Bruce Fretts once wrote in Entertainment Weekly that “Cazale’s devastatingly raw turn intensifies the impact of the drama’s emotional climax.” Cazale’s co-star, actor Dominic Chianese, remarked that “John could open up his heart, so it could be hurt. That’s a talent few actors have.”
John Cazale played Fredo Corleone from The Godfather and Salvatore Naturale from Dog Day Afternoon. He also starred as Stosh in The Deer Hunter and Stan in The Conversation. All these movies were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. Okay, not just because of him: Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and Gene Hackman helped too.
After graduating from high school, Cazale moved to New York City where he met his life-long friend Al Pacino. They were roommates for a while and together they started their acting careers. First, they were both cast in the play “The Indian Wants the Bronx,” and they both received the Obie Award for their performances.
Once, while playing the leading role in Israel Horovitz’s Line, Cazale was noticed by Fred Roos, a casting director who recommended Cazale to Francis Ford Coppola. In 1972 he gained fame with his feature film debut, as Fredo Corleone in The Godfather. Then in 1974, he appeared in the same role in The Godfather Part II. Meanwhile, his stage career was blossoming.
While acting in Measure for Measure, Cazale developed romantic feelings for his 27-year-old co-star Meryl Streep. They began living together soon after the premiere of the play. They were happily in love and Cazale proposed to her. However, before they could even start planning their wedding, Cazale was diagnosed with terminal bone cancer. While Cazale was ill, Streep put her career on hold to live with him in his hospital room in an effort to cheer him up.
Even though he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer before the shooting of The Deer Hunter, he remained devoted to his work and his role, encouraged and supported by Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep. When the producers of the movie wanted to replace him, De Niro and Streep threatened to walk. Michel Cimino rescheduled the shooting of the scenes so the ones with Cazale were filmed first. Cazale successfully finished all of his material, yet sadly died before the movie was finished.
Cazale’s friend Al Pacino said that “All I wanted to do was work with John for the rest of my life. He was my acting partner.” And his words referring to Streep were: “I’ve hardly ever seen a person so devoted to someone who is falling away like John was. To see her in that act of love for this man was overwhelming.”
The director of Dog Day Afternoon, Sidney Lumet, declared:
One of the things that I love about the casting of John Cazale was that he had a tremendous sadness about him. I don’t know where it came from; I don’t believe in invading the privacy of the actors that I work with, or getting into their heads. But, my God — it’s there — every shot of him. And not just in this movie, but in Godfather II also.
For his appearance in The Godfather III, Coppola used archived footage of Cazale. The film was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.