John Cassavetes

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John Cassavetes
John Cassavetes Johnny Staccato 1959.jpg
Cassavetes as Johnny Staccato (1959)
John Nicholas Cassavetes

(1929-12-09)December 9, 1929
DiedFebruary 3, 1989(1989-02-03) (aged 59)
Resting place Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery
Education Blair Academy
Alma mater American Academy of Dramatic Arts
  • Actor
  • filmmaker
Years active1951–1989
(m. 1954)
Parent(s) Katherine Cassavetes

John Nicholas Cassavetes (Greek: Ιωάννης Νικόλαος Κασσαβέτης, /ˌkæsəˈvɛtz/ ; [1] December 9, 1929 – February 3, 1989) was an American actor, film director, and screenwriter. [2] First known as an actor on television and in film, Cassavetes also became a pioneer of American independent cinema, writing and directing movies financed in part with income from his acting work. [3] AllMovie called him "an iconoclastic maverick," [4] while The New Yorker suggested that he "may be the most influential American director of the last half century." [5]


As an actor, Cassavetes starred in notable Hollywood films throughout the 1950s and 1960s, including Edge of the City (1957), The Dirty Dozen (1967), and Rosemary's Baby (1968). He began his directing career with the 1959 independent feature Shadows and followed with independent productions such as Faces (1968), Husbands (1970), A Woman Under the Influence (1974), Opening Night (1977), and Love Streams (1984). He intermittently continued to work on studio projects such as Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky (1976) and his own Gloria (1980).

Cassavetes' films employed an actor-centered approach which privileged raw character examination and "small feelings" over traditional Hollywood storytelling or stylized production values. His films became associated with an improvisational, cinéma vérité aesthetic. [4] [nb 1] He collaborated frequently with a rotating group of friends, crew members, and actors, including his wife Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, and Seymour Cassel. Many of his films were shot and edited in his and Rowland's own Los Angeles home.

For his role in The Dirty Dozen, Cassavetes received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. [7] [8] As a filmmaker, he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Faces (1968) [9] [10] and the Academy Award for Best Director for A Woman Under the Influence (1974). [11] [12] The Independent Spirit Awards named the John Cassavetes Award in his honor.

Early life and education

Cassavetes was born in New York City, the son of Greek American actress Katherine Cassavetes (née Demetre), who was to be featured in some of his films, and Greek immigrant Nicholas John Cassavetes (Greek: Νικόλαος Ιωάννης Κασσαβέτης), who was born in Larissa to Aromanian (Vlach) parents from the village of Vrysochori.He had an older brother. Members of the Cassavetes family later settled in Volos and Zagora. His early years were spent with his family in Greece; when he returned at age seven, he spoke no English. [13] He was raised on Long Island, New York. He attended Port Washington High School (now known as Paul D. Schreiber Senior High School) from 1945 to 1947 and participated in Port Weekly (the school paper), Red Domino (interclass play), football, and the Port Light (yearbook).

Cassavetes attended Blair Academy in New Jersey and spent a semester at Plattsburgh, New York's Champlain College before being expelled due to his failing grades. [14] [lower-alpha 1] He spent a few weeks hitchhiking to Florida and then transferred to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, encouraged by recently enrolled friends who told him the school was "packed with girls". [17] He graduated in 1950 and met his future wife Gena Rowlands at her audition to enter the Academy [18] in 1953. They were married four months later in 1954. [19] He continued acting in the theater, took small parts in films and began working on television in anthology series, such as Alcoa Theatre .


Acting workshop

By 1956, Cassavetes had begun teaching an alternative to method acting in his own workshop—co-founded with friend Burt Lane in New York City—in which character creation, rather than backstory or narrative requirements, would serve as the basis for performance. [20] Cassavetes was particularly scornful of Lee Strasberg's Method-based Actors Studio, believing that the Method was "more a form of psychotherapy than of acting" which resulted in sentimental cliches and self-indulgent emotion. [20] In contrast to the Actors Studio's "moody, broody anguish," the Cassavetes-Lane approach held that acting should be an expression of creative joy and exuberance, with emphasis put on the character's creation of "masks" in the process of interacting with other characters. [20]

Shortly after opening the workshop, Cassavetes was invited to audition at the Actors Studio, and in response he and Lane devised a prank: they claimed to be performing a scene from a recent stage production but in fact improvised a performance on the spot, fooling an impressed Strasberg. [20] Cassavetes then fabricated a story about his financial troubles, prompting Strasberg to offer him a full scholarship to the Studio; Cassavetes promptly rejected it on the basis that Strasberg couldn't know anything about acting to have been so easily fooled by the two ruses. [20]

An improvisation exercise in the workshop inspired the idea for his writing and directorial debut, Shadows (1959; first version 1957). Cassavetes raised the funds for the production from friends and family, as well as listeners to Jean Shepherd's late-night radio talk-show Night People. His stated purpose was to make a film about modest-income “little people”, unlike Hollywood studio productions, which focused on stories about wealthy people. Cassavetes was unable to gain American distribution of Shadows, but it won the Critics Award at the Venice Film Festival. European distributors later released the movie in the United States as an import. Although the box-office returns of Shadows in the United States were slight, it did gain attention from the Hollywood studios.

