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John Cassavetes

Cassavetes appearing as Johnny Staccato in the critically acclaimed TV series of the same name
Born John Nicholas Cassavetes
December 9, 1929(1929-12-09)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Died February 3, 1989 (aged 59)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Occupation Actor, Director, Producer, Screenwriter, Film editor
Years active 1951–1988
Spouse(s) Gena Rowlands (1954-1989, his death)

John Nicholas Cassavetes (December 9, 1929 – February 3, 1989) was a Greek-American actor, screenwriter and filmmaker. He appeared in many Hollywood films. He is most notable as an influential pioneer of independent film. He used handheld cameras and cinéma vérité style techniques in his films, but they were based on actors and screenplays and were fiction.




Early life

Cassavetes was born in New York City, the son of Katherine Cassavetes (who was to feature in some of his films) and Nicholas John Cassavetes, Greek immigrants to the U.S. His early years were spent with his family in Greece; when he returned, at the age of seven, he spoke no English.[1] He grew up on Long Island, New York. He attended Port Washington High School from 1945 to 1947, participating in Port Weekly (the school paper), Red Domino (interclass play), football, and the Port Light (yearbook). Next to his photo on page 55 of his 1947 year book is written: "'Cassy' is always ready with a wisecrack, but he does have a serious side. A 'sensational' personality. Drives his 'heap' all over." Cassavetes also attended high school at Blair Academy in New Jersey before spending a year at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York, before transferring to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. After graduating in 1950, he continued acting in the theater, took small parts in films and began working on television in anthology series such as Alcoa Theatre.

The middle years

Acting workshop and Shadows

By 1956, Cassavetes had begun teaching method acting in his own workshop in New York City. An improvisation exercise in his workshop inspired the idea for his writing and directorial debut, Shadows (1959; first version 1957). Cassavetes raised the funds for production from friends and family, as well as listeners to Jean Shepherd's late-night radio talk show Night People. His stated purpose was to make a film about little people, different from Hollywood studio productions.

Cassavetes was unable to gain American distribution of Shadows, but it won the Critics Award at the Venice Film Festival. European distributors later released the movie in the United States as an import. Although the box office of Shadows in the United States was slight, it did gain attention from the Hollywood studios.

Television and acting jobs

Cassavetes played Johnny Staccato in a late 1950s television series about a jazz pianist who also worked as a detective. It was broadcast on NBC between September 1959 and March 1960, when it was acquired by ABC. Although critically acclaimed, the series was cancelled in September 1960. Cassavetes also appeared on the NBC interview program Here's Hollywood. Cassavetes directed two movies for Hollywood in the early 1960s — Too Late Blues and A Child is Waiting. In the 1962-1963 season, Cassavetes guest-starred on the CBS anthology series, The Lloyd Bridges Show, and directed two episodes, including "A Pair of Boots", in which his friend Seymour Cassel guest starred. In the 1963-1964 season, Cassavetes appeared in Jason Evers's ABC drama about college life, Channing. That same season, he appeared in the ABC medical drama about psychiatry, Breaking Point. In 1965, he appeared on ABC's western series, The Legend of Jesse James.

It was with the payment for his work on television, as well as a handful of film acting jobs, that he was able to relocate to California and to make his subsequent films independent of any studio, as Shadows had been. The films he acted in with this intention include: Don Siegel's The Killers; the motorcycle gang movie Devil's Angels (1967); The Dirty Dozen (1967), in a role for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor; Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968), and The Fury (1978).

The Faces International films

Cassavetes life magazine cover.jpg

Faces (1968) was the second film to be both directed and independently financed by Cassavetes. The film starred Cassavetes' wife Gena Rowlands, who he had married during his struggling actor days, John Marley, Seymour Cassel and Val Avery, as well as several first time actors, such as lead actress Lynn Carlin. It depicts the slow disintegration of a contemporary marriage. The film reportedly took three years to make, was made largely in the Cassavetes home, a.Faces was nominated for three Academy Awards (Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress). Around this time, Cassavetes formed "Faces International" as a distribution company to handle all of his films.

In 1970, Cassavetes directed and acted in Husbands, with actors Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara. They played a trio of married men on a spree in New York and London after the funeral of one of their best friends. Minnie and Moskowitz (1971), about two unlikely lovers, had Rowlands with Seymour Cassel.

