Thesp known for intense roles, association with Cassavetes

Ben Gazzara, the actor known for his intensity and for his work with helmer John Cassavetes, died Friday in Gotham. He was 81.

His long career stretched from the New York stage to live TV in the 1950s to a long list of character roles in features. Gazzara was part of the group of influential actors, including Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger, who studied thesping technique with Lee Strasberg at the famed Actors Studio.

He was known for his close association, personally and professionally, with Cassavetes and Peter Falk. Among Gazzara’s most prominent film roles were the Cassavetes-helmed “Husbands” (1970), “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” (1976) and “Opening Night” (1977). He co-starred in numerous projects with Gena Rowlands, who was married to Cassavetes, including the 2002 HBO telepic “Hysterical Blindness,” which earned Gazzara an Emmy Award. He had been nominated for Emmys three times before.

Gazzara starred in the 1965-68 NBC drama “Run for Your Life,” in which he played a man with an incurable disease who travels to the world. He directed several segs of the series, and he also directed two mid-1970s installments of Falk’s long-running drama “Columbo.”

Onstage, the Gotham native made his mark in 1955 in the Broadway productions of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “A Hatful of Rain,” originating the role of Brick in the former and drawing his first Tony nomination for the latter. The actor, who maintained a presence in the legit world on and off throughout his career, also drew Tony noms in 1975 for “Hughie/Duet” and in 1977 for a revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” In 2003 he appeared in the one-man show “Nobody Don’t Like Yogi,” based on baseball legend Yogi Berra.

Gazzara’s other notable film roles included “Anatomy of a Murder” (1959), “Capone” (1975), “Saint Jack” (1979), “They All Laughed” (1981), “Inchon” (1981), “Road House” (1989), “The Big Lebowski” (1998) and “Summer of Sam” (1999).

Born Biagio Anthony Gazzara in New York, he grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in a cold-water flat with a bathtub in the kitchen. His parents were immigrants from Sicily who met and married in New York, and his first language was Italian.

He entered Erwin Piscator’s Dramatic Workshop in 1948. Eighteen months later he auditioned for the Actors Studio run by Lee Strasberg and was accepted.

Gazzara’s first two marriages, to actresses Louise Erikson and Janice Rule, ended in divorce.

He is survived by his third wife, the German-born Elke Krivat; daughter Elizabeth; Krivat’s daughter Danja, whom he adopted; and a brother.

(Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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