John Cazale is one of the greatest actors you’ve never heard of. Most people draw a blank at the mention of his name, until they hear he played Fredo in The Godfather, and then there’s a flash of recognition—oh, that guy! Fredo, the sad-eyed loser of the Corleone clan, left an indelible impression, but Cazale came and went as one of Hollywood’s unknown soldiers. He never won a film award or was nominated for an Oscar. When he died in 1978, at 42, he had appeared in just five features. But those movies—The Godfather Part I and II, The Conversation, The Deer Hunter and Dog Day Afternoon—rank among the masterpieces of ’70s American cinema, with a collective tally of 40 Academy Award nominations. And Cazale is their one common denominator.
More than three decades after his death, this unsung talent is now being hailed as one of the most brilliant and influential actors of his generation. Those doing the hailing include Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Gene Hackman and Meryl Streep, who all worked with Cazale. Their opinion is seconded by younger actors who never knew him but cite him as a crucial influence, notably Philip Seymour Hoffman, Steve Buscemi and Sam Rockwell. These testimonials are part of a remarkable new HBO documentary titled I Knew It Was You, which is showing this week as part of the Worldwide Short Film Festival in Toronto.
The title alludes to a line from The Godfather Part II, in which Pacino’s character, Michael Corleone, confronts his older brother about betraying the family—“I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart.” But it also echoes the common response of anyone trying to place a character actor who is both deeply familiar yet oddly anonymous.
“Cazale had this known/unknown quality,” says the documentary’s 44-year-old director, Richard Shepard, who has nurtured a lifelong obsession with the actor. Shepard was just 10 when his father took him to a revival screening of The Godfather I and II, and it was Cazale who made the deepest impression. “I really responded to him without understanding why,” he says, on the phone from Los Angeles. “Maybe it was the sadness in his eyes.” Sadness and guilt and resentment and fear. As Fredo, Cazale created the heartbreaking portrait of a weak, wounded man who elicited empathy even though he was a weasel. Then, working with Pacino again as the manic bank robber in Dog Day Afternoon, he became a different person—a pale freak with long hair, a receding hairline and the hard-wired intensity of a human time bomb.
Pacino, who had known Cazale as a teen when they worked as messengers for Standard Oil, considered him his “acting partner.” They co-starred in three off-Broadway plays by Israel Horowitz, including The Indian Wants the Bronx, for which both won Obie awards. In I Knew It Was You, Pacino raves about how deeply Cazale would delve into a character.“I learned more about acting from John than anyone else,” he says, explaining how Cazale would slip into a scene without notice. “You would just do this dance until you found your way, and then the improvisations would start. It was inspiring.”
Some of the documentary’s most detailed analysis comes from younger actors like Buscemi, who picks out a tiny detail from the wedding scene in The Deer Hunter, where Cazale glances down to see if his fly is open. Buscemi proudly admits he’s a Cazale “type,” and when he played a bank robber on The Simpsons, his accomplice was modelled on Cazale’s character in Dog Day Afternoon.
In Cazale’s era character actors weren’t celebrities, but he had a surprising reputation as a chick magnet. Although “he looked like St. Francis of Assisi,” says Israel Horowitz, “in his short life, John had some of the most beautiful women as girlfriends on the face of the planet.” One was Streep, who fell for him when they co-starred in Measure for Measure in Central Park. “She was mad for him and he was mad for her,” Pacino recalls.
Streep and Cazale were living together when he was diagnosed with lung cancer. That made his casting in The Deer Hunter a high-risk venture. And when the studio wouldn’t insure him, Streep believes De Niro stepped in to finance a bond. Cazale died before the film was released, with Streep by his side. “The most amazing thing was to see Meryl in all of this,” says Pacino. “When I saw that girl there with him like that, I thought, there’s nothing like that. That’s it for me. As great as she is in all her work, that’s what I think of when I think of her. That moment.”