Editing Ben Gazzara
Author: Donald Weise
February 26, 2014
Acclaimed actor Ben Gazzara died two years ago this month. Magnus Books editor Don Weise recalls working with Gazzara on his memoirs and reflects on the actor’s substantial legacy.
“Darling, stop being a cocktease and send me your goddamn edits.” No, this wasn’t Truman Capote phoning. It was movie tough-guy Ben Gazzara eager to get started on the rewrite of his memoirs, In the Moment (Carroll & Graf). Of all the projects I’ve been involved with, this one was my happiest and most memorable. On first glance (even the second and third) I might have seemed an odd match for a macho, free-wheeling character like Ben. I was known for publishing LGBT titles, a lot of it fiction. Yet here was an actor writing about his storied fifty-plus-year career on stage and screen, best-known for playing he-man roles: an abusive husband, a heroin addict, strip club owner, a porn producer, assorted gangsters, Charles Bukowski, a sadistic closet case, and a homophobic father whose gay son is dying of AIDS. Not exactly guys from my neck of the woods, still I love each of these performances. One of Ben’s gifts as an actor was being able to humanize difficult and sometimes violent men. Did that appeal to me as a gay man? I don’t know, but I felt certain that any actor capable of delivering one mesmerizing performance after the next was capable of delivering a knock out memoir.
I heard about the book from my boss, a show business fan of the first-order like me, who said he’d been sent Ben’s memoirs. Excited, I asked, “You’re going to take it, right?” He said the book needed work. I was ready to acquire it myself sight unseen, I told him, even volunteering to ghost write material if needed. (It wasn’t.) Apart from the opportunity to work with this legendary actor, I knew the memoirs would talk about his working with Elia Kazan, Lee Strasberg, Cheryl Crawford, Tennessee Williams, Otto Preminger, James Stewart, John Cassavettes, and Gena Rowlands, to name only a handful of celebrities from just the first half of his career. “If Ben is even a tenth as good a writer as he is an actor,” I said, “the book will be amazing.” It wasn’t as if my boss needed arm-twisting—he admired Ben as much as I did and saw the book’s potential, too.
I’d been a fan of Ben’s since college, when UCLA hosted a John Cassavettes film festival. Several of Cassavettes’ closest associates, including screenwriter Elaine May, actor Seymour Cassel, and Ben, were invited to open the three-day campus event. Truthfully, I loved comedian Elaine May and went specifically to see her in person, but I found myself unexpectedly captivated by clips shown that afternoon from Husbands, Opening Night, and Killing of a Chinese Bookie—all of which Ben starred in. I’d never seen such raw and unconventional filmmaking before (not always easy to watch, either, I’d discover later), so decided I had to come back and see these movies in their entirety. After the event was over, Ben passed me on the sidewalk outside the theater; for such a big guy on screen—yelling, falling down, slapping women around, laughing in drunken hysterics, blowing up at strangers—he appeared surprisingly small and refined. That was my first glimpse of the real man who lived behind those tough guy roles.
The next glimpse came fifteen years later when I was assigned as Ben’s editor. By way of introduction he arranged for me to come see the one-man show he was performing on Broadway. Afterwards, he’d said, we’d go across the street to the bar to talk about the book—proof that from the start of our friendship any meeting with Ben involved drinking. Although I’d watched more of his movies by now (The Big Lebowski, Happiness, and Dogville, among his more recent), I’d never seen him in a stage show—much less in a one-man show where he had to carry the whole piece. As he performed a two-way dialogue in which an imaginary speaker standing before him calls his beloved son a bum, tears came into Ben’s eyes, his voice choked, and I realized what I’d seen in his movies was something he could call upon just like that. It was magical, really, to see a movie star, an old pro, pull out the goods as if it were nothing more than a slight of hand. I knew right then that working together was going to be a new chapter in my life.
