Gazzara was born in New York City, the son of Italian immigrants Angelina (née Cusumano) and Antonio Gazzarra, a laborer and carpenter. Both Gazzara’s parents were of Sicilian origin, Angelina from Castrofilippo and Antonio from Canicattì, both in the province of Agrigento. Gazzara grew up in New York’s Kips Bay neighborhood; he lived on East 29th Street and participated in the drama program at Madison Square Boys and Girls Club located across the street. He attended New York City’s Stuyvesant High School, but finally graduated from Saint Simon Stock in the Bronx. Years later, he said that the discovery of his love for acting saved him from a life of crime during his teen years. He went to City College of New York to study electrical engineering. After two years, he relented. He took classes in acting at the Dramatic Workshop of The New School in New York with the influential German director Erwin Piscator and afterward joined the Actors Studio.
In 1954, Gazzara (having tweaked his original surname from “Gazzarra”) made several appearances on NBC’s legal drama Justice, based on case studies from the Legal Aid Society of New York. Gazzara starred in various Broadway productions around this time, including creating the role of Brick in Tennessee Williams’ Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1955) opposite Barbara BelGeddes, directed by Elia Kazan, although he lost out to Paul Newman when the film version was cast. He joined other Actors Studio members in the 1957 film The Strange One. Then came a high-profile performance as a soldier on trial for avenging his wife’s rape in Otto Preminger’s courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder (1959).
Gazzara became well known in several television series, beginning with Arrest and Trial, which ran from 1963 to 1964 on ABC, and the more-successful series Run for Your Life from 1965 to 1968 on NBC, in which he played a terminally ill man trying to get the most out of the last two years of his life. For his work in the series, Gazzara received two Emmy nominations for “Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series” and three Golden Globe nominations for “Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series – Drama.” Contemporary screen credits included The Young Doctors (1961), A Rage to Live (1965) and The Bridge at Remagen (1969). Gazzara told Charlie Rose in 1998 that he went from being mainly a stage actor who often would turn up his nose at film roles in the mid-1950s to, much later, a ubiquitous character actor who turned very little down. “When I became hot, so to speak, in the theater, I got a lot of offers,” he said. “I won’t tell you the pictures I turned down because you’ll say, ‘You are a fool,’ and I was a fool.”
Some of the actor’s most formidable characters were those he created with his friend John Cassavetes in the 1970s. They collaborated for the first time on Cassavetes’s film Husbands (1970), in which he appeared alongside Peter Falk and Cassavetes himself. In The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), Gazzara took the leading role of the hapless strip-joint owner, Cosmo Vitelli. A year later, he starred in yet another Cassavetes-directed movie, Opening Night, as stage director Manny Victor, who struggles with the mentally unstable star of his show, played by Cassavetes’s wife Gena Rowlands. Also during this period he appeared in the television miniseries QB VII (1974), and the films Capone (1975), Voyage of the Damned (1976), High Velocity (1976), and Saint Jack (1979).
In the 1980s, Gazzara appeared in several movies such as Inchon co-starring Laurence Olivier and Richard Roundtree, They All Laughed (directed by Peter Bogdanovich), and in a villainous role in the oft-televised Patrick Swayze film Road House, which the actor jokingly said is probably his most-watched performance. He starred with Rowlands in the critically acclaimed AIDS-themed TV movie An Early Frost (1985), for which he received his third Emmy nomination. Gazzara appeared in 38 films, many for television, in the 1990s. He worked with a number of renowned directors, such as the Coen brothers (The Big Lebowski), Spike Lee (Summer of Sam), David Mamet (The Spanish Prisoner), Walter Hugo Khouri (Forever), Todd Solondz (Happiness), John Turturro (Illuminata), and John McTiernan (The Thomas Crown Affair).
In his seventies, Gazzara continued to be active. In 2003, he was in the ensemble cast of the experimental film Dogville, directed by Lars von Trier of Denmark and starring Nicole Kidman, as well as the television film Hysterical Blindness (he received his first Emmy Award for his role). Several other projects have recently been completed or are currently in production. In 2005, he played Agostino Casaroli in the television miniseries, Pope John Paul II. He completed filming his scenes in the film The Wait in early 2012, shortly before his death.
In addition to acting, Gazzara worked as an occasional television director; his credits include the Columbo episodes A Friend in Deed (1974) and Troubled Waters (1975). Gazzara was nominated three times for the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play—in 1956 for A Hatful of Rain, in 1975 for the paired short plays Hughie and Duet, and in 1977 for a revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, opposite Colleen Dewhurst.
Gazzara married three times; to Louise Erickson (1951–57), Janice Rule (1961–1979), and German model Elke Krivat from 1982. He also disclosed a love affair with actress Audrey Hepburn. They co-starred in two of her final films, Bloodline (1979) and They All Laughed (1981). During filming of the war movie The Bridge at Remagen (1969) co-starring Gazzara and his friend Robert Vaughn, the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia. Filming was halted temporarily, and the cast and crew were detained before filming was completed in West Germany. During their departure from Czechoslovakia, Gazzara and Vaughn assisted with the escape of a Czech waitress whom they had befriended. They smuggled her to Austria in a car waved through a border crossing that had not yet been taken over by the Soviet army in its crackdown on the Prague Spring. Gazzara was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1999. On February 3, 2012, he died of pancreatic cancer at Bellevue Hospital Center in New York.
- August, 28, 1930
- New York City, New York
- February, 03, 2012
- New York City, New York
Cause of Death
- died of pancreatic cancer
- Woodlawn Cemetery
- Bronx, New York