In the 1960s, aspiring actor John Cazale appeared in community theater and off-Broadway productions. To pay the rent, he also worked as a cab driver and messenger in New York City after graduating from Boston University. One day, while delivering a package at Standard Oil, Cazale met a guy named Al Pacino, who was also a struggling actor during the mid-1960s. In 1972, when Pacino landed the part of Michael Corleone in The Godfather, he urged Cazale to audition for the role of Fredo, Michael’s weak-willed brother. Fredo Corleone was Cazale’s first feature film role, and The Godfather was the first of five movies in which he appeared over the next six years, before his his acting career was cut short by his death in 1978 at age 42. Remarkably, all five of those films earned nominations for the Academy Award for Best Picture: The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather Part II, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Deer Hunter. Archival footage of Cazale was used in The Godfather Part III in 1990, which was also nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.
The short but illustrious career of John Cazale:
- Although widely recognized as one of the best actors of his generation, Cazale's only formal accolade was a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Dog Day Afternoon.
- Cazale was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1977 and his health began to deteriorate during the filming of The Deer Hunter. Producers suggested replacing him, but Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep (Cazale's girlfriend at the time) threatened to walk, so director Michael Cimino agreed to shoot his scenes first.
- Cazale died in March 1978 after the cancer metastasized to his bones, shortly after completing his scenes in The Deer Hunter. “He wasn’t like anybody I’d ever met,” said Streep, who was at his side when he passed away.