When the show was over and the theater had emptied, Ben appeared on stage—still as small as I remembered him, but after a performance like that looking about nine feet tall—and he came down and up the aisle. He introduced himself with a handshake that was so warm and informal for someone he’d just met that I should have been surprised by his ease, but wasn’t. His best film performances for me were so authentic and natural that standing there shaking his hand, it only seemed appropriate that off screen he should also be, well…authentic and natural. And he was. Even more so at the bar, where I got my first look at what working with Ben would be like: more fun than I’ve ever had with an author.
For starters it wasn’t a manuscript we’d be working from but a “script,” as he called it, which immediately took the editorial process outside of the familiar and mundane world of publishing and into the glamorous, anything-goes, backstage worlds of theater and movies. I loved that. When I was starting out as an editor and had little book experience, my notes to authors often took their cue from screenplays: “close up here,” “reaction shot first,” “wait two beats before responding,” “slower fade out.” I’d had no formal editorial training, so for a while I turned instead to what I knew best: the language of the movies. No doubt this style bewildered authors in the beginning (“wide angle now”) but not Ben. He’d take an edit like “close up” and make the writing more immediate, delivering exactly what I was looking for. No further explanation needed; it was the language he spoke and understood fluently, and it made working together unlike anything I’d experienced.
If you know Ben’s much-respected work as an actor, you can imagine how he obviously brought to the writing process the same determined professionalism and tireless commitment that he brought to acting. Although I was fairly young at the time and didn’t possess a list of credits that would impress him, or anyone else, he still regarded me with complete respect—something I didn’t take for granted at that point of my career. As a matter of fact, Ben wanted me to push him, even if it meant restructuring the book, rethinking a chapter, rewriting a scene, discarding a scene: any feedback that strengthened the book was welcome. “What’s next?” he’d ask once he finished one task and couldn’t wait to get started on another. He loved reaching further, no matter how much work was involved, if it meant better results. I attribute this going all the way back to his beginnings at the Actors Studio in the 1950s under Kazan and also through his years working with Cassavettes in the 1970s.
It turned out that Ben’s book was in surprisingly good shape. (Well, not surprising to me; I somehow knew it would be from the start.) What he most needed was someone from the outside looking at his life and determining what would most interest readers and make the best book. Celebrities don’t always have the inside track in this respect, and Ben was no exception. A movie he remembered fondly wasn’t necessarily one best-remembered even by fans, and costars for him might simply be the people he made movies with, but to the rest of us they’re movie stars and we want to know what really happened the time that guy drove a car into the pool at that party. This was the role I played—not the guy who drove the car into the pool, but the outsider who asked questions that helped shape the book.
For someone with Ben’s long, distinguished career as an “actor’s actor” and for all the stars he’d known on screen and off, he didn’t fall easily into reminiscing about his past, at least not with me. Sometimes you had to lead him by asking questions that helped him open up. Or when he did reminisce, he’d sometimes toss off a wonderful aside that I felt was notable and wanted to know more about, especially if it belonged in the book. “Nobody cares about that anymore,” he’d protest. “Who even remembers, it was so long ago?” This said more out of modesty than any real belief that no one cared. The fact was in most cases I cared and I knew others did, too. At the same time, there were topics he conversed about readily, people and events still close to his heart after so many years, and for me these are some of the best moments in the book.
His time at the Actors Studio was among his proudest accomplishments, something he never tired of discussing, and yielded some wonderful stories—even if not all of them found their way into his memoirs. He mentioned off-handedly one night that Kazan and Strasberg gave classmate Marlon Brando (already a big breakout star) latitude unlike anyone else; for example, they allowed him to critique fellow members alongside Kazan and Strasberg themselves. I asked how that went, and Ben enacted in Brando’s manner a no-holds-barred, withering assessment of a classmate’s performance. Curious, I asked, “I know he was a huge star and the god of the Actors Studio, but didn’t anyone ever get fed up and tell him to fuck off?” Ben sat there for a moment, reaching back in his mind fifty years. “Yes,” he finally said, drawing out the word as the memory came into focus. “Once. An actress. Marlon tore apart the scene she’d just done, and when he was finished, she said, right there onstage in front of everyone, ‘Marlon, you’re full of shit.’” “Do you remember who she was?” I asked/demanded to know immediately. He thought some more and then, as if a light inside switched on, he looked up at me with a big grin. “I’ll tell you who it was: Bea Arthur.”
