BEN GAZZARA: 1930 – 2012
Feb 05

It was the fall of 1993. I had recently graduated college and was selling shoes at A&S, a now defunct department store across the street from Macy’s, while subletting the basement of a brownstone on 90th & West End.  My friend Jason had gone off to Paris to study mime or make love to french women, and his apartment became available just in time for me to receive a message, meant for him, that would change the course of my life. It was an offer to be a production assistant on a two man play in Connecticut with Al Pacino, who had just won the Oscar for Scent of a Woman, and Ben Gazzara, who I was about as familiar with as I was with Lee J. Cobb.  Since the intended Jason was MIA, the job was mine.  At the start, I spent my days fetching black coffee for Mr. Pacino, which was a great career advancement from fitting men’s shoes in Herald Square. But soon, it became clear that years of 3 martini lunches, or maybe it was just life, had taken its toll on Mr. Gazzara’s memory, and I was quickly promoted to line coach.  When rehearsals moved from 8th ave to the theater in Stamford Connecticut, Gazzara insisted that I travel with him in his limo every morning so we could run lines in the car. But we never did.  He preferred instead to regale me with stories of the Group Theater and Brando’s jealousy of James Dean, and his time with Preminger and Jimmy Stewart, and the monotony of his brief stint in television, and the great creative renaissance of his life with Cassavetes, and Falk, and Rowlands.  At night, I would study his movies, and every morning, as i hopped into that limo, I would be prepared with questions.  These rides to Stamford were the beginning of my education in film, and with Ben’s encouragement, became my inspiration to pursue something resembling something.

During rehearsals, as Pacino grew more frustrated with Gazzara’s laissez-faire approach to memorization, I began to run the whole play with Gazzara doing my best Pacino impression, hoping all the while someone would fire Pacino, and let Ben and me just do the play.  One evening, I shared with Gazzara Pacino’s widely known fears that Ben wouldn’t be ready for opening night. Gazzara told me the story of Ethel Waters, a jazz singer, who was cast as the lead in a broadway musical in the 30′s. She was notoriously unprepared, forgetting her lines, and cues, and dance moves, and when the producers threatened to cancel the show, she famously told them, “when the moon comes out and the fucking begins, I’ll be there.” Gazzara informed me he shared this sentiment with Pacino, and that it had assuaged his concerns. I asked Pacino if Gazzara’s story had comforted him. He said, “yeah, Ben told me he’d be there when the fucking begins..and I said, “you’re an asshole.”"  Still, the play, a portrait of two middle-aged artists, their 25 year friendship, and an incident that would come to end it, was served by their off- stage sparring.  And when the moon came out, Gazzara was there, the show was a great success, and in the men’s room on opening night, I got to pee next to Christoper Walken.  But perhaps the best advice I received in those three unforgettable months was on a drive home late one evening.  Gazzara, who was on his third, and final, wife, said to me, “whatever you do, marry a woman who can cook: sex fades, but cuisine is everlasting.”  Eighteen years later, I ran into Pacino in the lobby of CAA. He didn’t remember me. Shortly after that I saw Gazzara in a brilliant production of Clifford Odets’ “Awake and Sing.” Backstage, I reminded him of our time with Pacino. Aging and frail, he said, “oh yeah, I remember that prick, how’ve you been?”  If he could hear me now, I’d tell him I’m about to marry a woman who can cook.  


Here’s a lovely Obituary by David Hudson, with great youtube clips of Gazzara’s time with Cassavetes…


3 Responses to “BEN GAZZARA: 1930 – 2012”

  1. DELIGHTFUL tale, Jason. Thanks for sharing.

  2. [...] an outstanding contributor to our first S FACTOR panel at the AGU meeting in December, posted this neat little tribute to actor Ben Gazzara yesterday. It’s both funny and touching — the work of a skilled [...]

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