John Holland Cazale (August 12, 1935 – March 12, 1978) was an American actor. During his six-year film career, he appeared in five films, each of which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture: The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather Part II, Dog Day Afternoon and The Deer Hunter. He is the only actor to have this multi-film distinction. From his start as an acclaimed theater actor, he became one of Hollywood’s premiere character actors, starting with his role as Fredo Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s film The Godfather.
Cazale was born in Revere, Massachusetts, the son of Cecilia and John Cazale. He studied drama at Oberlin College and Boston University, from which he graduated.
Cazale moved to New York City and worked as a messenger at Standard Oil, where he met Al Pacino, another aspiring actor. “When I first saw John, I instantly thought he was so interesting,” recalled Pacino. “Everybody was always around him because he had a very congenial way of expressing himself.” While living together in a communal house in Provincetown, Massachusetts, Cazale and Pacino were cast in a play by Israel Horovitz, The Indian Wants the Bronx, for which they both won Obie Awards in 1967-1968. He later won another Obie for the leading role in Horovitz’s Line, where he was noticed by Godfather casting director Fred Roos, who then suggested him to director Francis Ford Coppola.
Cazale made his feature film debut, alongside old friend Al Pacino, playing the role of Fredo Corleone in Coppola’s The Godfather. The film broke box office records and made Pacino, Cazale and several previously unknown co-stars famous, and earned Cazale a Golden Globe nomination.
Cazale reprised his role as Fredo Corleone in 1974 in The Godfather Part II. Bruce Fretts, in Entertainment Weekly, wrote, “Cazale’s devastatingly raw turn intensifies the impact of the drama’s emotional climax, in which Michael (Pacino) orders Fredo’s murder.” Also in 1974, he co-starred with Gene Hackman in Coppola’s classic, The Conversation.
Twelve years after his death, Cazale appeared in a sixth feature film, The Godfather Part III (1990), in archive footage. The Godfather Part III was also nominated for Best Picture. This marks the unique achievement of John Cazale having every feature film in which he appeared be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Cazale again starred alongside Pacino in Sidney Lumet’s 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon. The film’s screenwriter, Frank Pierson, said “the film had been cast with many of the actors that Al Pacino had worked with in New York, including John Cazale, who was a close friend and collaborator in The Godfather.” For his role as Sal, he was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor.
“Cazale broke hearts on screen with portrayals of volatile, vulnerable, vacillating men, including Pacino’s tragic bank-robbing partner in Dog Day Afternoon,” wrote David Germain of the Associated Press. Cazale is described as an actor “whose intense face is known to just about any serious cinema fan but whose name often escapes them”.
Despite being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, Cazale continued work with his lover, Meryl Streep, in The Deer Hunter. “I’ve hardly ever seen a person so devoted to someone who is falling away like John was,” said Pacino. “To see her in that act of love for this man was overwhelming.”
Director Michael Cimino “rearranged the shooting schedule,” wrote author Andy Dougan, “with Cazale and Streep’s consent, so that he could film all his scenes first.” He completed all his scenes, but died soon after, on March 12, 1978, before the film was finished. He was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Malden, Massachusetts. He was 42 years old.
Cazale was characterized as “an amazing intellect, an extraordinary person and a fine, dedicated artist” by Joseph Papp. A film documentary and tribute about Cazale, titled I Knew It Was You, was an entry at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival and featured interviews with Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Gene Hackman, Richard Dreyfuss, Francis Ford Coppola, and Sidney Lumet; a heavyweight support crew.