Another story, one he writes about differently than how he told it to me in person, takes place the morning after Kazan testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee. No one among the actors knew how to respond to their mentor’s cooperation with the Committee. Arthur Miller said they should all resign in protest from the Actors Studio. As Ben writes, “You couldn’t find one person who approved of what Kazan had done. But as upset with him as I was, I was even more scared that they would shut down the Studio. Where would I go? Where would all of us actors go?” I heard the story in a slightly different form, one truer to Ben’s voice. After Miller told them to resign, Ben said to me, “Was he crazy? Not one person was going to walk away from the Actors Studio. Being accepted into the program was almost better than landing a fucking Broadway show. We worked too hard and were so lucky to be there to give it up just like that. Nobody was prepared to throw away their career over what Kazan had done.” I prefer this second, more self-saving rendition, and if I had it to do over I would urge Ben go with that instead.
While Ben spoke openly about his Studio peers, both on the page and in conversation with me, he wasn’t prepared to disclose everything, not in his memoirs anyway. For one, I asked if James Dean, his close pal and fellow classmate, was gay as I’d heard. While he was still an unknown in New York City, Dean used to make the rounds with Ben as struggling actors: auditioning for parts, rehearsing scenes, providing mutual support and words of encouragement. One of the problems of listening to these stories with alcohol around was, depending on the volume of liquor you’ve consumed—and when I would arrive for an evening at Ben’s apartment, I was practically handed a tumbler of straight vodka the moment I walked through the door—the next day you don’t remember much. One thing I remember clearly is Ben’s clarifying that Dean never came out to him. Other than that, the only thing I took away that stayed with me was that Dean didn’t like the smell of eggplant cooking when Ben had him over for dinner. Not exactly the stuff readers of memoirs climb all over themselves to learn.
Around the same time James Dean was brought out to Hollywood to test for his first movie, East of Eden, Ben was also called there for a part. George Cukor was set to direct the film adaptation of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Ben was to reprise the role of Brick, which he had originated on Broadway to much acclaim. Ben and his agent met with Cukor and the studio brass at M-G-M, all of whom were eager to work with this new Broadway star despite the fact that none of them had seen the play. After the meeting ended, Cukor took Ben aside and led him down the hall and into an empty office. As Ben tells it, “It was dark but he didn’t turn on the lights. He sat down and started peppering me with questions about the Broadway production. He was most interested in how Kazan handled the homosexual themes that are made explicit in the play. When I told him the word was never mentioned by anyone, ever, he smiled. We talked for about fifteen minutes, and as he shook my hand, he said, ‘See you soon.’” As it turned out, Cukor didn’t direct the movie, nor did Ben star in it, replaced by Paul Newman. “Never had I been so devastated in my career,” he writes. “Would I get another chance, or was that it?”
Ben of course would get another chance, many, including acting opposite screen giant James Stewart. Watching Ben’s cool performance in the opening jail cell scene in Anatomy of a Murder, you’d never guess how nervous he really was facing off with one of his movie idols. And reading his memoirs as they were written at the time, you wouldn’t have guessed, either. I said, “Here’s an actor you grew up watching in the movies—who we all grew up watching in the movies. What’s it like doing a two-person scene with an actor that famous? Put the reader in your shoes.” So Ben reworked what he’d originally written: “James Stewart, whom I idolized as a boy, befriended me during the shooting…When he got in front of the camera, he was letter-perfect, and always knew what he was doing. His acting was so natural that if you turned your back, you couldn’t tell if it was Jimmy talking in life or Jimmy talking in the movie. I had a good-sized scene with him in the county jail where I was held awaiting trial. If your concentration has a tendency to wander—and mine did—Jimmy’s presence cured that. The manner in which he looked at you and conveyed his thoughts, carried you along. If you were to remain alive in that scene, you had to pay attention or he’d leave you behind. I wasn’t going to let that happen.” Sometimes even a little goes a long way.
