Manhattan-born theater and movie character actor Ben Gazzara died Friday night in New York. He was 81. The cause was pancreatic cancer, according to his lawyer, Jay Julien.
Gazzara, a respected theater actor who studied under Lee Strasburg at the Actors Studio, is best known for minor movie roles he played as tough guys, pornographers and degenerates in the 1980s and 90s.
Notably he played the part of Brick in the original 1955 Broadway production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
The role of the alcoholic son of a Southern cotton-planter was later made famous by Gazzara’s fellow Actors Studio disciple, Paul Newman.
Born Biagio Anthony Gazzara in 1930 to Sicilian parents on the lower East Side, he got his first paying acting gig in 1952, on the live show called “Danger,” directed by Sidney Lumet.
In 1956, he played drug addict Johnny Pope in the Broadway play “A Hatful of Rain” for which he was nominated for a Tony Award.
He was courted by Hollywood after his early stage success, but turned down most of the roles.
“I was very stupid,” he told Denis Hamill in a 1999 interview. “I won't mention the things I turned down. It was the idealism of youth. I started in the theater and did plays that were enormously successful. I thought, ‘Look how easy this is. It'll never end.’ So when they offered me pictures, I said, ‘No, no, no. It might taint my artistic soul.’ But the truth is that I was afraid. I didn't think I was ready to handle Hollywood. So I turned down things I shouldn't have turned down and they got mad. And stopped calling. And then the plays stopped becoming so easily successful.”
He finally gave in to Hollywood in the mid-1960s for financial more than artistic reasons and joined the cast of “Run for Your Life,” which earned him two Emmy Nominations and three Golden Globes.
“I hated it,” he told the News years later. “The repetition. So predictable I could almost do the next show without reading the script.”
After the series ended be began the most productive collaboration of his career with director John Cassavetes, most notably on the 1976 movie “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie.” He played a California strip club owner coerced into killing off a bookmaker to pay off a mob debt.
Gazzara’s later career consisted of minor, but memorable, roles playing pornographer Jackie Treehorn in “The Big Lebowski” (1998), foil to Patrick Swayze in “Roadhouse” (1981) and a Bronx mob boss in “Summer of Sam” (1999).
His worked slowed down after 1999, when he was diagnosed with throat cancer.
Gazzara is survived by his wife Elke, brother Anthony and daughter Elizabeth.
Julien said the funeral would be private. No memorial service has been planne.