In 1972, Cassavetes played opposite Peter Falk again and Blythe Danner in the Columbo episode Etude in Black, playing the symphony conductor and murderer Alex Benedict.

A Woman Under the Influence (1974) stars Rowlands as an increasingly troubled housewife named Mabel. Rowlands received a Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, while Cassavetes was nominated for Best Director.

In The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), Ben Gazzara plays Cosmo Vitelli, a small-time strip-club owner with an out-of-control gambling habit, pressured by mobsters to commit a murder to pay off his debt.

Opening Night (1977) has Gena Rowlands as lead actress with Cassavetes, Ben Gazzara, and Joan Blondell. Rowlands portrays an aging film star named Myrtle Gordon working in the theater and suffering a personal crisis. Alone and unloved by her colleagues, in fear of age and always at a remove from others on account of her stardom, she succumbs to alcohol and hallucinations after witnessing the accidental death of a young fan. Ultimately, she fights through this, delivering the performance of her life in a play.

Last years

Cassavetes directed the film Gloria (1980), featuring Rowlands as a Mob moll who tries to protect an orphan boy whom the Mob wants to kill. Rowlands earned another best-actress nomination for it. In 1982, Cassavetes starred in Paul Mazursky's Tempest, which costarred Rowlands, Susan Sarandon, Molly Ringwald, and Raúl Juliá.

After receiving the prognosis from his doctor that he had six months to live, Cassavetes made Love Streams (1984) which featured himself as an aging playboy who suffers the overbearing affection of his recently divorced sister. The film is often considered Cassavetes' true "last film", in that it brought together many aspects of his previous films, and, also in that he despised the film he made afterwards. Big Trouble (1986), was taken over during filming from Andrew Bergman, who wrote the original screenplay. Cassavetes came to refer to the film as "the aptly titled 'Big Trouble'", since the studio vetoed many of his decisions for the film and eventually edited almost most of the film in a way which Cassavetes disagreed with.[2]

In January 1987, Cassavetes facing multiple health problems but having outlasted his doctor's prognosis, wrote the three-act play, Woman of Mystery, and secured it to be presented in May and June at the Court Theater, which it successfully was.[3]

Cassavetes worked during the last year of his life to produce a last film which was to be titled She's Delovely. He was in talks with Sean Penn to star, though legal and financial hurdles proved insurmountable and the project was forgotten about until after Cassavetes death, when it was finally made as She's So Lovely.[4]

Death and legacy

An alcoholic,[5] Cassavetes died from cirrhosis of the liver in 1989 at the age of 59. He was survived by Rowlands and three children (Nick, Alexandra and Zoe).

At the time of his death, Cassavetes had amassed a collection of more than forty unproduced screenplays, as well as a novel of Husbands.[6]

Cassavetes is the subject of several books about the actor/filmmakers life. Cassavetes on Cassavetes is a collection of interviews collected or conducted by Boston University film scholar Ray Carney, in which the late filmmaker recalls his experiences, influences and outlook in the film industry. In the Oscar 2005 edition of Vanity Fair magazine, one article features a tribute to Cassavetes by three members of his stock company: Rowlands, and actors Ben Gazzara and Peter Falk.

Many of John Cassavetes' films are now owned by Faces Distribution, a company overseen by Gena Rowlands and Julian Schlossberg, with Castle Hill Productions distributing.

In September 2004, The Criterion Collection produced a Region 1 DVD box set of his five independent films: Shadows, Faces, A Woman Under The Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Opening Night. Also featured in the set is a documentary about the life and works of Cassavetes called A Constant Forge, a booklet featuring critical assessments of the director's work, and tributes by old friends. In 2005, a box set of the same five films was released in Region 2 by Optimum Releasing. The Optimum DVD of Shadows has a voice-over commentary by Seymour Cassel. Mistakes about the first and second versions of the film are documented on Ray Carney's web site.[7]

Cassavetes' son, Nick Cassavetes, followed in his father's footsteps as an actor and director. In 1997, Nick Cassavetes made the film She's So Lovely from the She's Delovely screenplay his father had written. The film starred Sean Penn, as John Cassavetes had originally wanted. Alexandra Cassavetes directed the documentary, Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession in 2004 and, in 2006, served as 2nd Unit Director on her brother Nick's film Alpha Dog. John Cassavetes' younger daughter, Zoe Cassavetes, wrote and directed the 2007 film, Broken English, featuring Rowlands and Parker Posey.

