versatile career

From Husbands to Road House, Ben Gazzara had a unique screen presence

From Husbands to Road House, Ben Gazzara had a unique screen presence

Actor Ben Gazzara,who passed away Friday at age 81, could proudly point to a resume that included roles in such notable films as Anatomy of a Murder, Saint Jack, They All Laughed, Capone — in which he played the title role opposite, no kidding, Sylvester Stallone's Frank Nitti — and The Big Lebowksi.

But, hey, let's face it: If you're of a certain age, you'll always remember him best as an adventurous libertine who's determined to make every minute count after being diagnosed with a fatal illness in the 1965-68 TV series Run for Your Life.

And if you're a tad younger: He'll always be the bad guy who dared to tangle with Patrick Swayze the 1989 guilty pleasure Road House.

I had the pleasure to interview him back in the day during a New York press gathering for the latter. (The first junket, I should note, where I received a CD — not a audiotape, but a CD — of the movie soundtrack as part of the junket swag.) Here's what he said:

I really enjoy villains. Actually, I came into movies as a villain. In 1957, my first film, called The Strange One, I was Jocko de Paris. The New Yorker called me ‘the most huggable heavy since Bogart.’ I remember that review — the only review I've ever remembered.

“So when I read the script for this, I was interested. (Producer Joel Silver) faxed it to me at the Hassler Hotel in Rome. You can imagine me unrolling this long, long fax, all over the floor, and laughing. And once I laughed, I bought it. The character made me laugh, and I figured, ‘I've got to do this, it's too delicious.’

“And when we were filming, I never worried about going over the top, because he was so much fun to play. You just worry about being the predictable villain. So, you try to find a sense of humor, the opposite colors to play, to play against the evil — and to have some fun with the part."

Indeed, Gazzara repeatedly provides some much-needed comic relief between the beatings, shootings and throat-rippings that take up so much screen time during Road House. At one point, he even breaks into song, warbling “Sh-Boom” (as in, “Life could be a dream, sh-boom . . .”) as he drives down a country road, plotting his next outrageous activity.

“That's the only thing that's been a disappointment, really,'' Gazzara said, screwing his face into a mask of mock severity. ''Originally, I had four songs in it. And I'm really angry -- they cut out three of my songs. I could have been on the soundtrack album.“I think I'm gonna sue.”

He seemed amused when I told him about my fond childhood memories of Arrest and Trial, a 1963-64 90-minute weekly series with a format that, unbeknownst to either of us in '89, would later be more successfully employed in a 60-minute weekly series titled Law & Order. And he smiled proudly when I told him of my enduring admiration for his collaborations with the late, great John Cassavetes.

“John was a genius, and a great artist, and we're never gonna see his like again,” said Gazzara.

Cassavetes — who directed Gazzara in Husbands, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Opening Night — died of complications arising from cirrhosis of the liver in 1989.

“But he was courageous. And he faced death the way he faced his career. He was just incredible. He knew he would die from this illness, but if you'd go by to cheer him up, he would send you out laughing. He kept writing, he kept creating, he kept dreaming until the last moment.”

Joe Leydon writes about movies on MovingPictureBlog.

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From left, Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara and John Cassavates in Husbands