November 24th, 2000
John Cassavetes
About John Cassavetes

John Cassavetes was born in New York City on December 9th, 1929. After graduating from high school, he attended Mohawk College and Colgate University before graduating from the New York Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1950. Throughout the early 1950s he worked as an actor in films including FOURTEEN HOURS (1951) and TAXI (1953). By the late 1950s he had made a name for himself, with roles in a number of movies including 1958’s SADDLE THE WIND. His big break came with a regular role on the television series “Johnny Staccato” between 1959 and 1960.

Financing his first film with the money he had made in television, Cassavetes embarked on his directorial debut. Working from only a skeleton script, SHADOWS was an experiment in improvisational acting and directing. A low-budget sixteen millimeter production with a jazz soundtrack by Charles Mingus, the film appealed to an audience longing for less mediated art forms.

Winning five awards from the Venice Film Festival, Cassavetes found himself suddenly in the position of making higher-budget films within the studio system. In 1961 he made TOO LATE BLUES followed in 1962 by A CHILD IS WAITING, but neither had the excitement or improvisational energy of SHADOWS. Resentful of studio interference in his work, Cassavetes went back to acting, appearing in a number of films including THE KILLERS (1964), THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967), and ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968). By 1968, however, Cassavetes returned to directing, this time working independently.

FACES, a film about the difficulties in a suburban marriage, continued in the vein of SHADOWS, with a loosely drawn script and cinematography that worked in response to the improvised method of the actors. Though some found the work tedious (unscripted scenes going on far longer than Hollywood would have allowed), many realized in Cassavetes the possibility for more genuine and moving moments. After FACES, Cassavetes embarked on HUSBANDS, in which he starred with Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara. The film centered around three friends dealing with life and mortality after the death of a mutual friend.

Though neither FACES nor HUSBANDS were very popular with the mainstream moviegoing audience, both were pivotal in the integration of cinema verité traditions in future Hollywood films. This crossover of the experimental and popular was clear in Cassavetes most successful film. Though A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE (1974) was produced with a complete script, it retained much of the intuitive and spontaneous acting of Cassavetes’ earlier films. Staring Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk, the film investigated the mental illness of a woman and the disintegration of her marriage. Financed independently by the cast and crew, A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE was a popular and critical success.

Throughout the late 1970s and into the 1980s, Cassavetes continued to work as both an actor and director. He directed THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE (1976), OPENING NIGHT (1977), and the 1980 film GLORIA which again starred Gena Rowlands, and which many believe was one of her finest performances. By the time of his death in 1989, Cassavetes had directed twelve films, creating a body of work that addressed serious topics and paved the way for a more vibrant American cinema.

  • Cliff Burns

    Cassavetes was indeed an American master. His films can be unrelenting, the scrutiny he brings to bear on his living, breathing characters absolutely ruthless and unsentimental. I think it’s wrong to say that he was looking to recreate reality in his films (that’s too facile for a man of his intellect and aesthetic maturity). But his films are filled with more real MOMENTS than anyone else. Some of the scenes and exchanges within Cassavetes’ oeuvre are so intimate, there is an uncomfortable, voyeuristic sensation one experiences while watching them. “Woman on the Verge…” is an entrancing, horrifying film. Cassavetes makes us endure the anguish Gena Rowlands’ character feels every waking moment of her life. It demands its toll, its pound of flesh…and at the end of the movie (many of his movies) there is a sense of being PURGED…

  • maxine shaw ross

    Why is it so hard to understand? All he wanted to tell us was the truth.

  • Daniel Platt

    He was brilliant. However, I must say, that without the great Marlon Brando, there, is no Cassavetes, DeNiro, Pacino, or anyone whom arrived after him. Because of Brando, actors stopped acting in front of the camera, they began to behave. That, my friend is the single greatest influence in film in the last 60 years. Don’t get me wrong, John Cassavetes was willing to take huge risks, that most of his contemporaries were not willing to take. Cassavetes, learned how to be natural,as well as his improvisational skill from the great Brando.( The greatest poetic actor of any time.) Daniel Platt

  • michael mc murrough

    john is and will… always be the original independent film maker…..Sorry Sun Dance people…..But John was the Man…..and he was doing what you people are doing long before u were born..Keep up the good work

  • Rahul Talukdar

    If you have’nt hit the streets,u can’t like John Cassavetes’ works for he did’nt philosophize sitting in an armchair.

  • Sarah Greenberg

    One of the persistent myths about John Cassavetes is that he went to Colgate. He didn’t. In fact, his words read aloud in the 2000 documentary about his films, specifically state that he told his father he didn’t want to go to college–that he wanted to be an actor.

    I highly recommend that 2000 documentary, available from Netflix. Interviews are conducted with people who acted in his films. More important are the many clips. All along, you get a sense of who he was and what he was trying to do with his art. He wanted to tell the truth, to show, among other things, that human relations are more important than accumulating money. Yes, he was indeed The Man. As Peter Bogdanovitch noted in the film, John’s films grow better with age, including our own, as we grow up and older enough to appreciate them.

  • Dan Hanley

    Was always fascinated by the guy. Yes he went on to become one of the first American explorers in cinema verite, much to his credit! My main experience with him was seeing one or two shows of Johnny Staccato when I was 9 years old. Did not quite understand all that was going on in the show but I simply felt he was incredibly COOL in it. Recently I have revisited Johhny Staccato via youtube and I was correct. Completely enthralling TV from the late ’50’s. He was ahead of his time in so many ways. God bless you John Cassavetes!

  • IAN PAYNE

    I’m watching and reading ROSEMARY’S BABY [RB] again and love Cassevetes work, he’s soooo professional and real. He was the man for that part and fitted it sooo well.

    How did he get on with Polanski in that film – did they agree or disagree ? Just wondered, because it must have been hard for an indie to have to adapt to being told what to do by another director. Does anybody know ?

    Sad he is no longer with us. I have Ira Levin’s autograph on my copy of RB and it is also sad he didn’t have more input into the making of the film version of his book RB.

  • kevin wilson

    “You slob you slob” Dirty Dozen…..

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