John Cazale: Unknown but uncommonly talented |

John Cazale: Unknown but uncommonly talented

Steve SchapiroThe late John Cazale, right, with Al Pacino in a scene from "The Godfather: Part II." Cazale is the subject of the documentary short, "I Knew It Was You," being screened at Aspen Shortsfest.

ASPEN ” Some 34 years ago, Richard Shepard’s father took 10-year-old Rich to New York City’s Bleecker Street Cinema to see a revival of the two “Godfather” movies. Like a lot of filmgoers, Shepard sympathized on a subtle level with Fredo ” the second of mob boss Vito Corleone’s three sons ” and the actor who played him, John Cazale. “I connected with the sadness of him,” recalls Shepard, now 44.

Not until some years later, when he saw “Dog Day Afternoon” ” the Sidney Lumet film, starring Cazale and Al Pacino, that fleshed out the bank-heist genre ” did Shepard truly take stock of the actor. “I said, ‘Hey, that’s the guy from the “Godfather” movies. I love that guy,'” Shepard said of Cazale.

As Shepard’s passion for film heated up ” he eventually attended film school at NYU ” he learned that the “Godfather” films and “Dog Day Afternoon” represented 60 percent of Cazale’s screen appearances. The sad-eyed actor with the prominent forehead died of cancer in 1978, at the age of 42, having appeared in just five films. It was possibly, though, an unparalleled legacy he left behind: All five films he appeared in ” “The Conversation” and “The Deer Hunter” are the others ” were nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.

“At NYU, it was cool to reference him,” said Shepard, “even if nobody knew his name. Because he was the common denominator of those five great movies.”

Shepard’s movie path took him behind the camera. He has carved out a specialty of directing pilot episodes of television series, a job that involves not only directing an episode but casting the show and creating an enduring look and feel. Among his hits have been “Ugly Betty” and “Criminal Minds”; “In the Motherhood,” a comedy, premiered last week. On the big screen, Shepard is best known for “The Matador,” the offbeat 2005 black comedy he wrote and directed.

Three years ago, Shepard’s latent interest in Cazale was revived. What he found was a severe shortage of information; it came as a shock to learn that Cazale had done not one on-camera interview in his life. Shepard had never made a documentary, but he realized he now had a good reason to make one. “I Knew It Was You,” his 30-minute documentary on Cazale the actor, premiered at the Sundance Festival in January, and is featured this week in Aspen Shortsfest. It shows Wednesday, April 1 in Program One at the Wheeler Opera House, and Friday, April 3 at the Crystal Theatre in Carbondale. Shepard will be in attendance at the festival.

Working in independent mode ” and starting the project with his own money ” Shepard contacted people who had worked with Cazale: Al Pacino, who had not only done four movies with Cazale, but had appeared onstage with him; Meryl Streep, who had dated Cazale; and Steve Buscemi and Philip Seymour Hoffman, both fans of Cazale’s from a younger generation of actors. All were eager to talk, and all wanted to speak about the same thing: his abilities as an actor.

“The first person we interviewed was Meryl Streep, and she said how much she learned from Cazale. It was interesting to hear someone of her caliber say that,” said Shepard, from his home in Hollywood. “Then Al Pacino said, ‘I learned more about acting from him than anyone else. So I knew it would be a movie about acting more than anything else.”

“I Knew It Was You” ” the phrase is uttered by Pacino to Cazale in “The Godfather II,” but also has resonance concerning Cazale as the anonymous but significant actor ” spends little time on the off-screen persona. The Boston native was, by general consensus, extremely nice, smoked heavily, may have been engaged to Streep. That didn’t make for an especially compelling story. His acting was another story.

“His work was indelible enough that, 30 years after his death, people like Hackman, Streep, Coppola, Dreyfuss, De Niro” ” all of whom appear in the film ” “are eager to talk, and talk about what a spectacular actor he was,” said Shepard.

And he was a particular kind of actor. Not being on the order of a movie star, Cazale’s screen characters didn’t demand attention. Instead, the actor earned all the attention he received.

“He was an actor who didn’t need a lot of lines, a lot of dialogue. John was always interested in the moments between the lines. Because he didn’t get a lot of lines,” said Shepard. “He did things that made a director want to cut to him. He was giving so much.”

Even in such a brief film career ” he also did theater, and won an Obie Award for his work in “The Indian Wants the Bronx” ” Cazale managed to create a vivid screen persona. He was the guy looking in from the outside, quiet but boiling with anxiety. In “The Godfather” movies, he was the brother passed over for the family business: “Send Fredo off to do this; send Fredo off to do that. Let Fredo take care of some Mickey Mouse nightclub somewhere,” he whines to his younger brother Michael. In “Dog Day Afternoon” he is the nearly silent but explosive bank robber Sal, whose greatest fear is that the media is reporting that he is gay.

“He wasn’t afraid to show there’s a true vulnerability there,” said Shepard. “We talk about how hard it is to play weak, and John did it so well.”

Shepard says Cazale’s emphasis on the work of acting, rather than the rewards, would serve as a fine model for aspiring actors. He also says that the same spirit that occupied Cazale, of relishing the work itself, is the one that has motivated him in his directing and writing. He points to Cazale’s willingness to do theater for very little money: “He did so many plays for so little, that he was ready when the big chance came,” said Shepard, noting that Francis Ford Coppola wrote a part in “The Conversation” specifically for Cazale after working with him on the first “Godfather” film.

Shepard was prepared to think small on “The Matador,” planning to make a film on a $250,000 budget, using digital video and no stars. Around the same time, he was seeking an assignment to write the sequel to 1999’s “The Thomas Crown Affair” ” like “The Matador,” a crime film with a comic edge. Shepard sent his “Matador” script to Pierce Brosnan’s production company as an example of his writing; Shepard’s bid for “The Thomas Crown” sequel was rejected ” but Brosnan was interested in producing and starring in Shepard’s film. “The Matador,” which featured Brosnan as an assassin for hire and Greg Kinnear as a down-on-his-luck businessman, earned Brosnan a Golden Globe nomination for his acting, and the film was screened at Aspen Filmfest.

“Careers can come from strange places. You do a project for no money and it can lead to you getting money,” said Shepard, who saw sold-out screenings at Sundance for “I Knew It Was You,” and has sold the project to HBO. “So many people get lost in trying to have the career they think they should have, instead of the career they want to have.”

Go to for the complete Aspen Shortfest film schedule.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Aspen and Snowmass Village make the Aspen Times’ work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.


Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.

User Legend: iconModerator iconTrusted User