Television and acting jobs

Cassavetes with his wife, actress Gena Rowlands in 1959 John Cassavetes Gena Rowlands Johnny Staccato 1959.JPG
Cassavetes with his wife, actress Gena Rowlands in 1959
A still from the Edge of the City trailer John Cassavetes Edge of the City trailer 1957.jpg
A still from the Edge of the City trailer

Cassavetes played bit-parts in B pictures and in television serials, until gaining notoriety in 1955 as a vicious killer in The Night Holds Terror, and as a juvenile delinquent in the live TV drama Crime in the Streets . Cassavetes would repeat this performance in the 1956 film version. His first starring role in a feature film was Edge of the City (1957), which co-starred Sidney Poitier. He was briefly under contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and co-starred with Robert Taylor in the western Saddle the Wind , written by Rod Serling. In the late 1950s, Cassavetes guest-starred in Beverly Garland's groundbreaking crime drama, Decoy , about a New York City woman police undercover detective. Thereafter, he played Johnny Staccato, the title character in a television series about a jazz pianist who also worked as a private detective. In total he directed five episodes of the series, which also features a guest appearance by his wife Gena Rowlands. It was broadcast on NBC between September 1959 and March 1960 when it was acquired by ABC and although critically acclaimed, the series was cancelled in September 1960. Cassavetes would appear on the NBC interview program, Here's Hollywood .


In 1961 Cassavetes signed a seven-year deal with Paramount. [21] Cassavetes directed two movies for Hollywood in the early 1960s – Too Late Blues (1961) and A Child Is Waiting (1963). A Child Is Waiting (1963) starred Burt Lancaster and Judy Garland. He also starred in the CBS western series Rawhide, in the episode "Incident Near Gloomy River" (1961). In the 1963–1964 season he was cast in the ABC medical drama about psychiatry, Breaking Point . In 1964, he again co-starred with his wife, this time in an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour anthology program, and in 1965, he appeared on ABC's western series, The Legend of Jesse James . The same year he also guest-starred in the World War II series, Combat! , in the episode "S.I.W." as well as insane nuclear scientist Everett Lang in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea , season 2, episode "The Peacemaker".

Cassavetes and Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby (1968) Cassavettes Farrow.jpg
Cassavetes and Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby (1968)

With payment for his work on television, as well as a handful of film acting jobs, he was able to relocate to California and to make his subsequent films independent of any studio, as Shadows had been made. The films in which he acted with this intention include Don Siegel's The Killers (1964), the motorcycle gang movie Devil's Angels (1967), The Dirty Dozen (1967), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968), and The Fury (1978). Cassavetes portrayed the murderer in a 1972 episode of the TV crime series Columbo , titled "Étude in Black". Cassavetes and series star Peter Falk had previously starred together in the 1969 mob action thriller Machine Gun McCain .

Faces International films

Faces (1968) was the second film to be both directed and independently financed by Cassavetes. The film starred his wife Gena Rowlands, whom he had married during his struggling actor days, John Marley, Seymour Cassel and Val Avery, as well as several first time actors, such as lead actress Lynn Carlin. It depicts the slow disintegration of a contemporary marriage. The film reportedly took three years to make, and was made largely in the Cassavetes home. Faces was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Original Screenplay, [22] Best Supporting Actor, [23] and Best Supporting Actress. [24] Around this time, Cassavetes formed "Faces International" as a distribution company to handle all of his films.


In 1970, Cassavetes directed and acted in Husbands , with actors Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara. They played a trio of married men on a spree in New York and London after the funeral of one of their best friends. [25] Cassavetes stated this was a personal film for him; his older brother died at the age of 30. [26]

Minnie and Moskowitz (1971), about two unlikely lovers, featured Rowlands and Cassel. A Woman Under the Influence (1974) stars Rowlands as an increasingly troubled housewife. Rowlands received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, while Cassavetes was nominated for Best Director. [27] In The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), Gazzara plays a small-time strip-club owner with an out-of-control gambling habit, pressured by mobsters to commit a murder to pay off his debt.

