Actor Ben Gazzara was born Biagio Anthony Gazzara on August 28, 1930, in New York City. At 12, he joined a local theater group, and returned to acting after college. He starred in the Broadway debut of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1956, and in the film Anatomy of a Murder (1959). Gazzara also appeared on the TV show Run for Your Life (1965–1968) and in the 1998 film The Big Lebowski. He died on February 3, 2012, in New York.
Actor Biagio Anthony Gazzara was born on August 28, 1930, in New York City's Lower East Side. Gazzara's parents, Angela and Antonio Gazzara, were both Sicilian immigrants, and his father worked as a bricklayer and carpenter. Gazzara grew up very poor. "I wouldn't call it poverty,'' he said, "but it was a constant struggle. There was no steam heat & Once in a while my mother would say she wasn't hungry, because there wasn't enough food for everybody." Despite these hardships, Gazzara looks back fondly on his childhood. "I remember my childhood with great warmth," he said, "because our block was a real community. It was like a small town, half Irish and half Italian. There was animosity between the two groups, but there was also respect."
The Gazzaras lived in a tenement flat across the street from the Madison Square Boys' Club, where a man named Howard Sinclair ran a youth drama program. One day, when Gazzara was 12 years old, he went to see a friend perform in one of the club's plays. Gazzara recalls, "I listened to all the applause he got and I was jealous, so I told him to get me an audition. I had a deep voice even then, and Howard Sinclair gave me a role as a 72-year-old, bearded Arab in a play by Lord Dunsany. And that did it for me. The smells of the theater. The glue. The pancake makeup. And I got applause. So I knew I had to be an actor. I was in play after play. He gave me leading roles. I sat at his feet as he read Shakespeare. He became like a second father.''
After graduating from eighth grade, Gazzara enrolled in Stuyvesant High School, an elite New York City public high school specializing in math and science. Although Gazzara considered himself a bright kid, he found himself overwhelmed by the other students at Stuyvesant. He remembers, "The other kids in the class! My God, what came out of their mouths! They were Einsteins. I'm sure one or two of them have won the Nobel Prize.''
Gazzara left Stuyvesant after two years and transferred to St. Simon Stock High School in the Bronx. Although he never lost his passion for acting, upon graduating from high school in 1948 Gazzara decided to study engineering at the City College of New York. But his heart was never really in it. "I told my mother I wanted to be an engineer," he recalls. "What I did was dabble in courses I wanted to take: history, literature and especially drama.''
Early Acting Career
Gazzara dropped out of City College after two years to study acting with German director Erwin Piscator at the Dramatic Workshop—the alma mater of such acting legends as Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger and Shelley Winters. Like all three of those actors before him, Gazzara moved on from the Dramatic Workshop to the Actor's Studio to study method acting under Lee Strasberg. And it was at the Actor's Studio that Gazzara's career finally took off.
In 1953, at the age of 23, Gazzara made his highly acclaimed Broadway debut as a psychopathic sadist in the play End As a Man. He followed that performance with leading roles in the Broadway debuts of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1956) and Michael V. Gazzo's A Hatful of Rain (1956), for which Gazzara earned a Tony Award nomination for Best Actor.
In addition to stage acting, Gazzara soon ventured into film and television. He made his big-screen debut in the 1955 film I'll Cry Tomorrow, and gained wide acclaim for his role opposite Jimmy Stewart in Anatomy of a Murder (1959), widely considered one of the greatest trial movies of all time. During the 1960s, Gazzara was best known for his television roles as a cop on the ABC series Arrest & Trial (1963-1964) and as the terminally ill Paul Bryan on the NBC show Run for Your Life (1965-1968). Although Run for Your Life earned Gazzara three Golden Globe and two Emmy Award nominations, Gazzara was never quite happy with the quality of the show, which he now admits he "did for the money."
Gazzara returned to feature films in 1970 with the movie Husbands. Since then, Gazzara has continued to appear frequently in Hollywood pictures, racking up more than 40 film credits in a career spanning five decades. Some of his most notable performances include High Velocity (1973), Opening Night (1977), Saint Jack (1979) and The Big Lebowski (1998).
Gazzara has been married three times. He married actress Louise Erickson in 1951, and the pair stuck together for six years before divorcing in 1957. In 1961, he married Janice Rule, with whom he had a daughter, actress Elizabeth Gazzara, before divorcing in 1982. Later in 1982, Gazzara married Elke Stuckmann, who remains his wife today. Gazzara also had a high-profile affair with actress Audrey Hepburn, whom he met while filming Bloodline in 1979.
Despite his lengthy and impressive acting resume, Gazzara's only professional regret was that he turned down too many projects. "I turned down a lot of movies because I was so idealistic," he said. "I was so pure. I didn't really take advantage of the opportunities." During his later career, he still appeared regularly in films and on television, having said that he has finally learned his lesson. "These days," he said, "I turn nothing down."
Gazzara died of pancreatic cancer on February 3, 2012, in New York, New York. He is survived by his wife Elfe, daughter Elizabeth and brother Anthony.
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