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Ben Gazzara, 81, leaves a rich, gruff legacy in theater and film

February 3, 2012 |  6:10 pm


Ben Gazzara, who died Friday in New York at the age of 81, was an actor with a gruff voice and intense demeanor. His acting legacy, which included the films of John Cassavetes and originating the role of Brick in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" on Broadway, was a catalog of masculinity in free-fall, self-doubt and sometimes willful self-glorification.

As with so many actors of his generation, Gazzara got his start in the theater, often returning to the stage throughout his film career. He brought the same level of artistic integrity and intensity to his theater roles as to his movie characters.

Most recently, Gazzara appeared on Broadway in the Tony-winning 2006 revival of "Awake and Sing," by Clifford Odets. He played the role of Jacob, the grandfather of a New York family struggling through the Depression. Gazzara appeared on stage despite several years before having undergone treatment for oral cancer that affected his speech.

His most famous Broadway role by far was in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," by Tennessee Williams. Gazzara originated the central role of Brick, a former football player with broken bones. He also appeared in a production of Eugene O'Neill's "Hughie," which later had an L.A. run at the Huntington Hartford Theatre, now called the Ricardo Montalban Theatre.

He starred in a 1976 revival of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," opposite Colleen Dewhurst. In his career, Gazzara received three Tony nominations, but never won.

In 1990, he appeared alongside Gena Rowlands -- his frequent movie costar -- in an L.A. stage version of "Love Letters," by A.R. Gurney.

Gazzara's acting style could be classified as Method. He studied with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio in New York. In his later years, Gazzara often spoke about foolishly turning down roles in lucrative and prestigious movie projects as a young, up-and-coming actor. "I was so pure," he once said in an interview.

Late in life, Gazzara continued to favor edgy directors, working with Spike Lee in "Summer of Sam" and Lars von Trier in "Dogville." He also appeared in the 1989 cult film "Road House."

A full obituary will appear later at


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Photo: Gazzara in 1974, making his Los Angeles stage debut as Erie Smith in the Eugene O'Neill play "Hughie," at the Huntington Hartford Theatre in Hollywood. Credit: Los Angeles Times