Opening Night (1977) Rowlands plays the lead alongside Cassavetes and the film also stars Gazzara and Joan Blondell. Rowlands portrays an aging film star named Myrtle Gordon working in the theater and suffering a personal crisis. Alone and unloved by her colleagues, in fear of aging and always removed from others due to her stardom, she succumbs to alcohol and hallucinations after witnessing the accidental death of a young fan. Ultimately, Gordon fights through it all delivering the performance of her life in a play. Rowlands won the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the 28th Berlin International Film Festival for her performance. [28]


Cassavetes directed the film Gloria (1980), featuring Rowlands as a Mob moll who tries to protect an orphan boy whom the Mob wants to kill. Rowlands earned another Best Actress nomination for it. [29] [30] In 1982, Cassavetes starred in Paul Mazursky's Tempest, which co-starred Rowlands, Susan Sarandon, Molly Ringwald, Raúl Juliá and Vittorio Gassman.

Cassavetes penned the stage play Knives, the earliest version of which he allowed to be published in the 1978 premiere issue of On Stage, the quarterly magazine of the American Community Theatre Association, a division of the American Theatre Association. [31] The play was produced and directed as one of his Three Plays of Love and Hate at Hollywood, California's Center Theater in 1981. The trio of plays included versions of Canadian playwright Ted Allan's The Third Day Comes and Love Streams, the latter of which served as the blueprint for Cassavetes's 1984 film of the same name. [32]

Cassavetes made the Cannon Films-financed [33] [34] Love Streams (1984), which featured him as an aging playboy who suffers the overbearing affection of his recently divorced sister. It was entered into the 34th Berlin International Film Festival where it won the Golden Bear. [35] The film is often considered Cassavetes's "last film" in that it brought together many aspects of his previous films. He despised the film Big Trouble (1986), which he took over during filming from Andrew Bergman, who wrote the original screenplay. Cassavetes came to refer to the film as "The aptly titled 'Big Trouble,'" since the studio vetoed many of his decisions for the film and eventually edited most of it in a way with which Cassavetes disagreed. [36]

In January 1987, Cassavetes was facing health problems, but he wrote the three-act play Woman of Mystery and brought it to the stage in May and June at the Court Theater. [37]

Cassavetes worked during the last year of his life to produce a last film that was to be titled She's Delovely. He was in talks with Sean Penn to star, though legal and financial hurdles proved insurmountable and the project was forgotten about until after Cassavetes' death, when it was finally made as She's So Lovely , directed by his son Nick Cassavetes. [38]


Cassavetes' grave John Cassavetes grave at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Brentwood, California.JPG
Cassavetes' grave

A long-term alcoholic, [39] Cassavetes died on February 3, 1989, at the age of 59, from complications of cirrhosis of the liver. He is buried at Westwood Village Memorial Park cemetery in Los Angeles.

At the time of his death, Cassavetes had amassed a collection of more than 40 unproduced screenplays, as well as a novel, Husbands. [40] He also left three unproduced plays: Sweet Talk, Entrances and Exits and Begin the Beguine. But Begin the Beguine, in German translation, was co-produced by Needcompany of Belgium and Burgtheater of Vienna; it premiered on stage at Vienna's Akademietheater in 2014. [41] [42]


Cassavetes is the subject of several biographies. Cassavetes on Cassavetes is a collection of interviews collected or conducted by Boston University film scholar Ray Carney, in which the filmmaker recalled his experiences, influences and outlook on the film industry. In the Oscar 2005 edition of Vanity Fair , one article features a tribute to Cassavetes by three members of his stock company, Rowlands, Ben Gazzara and Peter Falk.

Many of Cassavetes' films are owned by Faces Distribution, a company overseen by Gena Rowlands and Julian Schlossberg, distributed by Jumer Films (Schlossberg's own company), with additional sales and distribution by Janus Films. In September 2004, The Criterion Collection produced a Region 1 DVD box set of his five independent films: Shadows, Faces, A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Opening Night. Also featured in the set is a documentary about the life and works of Cassavetes, A Constant Forge, a booklet featuring critical assessments of the director's work and tributes by old friends. Criterion released a Blu-ray version of the set in October 2013. In 2005, a box set of the same films was released in Region 2 by Optimum Releasing. The Optimum DVD of Shadows has a voice-over commentary by Seymour Cassel. Then, in 2014, the Faces/Jumer library became the property of Shout! Factory, which acquired the films' holding parent company, Westchester Films.

