Film, Pop Culture

The Dude Who Played Fredo

Or the retarded brother in The Godfather.
That’s probably what you know him as.
“Oh, the guy with the huge forehead? The one that Mickey has whacked out on the boat? (whoops, just gave that away) The Buster Bluth of the Corleone Family? You mean, that guy?”

No. He’s not that guy.

Shame on you. He’s so much more than a big foreheaded, dead retarded brother.

He was John Cazale and he was awesome.

John Cazale had been a fascination of mine ever since I saw The Godfather when I was 15. Here was this guy acting alongside some of the best actors of the past 75 years and I had no idea who he was. Then I saw him in Dog Day Afternoon and I thought, “What the f happened to this guy?” He was in the same league as heavyweights like Pacino, Brando, and DeNiro and he just simply disappeared. He was in some of the greatest movies of the 1970’s and by many accounts, of all time. So what happened to him? I thought, “Awwww shit! This guy’s career must have taken a nosedive after the 70’s or something, because he’s toe-toe-lee M.I.A.”

Well he died.

Pretty young and horribly too.

Died right in the prime of his career, while making The Deer Hunter, a movie starring his friend Robert DeNiro, and fiancee Merly Streep. Two people who fought for him to stay on the picture as he was dying of lung cancer at the age of 42. That’s how badass John Cazale was. Hacking up blood, but still barreling through.

John Cazale was in five movies and all five were nominated for best picture. Three of them won. The Godfather, The Godfather II, The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Deer Hunter. All movies that John Cazale had supporting, but powerful roles in. Such subtlety did he bring to his performances that he simply was often forgotten. His acting was so good that he slipped behind the more larger-than-life presences that hogged the limelight.

Well, John Cazale will be forgotten no more. A new documentary titled I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazaleaims at bringing this talented actor back into the minds of moviewatchers. Short and sweet, this film interviews some of Cazale’s closest friends- Pacino, DeNiro, and Streep- talks with some of his most loyal fans- Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Rockwell, and Steve Buscemi- and dissects a body of work that ended way too soon.

John Cazale was one of those kick-ass actors with a vowel at the end of his name that came out of NY in the 1960’s. Like Pacino, who would become a dear friend, Cazale got his start on the stage, wowing audience’s with his unbelievably large forehead and amazing acting talents. It was while watching him in the award-winning play Line that the casting director for The Godfather suggested Cazale for the role of Fredo Corleone. Though not the leading brother in the movie, Cazale brought such innocence to his role as the bumbling, older but significantly less cunning brother. Mickey had the stealth, Sonny had the charm, and Fredo had the…really polyester suits. It has been said that Coppola was so impressed with Cazale’s Golden Globe nominated performance in The Godfather that he wrote a significantly larger part for him in The Godfather II.

Cazale went on to star alongside his bff Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon. The character he was portraying, Sal, was only 19 when the event took place. Cazale was 40. However, again he mo-fo’ing Svengali’d the shit out of everyone with his acting skillz and Sidney Lumet casted him in the role of someone 20 years younger than he.

Somewhere in there he also acted in Coppola’s The Conversation and like the bad film student I was, I don’t remember a thing about it.

Cazale went on to act in Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter. At this point, Cazale was dying and he didn’t look so hot. The bond company wouldn’t put up the cash to hire the dying actor but rumor is DeNiro fronted the money to get his friend on the film. The filmmakers shot Cazale’s scenes first and he passed away before shooting ended. Meryl Streep was by his side the entire time and Pacino is quoted as saying in the documentary (along the lines of), “Of all the amazing things Streep has done in her life, of all the great movies, the one thing that will always stand out most in my mind was her being by John’s side as he was dying.”

I asked a couple of friends why they thought John Cazale was one of the greatest actors of the past 50 years and this is what they said:

Me: Why is John Cazale one of the great actors of the past 50 years?
Marc: With some great actors, there’s a level of strain and effort. It never once seemed like Cazale had to try.
Levi: Unlike Hendrix or Cobain or River Phoenix, who all experienced stardom before their deaths, John Cazale pushed the boundaries of his medium not because he felt the external pressure, but the internal pressure. That’s true talent. Talent without the thought of reward.
Tommy: Jesus.
Me: That’s a good quote, but maybe elaborate.
Tommy: Ha. Sorry. That wasn’t my quote. I was just having dinner…let me think…

That asshole never got back to me. That’s how overwhelmed with the question he was. I can just picture him lying in bed, sweating, pondering the severity of this question.

