“Ben Gazzara, whose powerful dramatic performances brought an intensity to a variety of roles and made him a memorable presence in films, on television and on Broadway in the original “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” has died at age 81,” the Associated Press reports.
Gazzara died of pancreatic cancer on Friday, Feb. 3, 2012, in the same city in which he was born, New York.
The story notes that “In 1965 [Gazzara] moved on to TV stardom in ‘Run for Your Life,’ a drama about a workaholic lawyer who, diagnosed with a terminal illness, quits his job and embarks on a globe-trotting attempt to squeeze a lifetime of adventures into the one or two years he has left. He was twice nominated for Emmys during the show’s three-year run.”
Gazzara had originated the role in an episode of the “Kraft Suspense Theater” that served as a pilot for the show. The series was created by Roy Huggins, the same person who created the similar man-on-the-run themed “The Fugitive.”
Gazzara was nominated for a third Emmy in the groundbreaking 1985 TV movie “An Early Frost” that dealt with HIV and AIDS. He won an Emmy in 2002 for the HBO movie “Hysterical Blindness.”
Gazzara was also nominated for three Tony awards for his stage work.
His movie debut came in the 1957 drama “The Strange One” by Calder Willingham. Gazzara reprised his stage role in the film. He played a cadet getting-even with another cadet.
When the movie came out New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote “[Jack] Garfein in his direction has engendered an atmosphere of mystery and malevolence in the barracks that is appropriate to a minor horror tale. And in the performance of Ben Gazzara as the mischief-maker, we have an unattractive image of a youthful fiend at work. In his deliberate preparations for the undertaking of a plan to compromise an enemy by making it look as if he had got drunk, he gives a tantalizing picture of devilish cleverness and of impudence and arrogance that make the blood run cold.”
Born Aug. 28, 1930 in New York, Gazzara grew up in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. By the time he had graduated high school he had performed in at least one local play and had caught the acting bug.
Needing money, after graduating high school Gazzara and a friend headed to Miami to look for work as bellboys in one of the new hotels that were opening. They were hired at the then new, glamorous Sans Souci Hotel in Miami Beach.
From here Gazzara picks up the story, as he wrote in his 2004 autobiography “In the Moment: My Life as an Actor”:
“I was the worst bellboy that ever existed….I was one of six bellboys, each of whom had a particular position in the lobby standing at attention in front of a pillar, waiting for people to check in or out, or pointing them in the right direction. We were all given cigarette lighters, too, as no guest was to light his or her own cigarette.
“The lobby was always full of women–rich widows mostly….And despite the heat outside they wore their furs in the air conditioned lobby…I hardly noticed, because I was busy daydreaming. I was on Broadway, my name was in lights, I was the toast of New York. That’s more or less how my thoughts always went.
“I was just taking my curtain call when I heard [my friend] call, ‘Ben.’ I turned around and I saw a woman, in harlequin glasses and a very fluffy fur coat, removing a cigarette from a silver case. I didn’t know where I was and must have panicked. I whipped out my cigarette lighter, thrust it in the direction of her mouth and set fire to the collar of her coat. It started to sizzle and stink. Of course she put in a complaint and I was fired.
“I was on a Greyhound bus heading back to New York when I realized what I had to do. Staring out the window and seeing very little of the dark landscape made me feel especially lonely. ‘You never feel that way onstage, Ben,’ I said to myself. ‘Why don’t you give it a try?’ Could someone named Ben Gazzara find room in the world of the Clark Gables, the Cary Grants, the James Stewarts? But what was the alternative? A lousy job that called on nothing but my presence. I knew it was a long shot, but the closer that bus got to New York, the more I was sure that, against all odds, I had to give it a try.”