August 28, 2016: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
Ben Gazzara, born Biagio Gazzara on this day on the east side of Manhattan in 1930, was “an actor’s actor.” Though there were significant ups and downs in his career, which spanned more than fifty years, he had the respect of his peers, and audiences who were lucky enough to see his work in the theatre, recognized his subtle power on stage. I will never forget his George opposite Colleen Dewhurst in the 1977 Broadway revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
By the time I saw this production (directed by playwright Edward Albee himself), I was already in college and my exposure to Gazzara’s talents were solely from film and television. He had a major role in an early favorite film of mine, Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder, in which he played a sly and impenetrable Army lieutenant on trial for killing a man who allegedly raped his wife. As a kid, I also watched his weekly TV series, Run for Your Life, even though it puzzled me that the premise of the series (a man told he had a short time to live takes to the road seeking unfulfilled adventure) would allow for him to do so over three year’s worth of episodes. Such was Gazzarra’s charisma that he could be interesting in just about anything. One of the reasons was his voice. It was the definition of “gruff,” but also had a softness to it, difficult to describe. When I finally got a chance to hear him on stage, it was a musical instrument that reaped enormous rewards for the listener. He also projected a stillness that is rare for an actor, something which Albee took full advantage of. He staged the play so that George had his own “special,” a light that if I can recall was closer to stage left than center, where George would stare out a window (I imagine). But its real purpose was to draw you in. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. Watching Ben Gazzara listen was even more interesting than hearing him speak. Not many actors can pull that off.
My admiration being so high, I am handing the baton over to a friend, Jason Ensler, who with his permission, is allowing me to share his first-hand account of a period of time he spent with Gazzara. It tells a story I only wish I could have experienced in the same way. In addition to being a talented filmmaker, Ensler is a wonderful writer, as you will see:
“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 Avenue 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 Theatre 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 ’30s. 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 Christopher 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.”
Happy ending: Jason and his wife, Rebecca McFarland, have been married now for three years and, from what I hear (I’m still waiting for an invite), the meals are delicious.
Happy Birthday, Biagio.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also sign up to follow me here, and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.