Cassavetes' son Nick Cassavetes followed in his father's footsteps as an actor and director. In 1997, Nick Cassavetes made the film She's So Lovely from the She's Delovely screenplay his father had written. The film starred Sean Penn, as John Cassavetes had wanted. Alexandra Cassavetes directed the documentary Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession in 2004, and in 2006 served as 2nd Unit Director on her brother Nick's film, Alpha Dog . Cassavetes's younger daughter Zoe Cassavetes wrote and directed the 2007 film Broken English , featuring Rowlands and Parker Posey.

The New Yorker wrote that Cassavetes "may be the most influential American director of the last half century"—this in announcing that all the films he directed, plus others he acted in, were being screened in a retrospective tribute at the Brooklyn Academy of Music throughout July 2013. [5]

The Independent Spirit Awards named one of their categories after Cassavetes, the Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award.

A one-person show about John Cassavetes titled Independent [43] premiered at Essential Theatre in Atlanta in August 2017. The play was written by John D. Babcock III and starred actor Dan Triandiflou as Cassavetes.

The song "What's Yr Take on Cassavetes?" by the band Le Tigre is about John Cassavetes and questions whether he can be considered a feminist. [44]

The song "Cassavetes" by the band Fugazi parallels John Cassavetes' independence from the film industry with the band's own independence from the record industry. [45] In concert, singer Guy Picciotto introduced it as "a song about making your own road." [46]

Filmmaking style


Cassavetes's films aim to capture "small feelings" often repressed by Hollywood filmmaking, with emphasis placed on intimate character examination rather than plot, backstory, or stylization. [4] He often presented difficult characters whose inner desires were not easily understood, rejecting simplistic psychological or narrative explanations for their behavior. [47] Cassavetes also paid little attention to the "impressionistic cinematography, linear editing, and star-centred scene making" that are fashionable in Hollywood and art films. [48] Instead, he worked to create a comfortable and informal environment where actors felt free to experiment with their performances and go beyond acting clichés or "programmed behaviors." [49]

Cassavetes also rejected the dominance of the director's singular vision, instead believing each character must be the actor's "individual creation" and refusing to explain the characters to his actors in any significant detail. [50] He claimed that "stylistic unity drains the humanity out of a text [...] The stories of many different and potentially inarticulate people are more interesting than a contrived narrative that exists only in one articulate man's imagination." [50] He frequently filmed scenes in long, uninterrupted takes, explaining that:

The drama of the scenes comes naturally from the real passage of time lived by the actors [...] The camera isn't content to just follow the characters' words and actions. I focus in on specific gestures and mannerisms. It's from focusing on these little things — the moods, silences, pauses, or anxious moments —that the form arises. [51]

Cassavetes also said that he strove "to put [actors] in a position where they may make asses of themselves without feeling they're revealing things that will eventually be used against them." [52]

The manner in which Cassavetes employed improvisation is frequently misunderstood: with the exception of the original version of Shadows, his films were tightly scripted. [6] However, he allowed actors to interpret characters in their own way, and often rewrote scripts based on the results of rehearsals and performances. [6] He explained that "I believe in improvising on the basis of the written word and not on undisciplined creativity." [6]

Cassavetes said: "The hardest thing for a film-maker, or a person like me, is to find people … who really want to do something … They've got to work on a project that's theirs." [53] This method differs greatly from the 'director run' sets of big-budget Hollywood productions.

According to Marshall Fine, "Cassavetes, who provided the impetus of what would become the independent film movement in America … spent the majority of his career making his films 'off the grid' so to speak … unfettered by the commercial concerns of Hollywood. [54] To make the kind of films he wanted to make, it was essential to work in this 'communal', 'off the grid' atmosphere because Hollywood's "basis is economic rather than political or philosophical", [55] and no Hollywood executives were interested in Cassavetes's studies of human behaviour. He mortgaged his house to acquire the funds to shoot A Woman Under the Influence, instead of seeking money from an investor who might try to change the script so as to make the film more marketable.


Cassavetes was passionate about a wide range of music, from jazz to classical to rock, saying "I like all music. It makes you feel like living. Silence is death." [56]

For the soundtrack of Shadows, Cassavetes worked with jazz composer and musician Charles Mingus and Shafi Hadi to provide the score. Mingus's friend, Diane Dorr-Dorynek, described Cassavetes's approach to film-making in jazz terms:

The script formed the skeleton around which the actors might change or ad lib lines according to their response to the situation at the moment, so that each performance was slightly different. A jazz musician works in this way, using a given musical skeleton and creating out of it, building a musical whole related to a particular moment by listening to and interacting with his fellow musicians. Jazz musicians working with actors could conceivably provide audiences with some of the most moving and alive theater they have ever experienced. [57]

