Friday, February 10, 2012

Ben Gazzara, Al Capone, and Me

Ben Gazzara and I shared some scenes in 1975. Not that he would have remembered. Gazzara, who just died at 81, was an actor’s actor. An Actors Studio alumnus, he played Brick in the Broadway premiere of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), and was featured in A Hatful of Rain. At the movies, he was a soldier on trial for avenging his wife's rape in 1959’s Anatomy of a Murder, Later, he made several films for his compadre, John Cassavetes, starred in TV’s Run for Your Life, and scored as a slimy pornographer in The Big Lebowski.

Gazzara was once known as a picky actor, turning down plum parts in major films. I guess he wasn’t feeling quite so choosy when offered the lead role of Al Capone in a biopic for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. Capone was a co-production, so its budget was a trifle higher than usual. Roger wanted a down-and-dirty crime pic like his own 1967 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. The screenwriter for both was Howard Browne, a veteran of TV classics, like Cheyenne, Maverick, and 77 Sunset Strip. But Howard was also a former journalist nostalgic about his days covering the Chicago crime beat. I remember him in story meetings, rhapsodizing about the Windy City -- “I loved her like a woman.”

Browne’s Capone was the usual brash, crass crime boss. To me his most interesting character was Frank Nitti, portrayed as a numbers-cruncher whose larcenous deeds were at odds with his buttoned-down style. In Browne’s script, Nitti was unique among the thugs in that he dressed like an accountant and never swore. Some of that characterization went out the window, though, when the part went to Sylvester Stallone, on the strength of his work in Corman’s Death Race 2000. As Nitti, Stallone was clearly feeling his oats, adding in all the cusswords that Browne had deliberately left out. Oh well.

Roger entrusted directing duties to Steve Carver, who’d scored a solid Corman-style hit with another period film, Big Bad Mama. Steve invited me to appear in a speakeasy scene, so I showed up at an old ballroom near downtown L.A., and received flapper garb: a fairly ugly green dress and brown headband, plus garish makeup. There were scores of extras, but Steve positioned me at a roulette table, right near the door where a lawman or rival gang member (was it Dick Miller?) was about to burst in and wreak havoc. My second big moment came when Gazzara as Capone flies into a murderous rage, and someone ends up crash-landing on a craps table. I was one of the merry-makers standing around the table, reacting to the mayhem. Through multiple takes, I discovered I was reflected in a big wall-mirror that was part of the set. If I moved out of position even slightly, the shot would be ruined. Rarely have I felt so important!

Capone performed only modestly at the box office. But years later, Gazzara got another juicy Corman opportunity, playing a Singapore brothel-keeper in Saint Jack. This was a 1979 comeback film for Peter Bogdanovich, whom Roger had staked to a production deal. As Joe Dante remarked to me, “The thing about Roger is that you meet him on your way up, and if you’re not lucky you meet him again on your way down. Peter was particularly lucky because when he was on his downward spiral Roger hired him to do this picture. . . . It turned out to be a pretty good picture, and it put him back on the road.”


  1. Terrific remembrance of a great actor, Mc. Gray. I worked with Mr. Gazzara on another mob movie - the TV miniseries Love Honor and Obey: The Last Mafia Marriage, about the Bonnano crime family. He was very intense, but very professional - my biggest memory is of him on an early 90's cell phone where he constantly referred to himself as "Gazzara," as in "Tell him Gazzara says no deal!" He went on like this for several minutes, wandering around outside set. I now wonder if this was part of the Method, a way to stay in character by referring to the real him as someone else?

    I saw Capone years ago - now I'm itching to track it down to see you! As a director, I once had to position an actress so her head blocked out a man made structure in the distance as we were supposed to be on a deserted island and the rest of the shot was perfect as long as you couldn't see this tower back there, so I sympathize with both you and the positioning you were forced to endure! Ah, filmmaking!

  2. I love your memories of Ben Gazzara speaking of himself in the 3rd person, Mr. E. May he rest in peace.

  3. I've only seen several of his movies, and just revisited one of his 70s TV Movies; the creepy suspense/horror WHEN MICHAEL CALLS from 1972, which just happened to be have an early role for Michael Douglas.