Filmmaking style


Aside from presenting difficult characters whose inner desires were not easily understood, Cassavetes paid little attention to the “impressionistic cinematography, linear editing, and star-centred scene making ”[8] that are fashionable in both Hollywood and art films. Instead, he chose to shoot mostly hand held with general lighting, or documentary style, to accommodate the spontaneity of his actors.

Cassavetes was never interested in working with actors or actresses who were more concerned with their own personal images than with that of the characters whom they were portraying, which is why he rarely, if ever, had actors or actresses of note (other than Gena Rowlands who was his wife) in his films. As Cassavetes himself said, he strove “to put [actors] in a position where they may make asses of themselves without feeling they’re revealing things that will eventually be used against them.”[9]

How Cassavetes used improvisation in films is frequently misunderstood. With the exception of the original version of Shadows, his films were completely scripted. Confusion arises in part because Cassavetes allowed actors to bring their own interpretations of characters to their performances. Dialogue and action were scripted, but delivery was not.

Cassavetes's unorthodox characters reflected his similarly unconventional methodology in the making of his films. He employed mostly his friends as actors and on-set personnel, generally for little or no money guarantee and a share in the profits, if any, of the film. Both Shadows and Faces, two of his earliest films, were shot over a four-year period on week-ends and whenever funds became available.

Cassavetes once said: “The hardest thing for a film-maker, or a person like me, is to find people…who really want to do something…They’ve got to work on a project that’s theirs.”[10] This on-set methodology differs greatly from the 'director run' sets of big-budget Hollywood productions

Marshall Fine wrote: “Cassavetes, who provided the impetus of what would become the independent film movement in America…spent the majority of his career making his films ‘off the grid’ so to speak…unfettered by the commercial concerns of Hollywood.” [11] To make the kind of films he wanted to make, it was essential to work in this ‘communal,’ ‘off the grid’ atmosphere because Hollywood’s “basis is economic rather than political or philosophical,”[12] and no Hollywood executives were interested in Cassavete’s in-depth study of human behaviour. Indeed, he mortgaged his house to acquire the funds to shoot A Woman Under the Influence, instead of seeking money from an investor who might try to change the script so as to make the film more marketable.


Cassavetes was passionate about a wide range of music, from jazz to classical to rock, "I like all music. It makes you feel like living. Silence is death."[13]

For the soundtrack of Shadows, Cassavetes worked with jazz composer and musician Charles Mingus and Shafi Hadi to provide the score. Mingus's friend, Diane Dorr-Dorynek, described Cassavetes' approach to film-making in jazz terms:

"The script formed the skeleton around which the actors might change or ad lib lines according to their response to the situation at the moment, so that each performance was slightly different. A jazz musician works in this way, using a given musical skeleton and creating out of it, building a musical whole related to a particular moment by listening to and interacting with his fellow musicians. Jazz musicians working with actors could conceivably provide audiences with some of the most moving and alive theater they have ever experienced."[14]

When asked by a documentarian, during the making of Faces, whether he had the desire to make a musical film, Cassavetes responded that he wanted to make only one musical, Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment.[15]

Cassavetes worked with Bo Harwood, from 1970 to 1984, on six films in several different capacities, even though Harwood had initially only signed on to do "a little editing" for Husbands, and "a little sound editing" for Minnie and Moskowitz. Harwood composed poignant music for Cassavetes' following three films, and was also credited as "Sound" for two of them. During these projects, Harwood wrote several songs, some of which Cassavetes.[16]

During his work with Cassavetes, Harwood claimed that the notoriously unpredictable director preferred to use the "scratch track" version of his compositions, rather than to let Harwood refine and re-record them with an orchestra. Some of these scratch tracks were recorded in Cassavetes office, with piano or guitar, as demos, and then eventually ended up in the final film. While this matched the raw, unpolished feel that marks most of Cassavetes' films, Harwood was sometimes surprised and embarrassed.[17]

