John Cassavetes was born on December 9, 1929, in New York City. He worked as an actor, eventually earning an Oscar nomination for his role in The Dirty Dozen, while launching a career as a highly influential director of independent films that included Shadows, Faces, Husbands and A Woman Under the Influence. Cassavetes continued to act and direct alongside his wife Gena Rowlands until his death on February 3, 1989, in Los Angeles, California.
John Nicholas Cassavetes was born on December 9, 1929, in New York City. The young Cassavetes spent many of his early years in Greece, where his family originally hailed from, returning to New York in the mid-1930s. He attended Colgate University and Mohawk College, ultimately graduating from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1950.
Acting and Directing Career
Initially interested in acting, Cassavetes also rose to prominence as a director. He acted in movies and television dramas before making his directorial debut with the critically acclaimed Shadows (1959). The film, which depicted an interracial relationship and created on a shoestring budget, was inspired by an improvisation exercise taught in Cassavetes’s acting workshop founded several years prior. Shadows won an award at the Venice Film Festival but failed to find distribution in the United States.
Continuing his acting work, Cassavetes had featured roles in such films as The Dirty Dozen (1967), for which he earned a supporting actor Oscar nomination, and Rosemary's Baby (1968), starring Mia Farrow. He also returned to directing independent films, including Faces (1968), Husbands (1970) and A Woman Under the Influence (1974). Faces, starring Cassavetes’s wife Gena Rowlands, received three Academy Award nominations, including one for Cassavetes for original screenplay. A Woman Under the Influence starred Rowlands as well along with Peter Falk and earned two Oscar nods, one for best actress and the other for best director. Rowlands and Cassavetes also worked together on the films Opening Night (1977), Gloria (1980) and Love Streams (1984).
Later Life and Death
Cassavetes made Love Streams, in which he played an aging playboy suffering from the overbearing affection of his sister, after receiving a prognosis that he had months to live. He then took over and completed another film, Big Trouble (1986), which he loathed. In January 1987, the ailing Cassavetes wrote a three-act play entitled Woman of Mystery. He did not live to complete his final project, a film called She's Delovely. (This work was later released in 1997 as She's So Lovely, directed by Cassavetes's son Nick and starring Sean Penn, Robin Wright, John Travolta and James Gandolfini.)
Cassavetes died from cirrhosis of the liver on February 3, 1989, in Los Angeles, California. He was survived by Rowlands and three children, each of whom eventually became involved in the film industry. At the time of his death, the prolific filmmaker had amassed more than forty unproduced screenplays.
Cassavetes is among the most influential American directors of the 20th century, lauded as a pioneer of independent cinema and nuanced, character-driven work. He is the subject of several studies and biographies. One particularly well-known work is Cassavetes on Cassavetes, a collection of interviews collected by scholar Ray Carney in which the filmmaker expounds upon his influences and his experiences in the industry.
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