When asked by André S. Labarthe during the making of Faces whether he had the desire to make a musical film, Cassavetes responded he wanted to make only one musical, Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment . [58]

Cassavetes worked with Bo Harwood from 1970 to 1984 on six films in several different capacities, even though Harwood had initially only signed on to do "a little editing" for Husbands, and "a little sound editing" for Minnie and Moskowitz . Harwood composed poignant music for Cassavetes's following three films, and was also credited as "Sound" for two of them. During these projects, Harwood wrote several songs, some with Cassavetes. [59]

During his work with Cassavetes, Harwood claimed the notoriously unpredictable director preferred to use the "scratch track" version of his compositions, rather than to let Harwood refine and re-record them with an orchestra. Some of these scratch tracks were recorded in Cassavetes's office, with piano or guitar, as demos, and then eventually ended up in the final film. While this matched the raw, unpolished feel that marks most of Cassavetes's films, Harwood was sometimes surprised and embarrassed. [60]

The relationship between Harwood and Cassavetes ended amicably. When asked by documentarian Michael Ventura during the making of Cassavetes's last film Love Streams , what he had learned from working with Cassavetes, Harwood replied:

I learned a lot through John. I've done a lot of editing for him. Picture editing, sound editing, music editing, shot sound, composed score, and I've learned a lot about integrity ... I think you know what I mean. You know, thirty years from now, I can say I rode with Billy the Kid. [61]


As director

1959 Shadows British Lion Films
1961 Too Late Blues Paramount Pictures
1963 A Child Is Waiting United Artists
1968 Faces Continental Distributing
1970 Husbands Columbia Pictures
1971 Minnie and Moskowitz Universal Pictures
1974 A Woman Under the Influence Cine-Source
1976 The Killing of a Chinese Bookie Faces Distribution
1977 Opening Night
1980 Gloria Columbia Pictures
1984 Love Streams Cannon Films
1986 Big Trouble Columbia Pictures

Awards and nominations

YearAwardCategoryNominated workResultRef.
1960 Venice International Film Festival Pasinetti Award Shadows Nominated [62]
1960 British Academy Film Awards Best Film Nominated
Un AwardNominated
1967 Academy Awards Best Supporting Actor The Dirty Dozen Nominated
1968 Golden Globes Best Supporting Actor Nominated
1968 Academy Awards Best Original Screenplay Faces Nominated
1968 Venice International Film Festival Pasinetti AwardWon
Golden Lion Nominated
1969 Writers Guild of America Best Original Screenplay Nominated
1969 National Society of Film Critics Best Screenplay Won
1969 New York Film Critics Circle Best Director Nominated
1973 Writers Guild of America Best Original Screenplay Minnie and Moskowitz Nominated
1974 Academy Awards Best Director A Woman Under the Influence Nominated
1974 Golden Globe Awards Best Director Nominated
Best Screenplay Nominated
1975 Writers Guild of America Best Original Screenplay Nominated
1978 Berlin International Film Festival Golden Bear Opening Night Nominated
1980 Venice Film Festival Golden Lion Gloria Won
Honorable MentionWon
1980 Primetime Emmy Award Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or Movie Flesh & BloodNominated
1984 Berlin International Film Festival Golden Bear Love Streams Won
1986 Los Angeles Film Critics Association Lifetime Achievement AwardJohn CassavetesWon


  1. Cassavetes attended the Champlain College that began as a higher education facility for World War II veterans. [15] It operated at the former Plattsburgh Barracks from 1946 to 1953, and closed when the U.S. military reclaimed the site for use as part of Plattsburgh Air Force Base. [15] He did not attend the Champlain College that is located in Burlington, Vermont. [16]

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  1. "Martin Scorsese on John Cassavetes".
  2. Sutherland, John (June 7, 2007). "Message in a bottle". The Guardian . Archived from the original on April 19, 2014. Cassavetes was a second generation American-Greek, and he had a long and fruitful relationship with the actor Ben Gazzara – one of the first of his profession to parade his immigrant origins with an unchanged, aggressively "wop", professional name. Long before David Chase (né "de Caesare"), Cassavetes and Gazzara investigated ethnic edginess.
  3. "John + Gena: dynamite on screen and off". British Film Institute. Retrieved May 21, 2016.
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Further reading

  1. Cassavetes's use of improvisation is often misunderstood; his films were almost entirely scripted, but he neglected to dictate his actors' deliveries, allowing them to develop their own interpretations of the lines. Additionally, he frequently rewrote scripts based on rehearsals and actor suggestions. [6]