The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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The Sundance buzz: A documentary about an actor's actor

January 13, 2009 |  5:20 pm

If you ever want to stump your movie geek pals with a barroom bet, just ask them who's the actor who only appeared in five feature films, and all of 'em--that's right, all five--earned an Oscar best picture nomination. The answer: John Cazale, the peerless '70s-era character actor best known for playing Fredo in the first two "Godfather" classics, appearing opposite Al Pacino in "Dog Day Afternoon," opposite Gene Hackman in "The Conversation" and in the great ensemble of actors who brought "The Deer Hunter" to life.

Cazale_3Cazale had a brief, meteoric career, dying of cancer at 42 in early 1978, before "The Deer Hunter" made it to theaters. A solitary artist who honed his craft in off-Broadway stage productions, Cazale was the kind of intense perfectionist who'd probably be making his living in Sundance films. So it's appropriate that the first documentary about the actor is premiering at Sundance this Friday (at 8:30 a.m. at the Library Center Theater) in the U.S. Documentary Shorts competition category. Directed by Richard Shepard, the writer-director of "The Matador" and "The Hunting Party," it's called "I Knew It Was You," after a memorable line of dialogue from "Godfather II." The film is a must-see, if only to soak up Cazale's devotion to his craft, as well as watch interviews Shepard did with nearly all of the actor's most important collaborators, notably Pacino, De Niro, Hackman, Francis Coppola, Sidney Lumet and Meryl Streep, who fell in love with Cazale after playing opposite him in a 1976 production of "Measure for Measure" and took her part in "The Deer Hunter" largely to be near Cazale, who by then was already battling cancer.

The movie is a delight as a historical document, but it also serves as a way of reminding younger actors of Cazale's potent abilities: Shepard also features interviews with a trio of today's great acting talent--Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Rockwell and Steve Buscemi--who talk about Cazale's influence on their work. "If John were a baseball player, he'd be in the Hall of Fame," Shepard told me the other day. "But even though he was always my favorite actor, there was nothing on the Internet about him, except one article in Entertainment Weekly. I mean, if you get Quinlan's Character Actors, this gigantic 900-page book on character actors, he's not even in it."

Shepard remembers his father taking him when he was 13 to a "Godfather" revival at the Bleecker Street Cinema and was especially impressed by Cazale, even though the actor has a surprisingly small part in the first film (Cazale is billed 14th in the credits, after Abe Vigoda). "I saw 'Dog Day Afternoon,' which he's great in, but I still didn't really make the connection until I became obsessed with Coppola's films and watched 'The Conversation' and I remember going, 'Hey, there he is again. This guy is in every movie I love!' " Shepard recalls. "I'm not sure why I connected with him so much. I think there's something sad and melancholy about him. And even though I didn't have an unhappy childhood, I must have connected with that."

Shepard laughs. "Look at it this way. Cazale did three movies with Coppola, two movies with De Niro and two movies and a million plays with Pacino. Those guys must've known something!"

But how did Shepard, who'd never made a documentary before, get all those lions of the cinema to sit down and talk? Keep reading:   

Shepard started filming by doing an interview with Cazale's brother, Stephen, who provided a link to his personal history. But Shepard knew that he'd never have a movie unless he got to Streep, who is quite protective about her private life and had never really discussed her relationship with Cazale. The quest didn't have a promising start. "We sent letters and letters and we never got a reply," Shepard recalls. "I mean, this went on for a year. My agent would ask Meryl's agent and all we kept getting back was--she wishes you the best of luck with the project, but she doesn't want to participate."

Shepard was losing hope when he heard that Stephen Cazale had run into Streep at an art opening and broken the ice. "I think it meant a lot coming from Stephen, who told her how passionate we were about the movie. After that, it slowly built to the point where Meryl was willing to do it. Interviewing her was really important, because it helped me realize where we were going with the movie, that this wasn't a biographical film, but a movie about acting. In the film Meryl talks about how much she learned from John and I thought--if the best actress of her generation learned more about acting from John than anyone else, then we're really on to something."

(It's telling, as always, about how off the mark the Oscars are that Cazale was in five best picture nominees but never got a single nomination himself.)

Some of the best moments in the film are with Pacino, who recounts a charmingly comical story about how Cazale showed up one day, telling him he'd met the greatest young actress he'd ever seen. Pacino clearly thought Cazale was exaggerating, probably because he had a crush on her, until Pacino saw her himself. Of course, it was Streep, so Cazale wasn't exaggerating at all. "Pacino really loved John--he kept stopping our interview just to thank us for doing the film," says Shepard, who had a lot of help making connections with all the talent from Brett Ratner, who produced the film. "To show you how much Pacino idolized John, whenever John came to a play that Pacino was in, Pacino admits that he always ended up overacting, because he wanted to impress John so much."

Cazale impressed his directors just as much. He has relatively few lines of dialogue in "The Godfather," but Coppola is always cutting to Cazale, looking for a way to capture some of the intensity the actor brought to each scene. "The same thing happens in 'Dog Day Afternoon,' '' says Shepard. "Lumet cuts to him all the time because there's so much going on with his performance. I think the directors realized that he brought something more--some special kind of energy--that wasn't on the pages of the script. John was just the kind of actor who was so good that he made everyone around him even better."

Photo of John Cazale in "The Godfather" from Paramount Pictures