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Celebrating the unsung brilliance of John Cazale

If you’ve never heard of John Cazale, let me ask you if you’ve ever heard of THE DEER HUNTER, THE CONVERSATION, DOG DAY AFTERNOON or THE GODFATHER I and II? Each film was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award and starred actors like Al Pacino, Gene Hackman and Robert DeNiro, all of whom realize the thanks they owe Cazale for playing his smaller roles so well that he boosted the performance of every actor he worked with, not to mention the films themselves. No matter the size of his role, Cazale was a perfectionist. He was called Mr. 20 Questions on set because he wanted to know every last detail about the characters he portrayed. Seldom playing off the cuff, Cazale thought deeply about all the possible ways to act out a scene, and then chose the best approach. It’s this commitment to the craft that makes his characters ring true and elicit our sympathy, even when we know he’s a shifty, shady rat of a guy.

“Every actor I’ve ever met has wanted to be the cool guy. If you were casting THE GODFATHER right now, every great actor would want to play Sonny Corleone or Michael Corleone. Nobody would want to play the older brother who wasn’t smart. And so his brilliance was really about being fearless and wanting to be vulnerable, to show weakness. And he was really there to service the other actors. He was a selfless guy, as an actor he didn’t think it was all about him.” (Brett Ratner)

Richard Shepard’s 39-minute documentary, I KNEW IT WAS YOU, which premiered on HBO last year, is being release today on DVD. In it are interviews with Pacino, DeNiro, Hackman, directors Francis Ford Coppola and Sidney Lumet as well as his former girlfriend, Meryl Streep, who was devoted to him throughout his struggle with lung cancer. Also featured are admirers Steve Buscemi, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Sam Rockwell, all of whom revere Cazale as a master of the craft, not a player of side roles.