The relationship seems to have ended amicably. When asked by documentarian Michael Ventura, during the making of Cassavetes' last film Love Streams, what he had learned from working with Cassavetes, Harwood replied:

I learned a lot through John. I've done a lot of editing for him. Picture editing, sound editing, music editing, shot sound, composed score, and I've learned a lot about integrity...I think you know what I mean. You know, thirty years from now, I can say I rode with Billy the Kid."[18]

In popular culture

In the British comic 2000AD (prog 627, created by Alan Grant and Colin MacNeil), the death of Cassavetes was the trigger (albeit hundreds of years in the future) for Judge Dredd's disillusionment with Mega City One's fascistic social repression, and his subsequent resignation, as told in 1989's The Dead Man story arc[19].

In the Robert Crais books The Monkey's Raincoat and Stalking the Angel, the main character Elvis Cole is noted to look like John Cassavetes '20 years ago'. He also uses the name Johhny Staccato when giving his details to an apartment guard.

Washington D.C. band Fugazi recorded a tribute on 1993 record In on the Kill Taker called "Cassavetes".

Jem Cohen's film about Fugazi, 'Instrument' is dedicated to Cassavetes, as well as D. Boon of the 1980s punk rock band the Minutemen.

New York City band Le Tigre released 'What's Yr Take On Cassavetes?', on their self-titled album, featuring a debate between two individuals on the actor.

On the album The Gap (2000) by Chicago band Joan of Arc, is a song titled "John Cassavetes, Assata Shakur, and Guy Debord Walk Into a Bar.."

The season finale of Moral Orel entitled "Nature, Part 2" on July 15, 2007 was dedicated to John Cassavetes.

Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky (1976), featuring Falk and Cassavetes, was an overt homage to Cassavetes in cultural / thematic scope, cinematography, and the improvisational nature of the acting.

In the 1993 Denis Leary song "Asshole", Leary states he is going to get "The Duke" (John Wayne), John Cassavetes, Lee Marvin, Sam Peckinpah and a case of whiskey and drive down to Texas -- just for some toughness.

The Hold Steady's 2008 album Stay Positive makes various allusions to Cassavetes's Opening Night.

The lyrics to the song "Opening Night" by Motion City Soundtrack also contain references to the film. This song can be found on their Back to the Beat EP.


See also


  1. ^ Cf. Cassavetes Directs, by Michael Ventura, 2007; ISBN 10: 1-84243-228-1; p. 176.
  2. ^ Ray Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes, Macmillan, 2001: p. 501-502.
  3. ^ Ray Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes, Macmillan, 2001: p. 506..
  4. ^ Ray Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes, Macmillan, 2001: p. 508-510.
  5. ^
  6. ^ Ray Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes, Macmillan, 2001: p. 503.
  7. ^ [ A Chronology of Cassavetes–Related Events, 1979-2007: p. 4.
  8. ^ Bendedetto, Lucio. “Forging an Original Response: A Review of Cassavetes Criticism in English”, Post Script V. 11 n. 2. (Winter 1992): 101.
  9. ^ Gelmis, Joseph. "John Cassavetes”, in The Film Director as Superstar. London: Seckler & Warburg, 1971, Pg. 80.
  10. ^ Gelmis, Joseph. “John Cassavetes.” The Film Director as Superstar. London: Seckler & Warburg, 1971. Pg 79.
  11. ^ Fine, Marshall. Accidental Genius: How John Cassavetes Invented American Independent Film, Miramax Books: New York, 2005. Pg 99.
  12. ^ Powdermaker, Hortense. “Hollywood: The Dream Factory.” Little, Brown and Company: Boston, 1950. Pg 327.
  13. ^ André S. Labarthe and Hubert Knapp, Cinéaste de notre temps: John Cassavetes, 1968.
  14. ^ Diane Dorr-Dorynek, Liner notes to the Charles Mingus album, Ah Um (1959), as reprinted in Brian L. Knight's Four by Mingus.
  15. ^ , Cineaste de notre temps, 1968.
  16. ^ Ray Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes, Faber and Faber Ltd., 2001: p. 349.
  17. ^ Ray Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes, Faber and Faber Ltd., 2001: p. 349-350.
  18. ^ Michael Ventura, [Almost Not Crazy:John Cassavetes- the Man and His Work], 1984.
  19. ^ [1]

External links


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