on that picture who became as dear a friend as Joseph Welch, the great lawyer who brought down Joe McCarthy. He was a poker player par excellence, and he loved to play gin rummy. Gin rummy! I go to visit him after the picture wrapped, and I’m doing a summer tour of a play, and we’re playing the Cape, so I call him, and he says, “Come for lunch,” and I go, and there he is playing gin rummy with some fishermen. Always gin rummy. While Jimmy was in his room studying, Joe Welch was playing gin rummy with the boys.

Summer Of Sam (1999)—“Luigi”

BG: Yeah, that was a good picture. I was in Italy, and Spike Lee called me. He found me in my house in Italy, and he said, “Listen, I’m here directing Luciano Pavarotti’s show,” and I went up there, and he talked to me about the movie, and said “I’d love for you to do it for me, Ben.” And I did it. I had fun with Spike; he’s a nice guy. 

AVC: Do directors frequently call you personally to get you involved with these things?

BG: Yes, yes. Well, you know, when the part isn’t enormously large, they do. [Laughs.] You know what I mean? “Hey come and do this, come on man, for Christ’s sake.”

AVC: You’ve worked with pretty much every major director in the business today. Is there anybody left that you'd particularly like to work with?

BG: Well, that’s like saying, “Is there any woman you’d like to sleep with that you haven’t slept with?” [Laughs.] I never name anyone, because you hurt feelings. There are a few I haven’t worked with. I’ve never worked with Marty Scorsese. You’d think I would, but I haven’t. And Marty would be somebody I might have fun working with. 

AVC: I’ll put in a call, see what I can do.

BG: [Laughs.] I know him; I know Marty. You don’t have to call him.

Run For Your Life (1965-68)—“Paul Bryan”

BG: Yeah, well Run For Your Life, that came at a period where things were very slow in the movie world for me. So I had to pay the rent, and the offer was good, but it was before the big, big money in television, 1965. And that was hard work, I gotta tell you. You know we made 30 one-hour shows a year? I was in every scene, morning, noon, and night. It was really tiresome, I gotta tell you. Hard, hard.  Ran for three years, and we made 80, 85 shows.

AVC: Was it a good crash course in how to work in front of a camera?

BG: Well, a crash course, yes. In relaxation, definitely. Because I really was in every scene. Every scene. These guys do series today, they do about 18 of them, right? And they’re in every other scene. I was in every scene. If I wanted to make love with one of my leading ladies, I’d get tempted to take her to my dressing room, and I’d hear, “Ready on the set, Ben!” [Laughs.] That was it.

Saint Jack (1979)—“Jack Flowers”

BG: Well, that’s one of my favorite films also. I would say Husbands and Saint Jack and The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie are my three favorite films, of my work. Saint Jack is particularly dear to me, because we got to Singapore with the screenplay—Peter Bogdanavich and I and George Morfogen, his assistant—and we saw that it didn’t work. So every night before shooting, Peter and I and George would meet in his room and write the material to be shot the next day. That’s how we did it. I was as involved as I was with Husbands with John, not just as an actor, but as a creator of the events. That’s how I came into the theater in the first place, actually. That’s what I love. I hate just showing up, hitting a mark, doing your work, and going home. It’s very boring. But being part of the creation of the whole thing is very exciting.

AVC: The films Bogdanavich had made up until then had an entirely different feel than Saint Jack.

BG: Yeah, they really did. That’s right.

AVC: So that was partly your doing?

BG: Well, I hope so. But he was first-class, I must say. First-class. And then I did another picture with him, They All Laughed. If you haven’t seen that picture, you should see it. It was with Audrey Hepburn, a comedy.

The Spanish Prisoner (1997)—“Mr. Klein”

BG: Well, a good picture. Good who’s in it. It fooled me, even, and I was in the picture. I had a good time; I got to know Steve Martin. We had a good time in Florida and got to know each other, had some laughs, and that was a very pleasant experience. 

AVC: When you’re working with David Mamet, he’s got this very precise dialogue, and a very precise way he wants you to say it, which is entirely different than the way, say, John Cassavetes worked. Are you comfortable going back and forth between those styles?

BG: Oh yeah. Absolutely. David was not an intrusive director at all. He left me alone. And you know, you pick up the rhythm of his writing. He writes in a certain style, and if you’re an intelligent actor, you can handle that, so I had no problem. 

The Young Doctors (1961)—“Dr. David Coleman”

BG: Oh, wow. [Laughs.] That was my third film, right. Well, we were working with Fredric March, who had all the moves. That was also a lesson in relaxation in front of the camera. I learned a lot watching how he worked. 

AVC: You said it was tough for you to find jobs back then? Back in the early ’60s?

BG: Well let’s see… I went from my first film, to Anatomy, to…

AVC: There’s about a two-year gap between Anatomy and Young Doctors.

BG: No, I made a film in between there in Italy with Anna Magnani. A film that has become legendary in Italy, called The Passionate Thief. But yes, the work didn’t come as quickly as I thought it would off my first film, which had been received so well. It was called The Strange One. Did you ever see that?

The Strange One (1957)—“Cadet Sgt. Jocko DeParis”

BG: That was my first play off-Broadway. We worked on it at the Actors Studio as a class project, and it went so well that we decided to take it off-Broadway. Then we got reviews, love letters from the major critics: New York Times, Walter Kerr of The Herald Tribune… all of ‘em. Then we actually brought it to Broadway, uptown. We shouldn’t have. We could have run it off-Broadway for five years, but we brought it to Broadway, and it ran four months or so. And then Sam Spiegel decided to make a film. So we made The Strange One while Sam was producing Bridge On The River Kwai. He would fly to Orlando, Florida to pop in on us while we were shooting this little black-and-white picture called The Strange One. He was really an involved producer. Sam had taste. He was good.

AVC: You had such an unusual presence in The Strange One and Anatomy Of A Murder that it’s kind of odd to see you in something as straightforward as The Young Doctors. Was it difficult to find roles that sort of suited your type?

BG: I don’t know… I mean, I never thought of it that way. Maybe for others it was difficult to find something that suited my type. [Laughs]. But I never thought of myself as a type. I really thought I could play anything, quite frankly. And I have. Especially in the theater, which is where I came from. And I may go back to soon, as a matter of fact. To Broadway. 

AVC: Do you have an offer?

BG: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. Can’t talk about it yet, I’ll let you know. [Laughs.]