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.
The inclusion of “The Merchant of Venice” amongst Shakespeare’s comedies has often puzzled scholars. The overriding themes of revenge, hatred and punishment leave little room for the bawdiness and levity that marks the bard’s better known comedic works like “Twelfth Night,” “As You Like It,” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” But those puzzled scholars need only look to director Daniel Sullivan’s take on “Merchant” to find the humor absent from nearly all other productions.