But it wasn’t Ben’s work at the Hollywood studios that secured his enduring fame. It was the extraordinary movies he made outside “the system” that really established his career for all time. I’m talking about his work with writer/director/actor John Cassavetes. Cassavetes is credited by many people with launching the modern independent film movement in the 1960s with such offbeat and radical films like Faces, starring his wife Gena Rowlands. When it came to writing about Cassavetes, Ben needed no guidance from me. On seeing Faces for the first time: “I saw filmmaking of a kind that was entirely new to me. The black-and-white photography was grainy yet beautiful. I’d never seen the camera go so close and remain so long on an actor’s face. And I’d hardly ever seen an actor’s face project as many thoughts and feelings on screen. It didn’t take more than five minutes for me to realize I was watching a major piece of work. I started to get jealous. How could Cassavetes have this kind of talent? Where did it come from? Nothing seemed acted or directed or even written. It just was. I was knocked out. I have to work with this guy, I thought.” I didn’t change a word in this portion of the book, all of it written from the heart, his adoration of Cassavetes as fresh as the day in 1968 when John called out across a TV studio parking lot in L.A.: “Hey, Ben, your agent’s gonna call you. You and I are going to make a picture together.”
That picture was Husbands, and it put Cassavetes, Ben, and costar Peter Falk on the map as they’d never been before. The film’s critical success landed them on the cover of Life and on TV’s Dick Cavett Show. It was the movie Ben talked with me most about and that’s understandable if you’ve seen it. The movie tells the story of three friends who, after the funeral of their buddy, decide not to go home to their families but instead embark on a kind of road trip. Husbands is a highly unconventional and unusual movie; one that I find slow, frankly. However, at its best, it includes some of my favorite work Ben has ever done. As with his writing about watching Faces for the first time, I can’t recall contributing much to his recollections about this film or any other he made with John. Simply put, these chapters are among the most intimate in the book: Nobody needed to tell Ben what he felt about John or the work they did together.
If I made any contribution, it was to the way Ben wrote about Peter Falk. I said I had the impression that Falk didn’t relate to Cassavetes on the same mutual artistic level as did Ben; but if that were really the case, it wasn’t coming out in the book. He agreed, explaining that John almost never told an actor what to do, which made Peter crazy. He wanted and needed to be directed, but if Cassavetes tried to give direction, he’d end up never getting around to the point. “Peter would stare at him, then turn to me and say, ‘Do you understand what this man is saying?’ ‘Yeah, he wants you to go over there.’ ‘If he wants me to go over there, why doesn’t he say, ‘Go over there’?” Later, when I worked with Falk on his memoirs, too, I found him reticent about discussing the Cassavetes movies (“People want to know more about Columbo,” was his oft-repeated answer). I think Ben’s anecdote helps explain why a more in depth analysis never materialized—no matter how many times I asked. I still don’t understand how two men who contributed so much to the Cassavetes legacy, who played so well off of each other in Husbands, and whose work is widely admired could be so completely different, on both professional and personal levels. Put another way, there’s a reason this piece is devoted fondly to Ben rather than Peter.
When at long last I stopped being a cocktease and delivered my last round of edits, I was almost sad that the job was ending. Yes, we still had a book to get out and I continued to see Ben and his lovely wife, Elke (whom he left Audrey Hepburn to marry), during the months of pre-publication and after, but it wasn’t the same as working with Ben one-on-one. Now there were publicists and sales reps and booksellers and reviewers that entered the picture. In the Moment was well received, with one important critic even comparing Ben’s writing on his experiences living with clinical depression to that of William Styron’s. There were standing-room-only author appearances, lavish book parties around the country, celebratory dinners I had with the Gazzaras, and of course more drinking. If there’s a constant in this story, that’s it, from beginning to end—vodka and plenty of it.