That is what is so great about John Cazale. He made you stop and think. He made you think about what it means to be an actor. He made you think of what it means to be so dedicated to your craft that you die while doing it.He made you not feel so bad about being called the “Fredo” of your family.

So the next time you’re at a party, ask the crowd if they know who John Cazale was. When they say, “I have no f’ing clue”, swear at them, and then wow the living crap out of them with your knowledge of this talented forgotten actor.

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  • Reply Melanie's Randomness February 3, 2011 at 3:24 pm

    Well I'll be damned. I didn't know any of this. I'm new to the Godfather movies because I just never sat and watched them all the way through up until recently. Wow. Poor guy. I didn't know that he was engaged to Meryl Streep. What a tragic story of a great actor. If I'm asked one day about him I will definitely now know the deal. =)

    Melanie's Randomness

  • Reply j.m. neeb February 3, 2011 at 3:59 pm

    Very interesting…

    (I love the fact that you referred to him as "the Buster Bluth of the Corleone Family.")

  • Reply Big Mark 243 February 3, 2011 at 4:42 pm

    And now I know the rest of the story.

    Odd that you mention that he was often overloouoked because of the greater star surrounding him. He is the most memorable character from 'Dog Day…' in my mind (and mine alone).

    Meryl Streep standing by his side… man, what is there to say about that? Makes me feel better about the world at large to know that the kind of love she displayed for John does exist and the possiblity that you, me or the other person may yet find it, you know?

  • Reply Scribbler February 3, 2011 at 6:47 pm

    You and some other hot chick should be the new Roger and Ebert. Except without sucking.

    What film school did you go to?

  • Reply Hipstercrite February 3, 2011 at 7:11 pm

    @Melanie- Oh man, aren't those movies AMAZING? It's like curling up to a good book you don't want to finish!

    @J.M.- Seriously! He's like the Buster and the Gob. Buster in that he's kind of dumb, Gob in that he's the older brother who Mikey Corleone/Michael Bluth can't trust to run the family business.

    @Big Mark 243- Yes, their love story seemed like a sweet one. Meryl Streep was very stoic discussing him in the documentary. Pacino gave the impression that they were crazy about each other and had a lot of chemistry onstage. So sad.

    @Scribbler- Hahahah! Thank you? !
    I went to the Park School of Communications at Ithaca College.

  • Reply Benny February 3, 2011 at 7:42 pm

    I was about to say that he's not that forgotten. Then I realized that the reason I thought that was because I grew up reading movie blogs (back when everything was just called a website) in the '90s. Among the other 97% of the population, he's not so known. Hopefully this post will at least knock that figure down to 95% :-).

  • Reply theTsaritsa February 3, 2011 at 10:59 pm

    "I'm smart! Not like everybody says… like dumb… I'm smart and I want respect!"

    I love Fredo. The Godfather movies (one and two) are definitely in my top ten faves of all time. I also just recently watched Dog Day Afternoon and was surprised he was in it, but not in any other movies. I didn't know he died, that's a pity. He was great.

  • Reply Scott Tammaro February 4, 2011 at 10:18 am

    I dug reading this.

    I loved him in "Dog Day Afternoon"

  • Reply Christopher February 4, 2011 at 6:26 pm

    An incredible talent. I really had no idea what happened to him either until now. I've seen all of his movies except The Conversation and he is brilliant in all of them. I think I need to hit Netflix up.

  • Reply MeanDonnaJean February 11, 2011 at 9:58 pm

    Wow! Dog Day Afternoon, The Deer Hunter AND The Godfather, all together and all in one place at the very same time! Those are 3 fantastic movies that just so happen to be 3 of MDJ's faves….so whadda great blog visit THIS was for me. Thanx!

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