February 6, 2012

Ben Gazzara, R.I.P.

About Ben Gazzara, three memories:

First, of course, was Run For Your Life.  Now, I don't have clear memories of it - I was, after all, only five or six when it was on.  But I remember him running, always running.  And lying in the back of an ambulance.  And sitting next to someone lying in the back of an ambulance.  And that he was supposed to be dying, but he never seemed to look any different.  And that his dying didn't have anything to do with him having been in the back of the ambulance.*  But I do recall that I liked the show, even at five or six.

*And an opening title scene that looked as if it had been shot on the Bonneville Salt Flats.  But that may also have had something to do with Craig Breedlove, who was breaking the land speed record at the time, and who I watched on Wide World of Sports. 

Then there was a two-part TV movie, The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald.  This was a movie that speculated on what would have happened had Oswald not been shot by Jack Ruby but lived to stand trial.  Gazzara was the prosecuting attorney, and Lorne Greene the defense attorney.  (John Pleshette, in his pre-Knots Landing days, was Oswald, for what it's worth.)  At the time, back in 1978, I was inclined to buy into the JFK assassination conspiracies - it seemed like an exciting thing to believe in.  And that was the crux of the movie, that Oswald had been part of a conspiracy, that Gazzara was relentless in his efforts to prove Oswald's guilt, and that Greene was desperate to get his client off - without, as it happened, Oswald's cooperation.  I also remembered that Oswald was kept in a glass booth in the courtroom, ala Adolf Eichmann.  A nice historical touch, I thought, since Eichmann's trial occurred in 1961, and would have been a strong influence on an Oswald trial in 1964. 

Finally, there was an article I ran across in an old TV Guide I picked up a few years ago.  This was from near the end of Run For Your Life, and Gazzara was clearly tired of it - the endless publicity hawking, the show itself.  He struck me as not particularly likeable under the circumstances, and desperately unhappy.  He was a talented actor - everyone acknowledged that - but he was trapped by acting in an inferior medium, on an inferior product.  He ached, it seemed, to work in the less commercial projects of friends like John Cassavetes.  There was something sad about the whole thing: here he was, talented, with an opportunity that many actors would give a right arm for, and yet he was tremendously frustrated, almost like a caged animal.  And it's too bad that someone could have all that going for him and still be unhappy.*

*I know, I'm overlooking other work he did, such as Anatomy of a Murder.  Yes, he was very good in that, but when I think of that movie I'm not thinking of Gazzara, but of Jimmy Stewart.  Or Lee Remick.

I wonder, in fact, if Ben Gazzara was ever completely happy with his work.  Was his talent a blessing, or a curse?  He wanted, it seems, to do so much more with it, partly because he was considered so talented that others thought he should do more with it.  I suspect he must have eventually reached a peace with it.  His later work in the 70s with Cassavetes was his kind of work.*  He received three Tony nominations for his acting on the stage, and won an Emmy late in life for a TV movie.  But then - there's the quote from an interview with Charlie Rose in 1998.  "I won't tell you the pictures I turned down because you'll say, 'You are a fool,' and I was a fool."

For a better appreciation of Ben Gazzara's career, I think this piece by Stephen Bowie is very good.  But even if he didn't always (or even usually) get satisfaction from his work, he certainly provided some to those who watched him.  And that, all in all, is not too bad.

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