Ben’s declining health was no secret. Still his death came as a shock to me, as I suppose it would when anyone was as vibrant and full of life as he seemed to be whenever I came around. He’d been in and out of the hospital; one stay in particular was a close call. I kept Ben and Elke in my thoughts all the time during that period, so much so that one night as I was passing a nail salon on Seventh Avenue and saw through the window a TV playing clips of Ben from the Cassavetes films, I thought, “Oh God, he died!” He hadn’t, thankfully; the clips were promotion for the just-released boxed set of Cassavetes movies. But nor did he recover to his old self. He went back into the hospital again, and I was now more concerned than I ever had been before. I wrote him a get-well letter (if you can call it that when someone is diagnosed with cancer) that I asked his wife to take to the hospital with his mail. In that letter I said how much working with him meant to me, that I thought he was a “gent” (the one word I most associate with Ben), and that, in effect, if there were a way for my own father to switch places with him I’d go along, such were my feelings for each man. According to Elke, Ben was reading the letter when Jon Voight arrived for a visit; he’d just made a TV movie with Ben about the Pope. Ben handed Voight the letter, which he read and then asked Ben, “What do you think he means about his father?” “I think it means he doesn’t like him.” Whenever I think of this moment in the hospital I picture Ben laughing on that last line because he would have found the self-dramatics funny.
As soon as Ben’s health had stabilized, the Gazzaras flew to their second home in Tuscany for many months and we didn’t communicate the whole time. That was nothing new. They spent summers there, and we typically lost touch until they returned to New York in the fall. This time, however, I didn’t hear from them until December, when we made plans to meet for a drink in the New Year. I was in a café one afternoon when Ben phoned. I should have guessed something was amiss because his wife was the one who always called. He began by apologizing for having to cancel our plans to meet the following week, adding that there was nothing more that could be done. I said I understood, the holidays were a hectic period anyway. I suggested meeting another time. Ben handed Elke the phone and her sobs told me even before she could get out the words that something was seriously wrong. She said through tears that this was the end for Ben. He’d been fighting pancreatic cancer for months, they’d tried everything, seen everyone, and there was nothing left to do. I did the best I could to be a comfort to her.
I found out Ben had died when Edmund White and his partner Michael Carroll called to offer condolences, saying they’d seen the news. In that instant I didn’t know what felt more surreal: the fact that Ben had died or that I’d become someone you called when you heard Ben had died. Later that day, I thought back to when I saw Ben in person for the first time and how over the years that actor on the screen who had mesmerized me as a college student had become my author, friend, and drinking companion. I don’t know which of the three is the most unlikely, but never could I have guessed back then that someday I would be even one of those things to him. As with the death of any star, the obituaries started to appear, the memorials and tributes began, only I didn’t need to read or watch any of them: I already knew Ben’s story arc; I was his editor after all.
Looking back now at that afternoon at UCLA, standing outside the theater after the opening of the Cassavettes festival, I imagine stopping Ben and, at the risk of sounding like a crazy person, saying: “You don’t know me, Mr. Gazzara. But in fifteen years we’ll meet in New York City. If you haven’t already started your memoirs, you will, and I’ll be your editor. When we’re not working on the book we’ll drink epic amounts of alcohol, and these will be some of the happiest nights of my life, thanks to you. We’ll come to be friends as a result. In fact I’ll know you for the rest of your life, which is to say you’ll die during my lifetime. And when it comes to the end, you’re going to be obsessed about leaving your wife behind. You’ll worry to no end that she’ll be lonely—you won’t know who will take care of her or how she’ll get by. I’m here to tell you that your friends will make certain everything is alright. So when the time comes and you have so much else on your mind, you don’t have to be concerned about that. You can let go of all those worries and be at peace. I promise.” I picture Ben, wide-eyed as he absorbs all of what I’ve just told him, not saying a word, just nodding his head as he considers whether I’m nuts or somehow for real. Finally he says, with a bittersweet smile and in that movie tough-guy voice I can still hear, “Well, whaddya know about that? I guess I better enjoy myself while it lasts, then.” His answer won’t tell me whether or not he’s taken me seriously, but knowing Ben I’ll guess he’s laying even money either way.