Ben Gazzara, an intense actor whose long career included playing Brick in the original "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" on Broadway, roles in influential films by John Cassavetes and work with several generations of top Hollywood directors, died Friday in New York City. He was 81.
He died of pancreatic cancer at Bellevue Hospital Center, his lawyer, Jay Julien, said.
Mr. Gazzara studied with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio in Manhattan, where the careers of stars such as Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger were shaped, and like them he had a visceral presence. It earned him regular work across half a century, not only onstage -- his last Broadway appearance was in the revival of "Awake and Sing!" in 2006 -- but in dozens of movies and all sorts of television shows, including the starring role in the 1960s series "Run for Your Life."
If Mr. Gazzara never achieved Brando's stature, that was partly because of a certain laissez-faire approach to his career: an early suspicion of film, a reluctance to go after desirable roles.
"When I became hot, so to speak, in the theater, I got a lot of offers," he said in a 1998 interview on "Charlie Rose." "I won't tell you the pictures I turned down because you would say, 'You are a fool.' And I was a fool."
And yet Mr. Gazzara's enduring reputation may well rest on his film work, specifically the movies he made with Cassavetes, the actor and director revered by cinephiles for his risk-taking independent projects and a directorial style that encouraged spontaneity.
The two had had bit parts in the 1969 comedy "If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium," but it was in "Husbands" (1970), directed by Cassavetes, that they, along with Peter Falk, really made an impression as unhappily married men out for a drunken night on the town together. As Mr. Gazzara wrote in his autobiography, "In the Moment" (2004), the on-camera camaraderie was so convincing that people assumed the three men had been lifelong friends; in fact they had barely known one another when the filming began, although they became friends during it.
Mr. Gazzara's most important role for Cassavetes was in "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie" (1976), in which he played a strip-club owner in debt to the mob. "It's a thoughtful, intelligent interpretation of a role that just may not have as much depth to it as he's ready to give it," Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote of Mr. Gazzara's performance.
In 1977, Mr. Gazzara had a supporting role behind Cassavetes and his wife, Gena Rowlands, in the backstage story "Opening Night," with Cassavetes again directing. Speaking of Cassavetes recently, Mr. Gazzara said, "He set the climate for an actor to feel free to give whatever, and if it didn't work, it didn't work." Cassavetes died in 1989.
Mr. Gazzara worked with numerous other notable directors, among them Otto Preminger, whose courtroom drama "Anatomy of a Murder" (1959) featured Mr. Gazzara as a military man who is tried for killing his wife's rapist and defended by James Stewart's small-town lawyer. In David Mamet's 1997 film, "The Spanish Prisoner," he played the possibly duplicitous boss of an inventor who has come up with a valuable idea. Wearing a slick white suit, he was a producer of pornographic movies in the Coen brothers' "Big Lebowski" in 1998. In Spike Lee's "Summer of Sam" in 1999, he was a mobster.
Mr. Gazzara had parallel careers on the stage and in television. His first significant stage role was as a two-faced bully named Jocko in "End as a Man," about life in a Southern military academy. Developed at the Actors Studio, it opened on Broadway in 1953. "Jocko is attractive, clever and alert on the surface but evil at the core," Brooks Atkinson wrote in The Times, "and Gazzara's acting perfectly expresses this ambivalence."
Then, in March 1955, came "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," in which he played the alcoholic son Brick to Burl Ives' Big Daddy in the Tennessee Williams classic, with Barbara Bel Geddes as Maggie. Elia Kazan directed. The play ran until November 1956, but Mr. Gazzara left the cast early to take another Broadway role, in "A Hatful of Rain," which opened in fall 1955. He played a dope addict named Johnny Pope, and the performance earned Mr. Gazzara a Tony Award nomination.
But his next Broadway venture, "The Night Circus," closed in less than a week in 1958, and he did not return to Broadway until a revival of Eugene O'Neill's "Strange Interlude" in 1963. His other Broadway work included a 1976 production of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" opposite Colleen Dewhurst, which earned him another Tony nomination, as did his dual roles in a 1975 double bill of O'Neill's "Hughie" and David Scott Milton's "Duet."
Mr. Gazzara also acted in off-Broadway and regional productions, among them "Nobody Don't Like Yogi," a one-man show about baseball player Yogi Berra, which Mr. Gazzara began performing in 2003 and took all over the country for two years.
He was a familiar presence on television. "Run for Your Life," in which he played a terminally ill man, was seen on NBC from 1965 to 1968, earning him two Emmy nominations. He was nominated again for his role as the father of a young man with AIDS in the 1985 television movie "An Early Frost"; his old friend Ms. Rowlands played his wife. He won a supporting-actor Emmy for his work in the 2002 HBO film "Hysterical Blindness," playing the romantic interest of a character again played by Ms. Rowlands.
Mr. Gazzara was born Biagio Anthony Gazzara in New York on Aug. 28, 1930, the son of Antonio Gazzara, a laborer who did carpentry and laid bricks, and the former Angela Cusumano. Both his parents had emigrated from Italy, and they often spoke Italian at home, giving Mr. Gazzara a language skill that served him well when he began making films there. He grew up in a building where, he wrote in his autobiography, he slept on the fire escape in summer and occasionally heard screams from the patients at Bellevue psychiatric hospital.
Around age 11 he saw a friend act in a play at the Madison Square Boys Club and was bitten by the acting bug. He performed in shows there and, when he was older, found his way to the Dramatic Workshop.
Mr. Gazzara was treated for oral cancer in 1999, but he said his bigger health battle was against depression, lasting on and off for decades. In a 2005 appearance before a group of mental health professionals, he recalled dealing with the condition 25 years earlier while shooting "They All Laughed."
"I was in a depression during the whole shooting, and I was terrific in that film," he said. "And I don't remember doing it."
First Published February 4, 2012 5:00 AM