Gazzara, an Actor with “Size,” Knows How to Communicate

In the Moment: My Life as an Actor, by Ben Gazzara. Carroll and Graf, 304 pages, $26.

Ben Gazzara’s expression of sardonic bemusement came to him early, growing up on East 29th Street. It was one of those melting-pot neighborhoods which contained a brewery, a doughnut factory, a butcher, two groceries, a funeral parlor, a candy store and a Boys Club where the young Gazzara went after school—everything needed to sustain life, or tend its aftermath. Around East 29th, it paid to be alert, and Ben Gazzara has always been a watchful sort.

Psychologically, he’s an unusual actor. He presents himself in his new memoir as emotionally comfortable—not a congenital outsider. He enjoyed his neighborhood, adored his parents, didn’t become an actor to gain notice or exact revenge. Rather, he was seduced into the craft by seeing Laurette Taylor in The Glass Menagerie.

Mr. Gazzara, in fact, seems to be your basic working-class intellectual, an identity that years in the Actors Studio can’t quite disguise. One of his oldest friends is the architect Frank Gehry.

It seems to run in the family. His brother was a World War II medic who provided medical care as well as typing paper to Ezra Pound when he was interned after the war for his Fascist sympathies. “I like to think that my brother helped Pound write his masterpiece, ‘The Pisan Cantos.’”

Mr. Gazzara rose to notice as Brick in the original production of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, opposite Barbara Bel Geddes and Burl Ives. Mr. Gazzara was fond of his leading lady, but Williams didn’t think that was a good idea, considering the hostility Mr. Gazzara’s character shows her character. “If you like Maggie too much, Ben, then we have no play. If Brick likes her, we have nothing. Distance yourself from her, Ben.”

Still brooding nearly 50 years later, Mr. Gazzara feels that this bit of authorial instruction threw his performance subtly off-balance. (Likewise, director Elia Kazan seems to have been directing Mr. Gazzara as if he were James Dean, a brilliant amateur with an indefinite craft who could only play what he’d personally experienced or felt.)

Mr. Gazzara’s sense of respect for his elders, of wanting to emulate rather than rebel, means that, unlike many of his generation of actors, he loved the concision of Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper, James Stewart—the way they had of concealing the process, of never letting the acting show.

“There are a lot of very good actors today, but those guys had size” is the way he puts it. He pays tribute to the emotional generosity he found when he worked with Stewart in Anatomy of a Murder: “When he got in front of a camera, he was letter-perfect, and always knew what he was doing. His acting was so natural that if you turned your back you couldn’t tell if it was Jimmy talking in life or Jimmy talking in the movie.”

He also singles out the graciousness of the unjustly neglected Fredric March (whom I’ve always bracketed with James Mason as one of those rare actors incapable of a bad performance): “When I told [March] I had trouble concentrating when the camera was up close, he suggested I think of the camera as another piece of furniture. I started to do that and it helped a lot. When it was time for my close-ups Freddy could have gone to his trailer and waited to be called for the next scene, but he insisted on being there, off-camera, to play the scene with me. He would perform it as fully as he did for his own close-ups. That was a courtesy that not all stars were prepared to extend to younger actors.”

To judge from his memoir, Ben Gazzara is one of those people who’s most alive when he’s working (a characteristic common to artists). The people and process involved in putting on plays like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or A Hatful of Rain and movies like Husbands are vividly characterized in a way that overwhelms the often cursory attention paid to Mr. Gazzara’s lovers (Eva Gabor, Elaine Stritch, Audrey Hepburn) and his three wives.

Certainly the way he describes Janice Rule (wife No. 2) makes her seem impossibly distant from the watchful, luminously sexy, obviously intelligent actress I remember.

Conversely, John Cassavetes—with whom he made Husbands, Opening Night and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie —is rendered with much of the precision, and all the immediacy and affection, of first love: “It was there, in that kitchen … that I realized just how much John meant to me. I’d been floundering in my life and work and he’d given me the chance to have an adventure I’d never forget. He did that again and once again. He brought more laughter into my life than anyone else ever had before, and he seemed able to read my mind. I thought I was good at hiding my feelings, but he always knew when I was down. It was always at the right time that he’d tell me how good he thought I was. That meant a lot to me.”

Mr. Gazzara has occupied the uneasy no-man’s land between character actor and lead. He never became a movie star exactly, never got the profusion of good parts that have kept, say, Gene Hackman so busy for nearly 40 years. As a result, there’s an undercurrent of mild professional dissatisfaction that runs through the book. Referring to the stage production of A Hatful of Rain, Mr. Gazzara writes: “This was only the second time that a production originating at the Actors Studio received rave reviews by the New York critics and brought commercial success. I’d starred in both of them. This fact has never gotten much notice from anyone.”

Much of the book carries the authentic sound of Mr. Gazzara’s deep, smoky voice: “Living in Italy is like having someone pour delightful drops of beauty into your soul. You have breakfast, you see a Raffaello. You have lunch, you see a Bernini. You have a cocktail, you see a Michelangelo.”

He also has a nice way of writing about acting—succinct but not casual, and always insinuating. His entry into actors’ heaven is probably guaranteed by Cassavetes’ Husbands and Peter Bogdanovich’s Saint Jack, an adaptation of the Paul Theroux novel about an oddly moral pimp that contains his finest moments as an actor. He writes, “I loved the part, but I didn’t know my character well enough—yet. He hadn’t taken over. The problem was that I was working too hard to find him. I didn’t have to chase after him; he’d come to me if I just relaxed. That meant being brave enough to keep my performance simple until I understood enough about Jack to make points, to frame moments.”

Like a Gazzara performance, In the Moment is reliable and direct, plain-spoke but communicative—and never dull.

Scott Eyman reviews books regularly for The Observer. His biography of Louis B. Mayer, Lion of Hollywood, will be published by Simon & Schuster in May.