John Cazale Biography

Film Actor, Theater Actor, Actor (1935–1978)
Despite only having held five feature film roles, John Cazale proved to be one of the great character actors of the 1970s. He played Fredo in The Godfather.


Actor John Cazale was born August 12, 1935, in Boston, Massachusetts. Brought to the attention to director Francis Ford Coppola, he was cast in The Godfather as Fredo. Cazale starred opposite Gene Hackman in The Conversation in 1974. Next, Cazale was in Dog Day Afternoon (1975). Despite having been diagnosed with bone cancer, he made one last film before his death, The Deer Hunter, in 1978.

Early Life

Actor John Holland Cazale was born on August 12, 1935, in Boston, Massachusetts. Despite only having five feature film roles to his credit, John Cazale proved to be one of the great character actors of the 1970s. After studying drama at Boston University, he moved to New York City. Cazale worked as a cab driver and a messenger to make ends meet while he pursued a career in acting.

Career Highlights

His major stage success occurred off-Broadway in Israel Horovitz's The Indian Wants the Bronx with Al Pacino. He also appeared in Line, another work by Horovitz. In recognition of his work on both productions, Cazale won an Obie Award for Distinguished Performances in 1968. Eventually brought to the attention to director Francis Ford Coppola, he was cast in The Godfather as Fredo, the incompetent, emotionally wounded son of crime boss Vito Corleone (played by Marlon Brando). Good friend Al Pacino played his young brother Michael who would eventually become head of the family, much to Fredo’s chagrin. Cazale gave a nuanced performance, making the most out of a relatively small part.

Again working with Francis Ford Coppola, Cazale starred opposite Gene Hackman in The Conversation (1974). Hackman played a paranoid surveillance expert who stumbles on to a possible murder plot with Cazale appearing as his geeky assistant Stan. Also that year, Cazale again played Fredo. One of the most palpable moments of The Godfather Part II was the scene between Pacino and Cazale when Fredo's betrayal is uncovered. The two teamed up again for Dog Day Afternoon (1975), playing a pair of criminals in a bank heist gone wrong. Often cast as one of life's losers or oddballs, Cazale was able to infuse these characters with a compelling humanity.

Battle with Cancer

In 1976, Cazale returned to the New York stage, performing in a production of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure in the city's Central Park. He played Angelo opposite then relatively unknown actress named Meryl Streep. The two fell in love, but it was not long before their relationship was rocked by some tragic news. Cazale had bone cancer and the prognosis was not good.

Despite his illness, Cazale made one last film, The Deer Hunter (1978). Director Michael Cimino knew about the cancer and used him on the project anyway, despite objections from the studio. The drama explored the lives of several friends—played by Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and John Savage—from a small Pennsylvania town before, during, and after serving in the Vietnam War. Cazale appeared in a small, but memorable role as "the kind of barroom neurotic who might at any moment go seriously off his rocker," according to The New York Times. Streep also appeared in the film as Walken's girlfriend.

After filming finished, it was not long before Cazale's health began to decline. He spent his final days in a New York hospital with Streep by his side and died on March 12, 1978. Later that year, The Deer Hunter opened to positive reviews and went on to receive nine Academy Award nominations, winning five of them. While he never received an Academy Award nomination, Cazale was highly admired by critics and fellow performers. Al Pacino once said, "He was the most giving actor I've ever worked with, the most involved and sensitve."

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