An actor’s dream is to be cast in a great film and have their role and the movie recognized and celebrated. Icons in the industry that can boast about portraying legendary characters in revered films include Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Al Pacino as Michael Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, in which Pacino starred alongside another icon, Marlon Brando. These legends of the screen have achieved what few have only dreamed of. However, there is one actor who had a short yet fantastic career in which all five films he starred in were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. John Cazale is famous for his roles in The Godfather (1972), The Conversation (1974), The Godfather Part II (1974), Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and The Deer Hunter (1978). Each of these films Cazale starred in was nominated for Best Picture. It was an incredible run of films of which he was a part.
Cazale was born in Revere, Massachusetts, in 1935. He studied drama at Oberlin College in Ohio, transferring to Boston University, where he studied acting. After graduating, Cazale moved to New York City to pursue a theatre career. He quickly became a talented actor, appearing in off-Broadway productions like The Indian Wants the Bronx and The Line.
In 1972, Cazale made his film debut in Coppola’s The Godfather. He played Fredo Corleone, the youngest son of the Corleone family. Cazale’s role was small, but it left a lasting impression on director Francis Ford Coppola and Cazale’s colleagues, especially Al Pacino.
In 1974, Cazale reunited with Coppola for The Conversation. He played Stan, a surveillance expert. Critics again praised Cazale’s performance.
Later that year, Cazale appeared in The Godfather Part II. He reprised his role as Fredo Corleone. Francis Ford Coppola expanded Fredo’s role in the second film, and Cazale’s performance was even more impressive than in the first film.
In 1975, Cazale starred in Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon alongside his friend Al Pacino, who plays Sonny Wortzik, a bank robber who takes hostages to raise money for his boyfriend’s sex reassignment surgery. Sonny’s friend in the film is Sal Naturile, played by Cazale. For his portrayal of Sal, Cazale was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor.
The Deer Hunter (1978) was Cazale’s last film in which he starred alongside his real-life romantic partner Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and John Savage. The actor was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1977 but continued to work on the film, which was released after his death.
John Cazale was praised for his work by Al Pacino, who lamented after the actor’s death that all he wanted to do was work alongside Cazale. Unfortunately, John died so young and didn’t appear in more films. The actor is less well-known than his co-stars like Streep, De Niro and Pacino but had a marked impact on later generations of actors—famous contemporary actors like Michael Fassbender, Sam Rockwell, Steve Buscemi and the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman. All these cited Cazale as a significant influence on their work.
John Cazale’s star burnt bright and has a record that few actors can match. His starring roles in five consecutive Best Picture films are a testament to Cazale’s talents and integrity as an actor. Meryl Streep noted after his death that John was such a dedicated actor on set that he forced everyone to raise their bar in imitating his dedication and commitment to his craft.