Short but Sweet: Acting Careers Cut Short

This past week was marked with tragedy in the entertainment world. Heath Ledger’s untimely departure may be one of the most saddening and strange Hollywood deaths in recent years not only because of its unexpected nature but also the fact that Ledger had an extremely promising future ahead of him. To be fair the start of 2008 seems to have been tainted with tragic events. The overlooked passing of former child actor Brad Renfro, an equally talented actor who unfortunately made some poor choices in life, is as disturbing because one can’t help but wonder what might have happened had both these actors lived on.

Both deaths were startling, Ledger’s holding the most shock value since there were few, if any, warning signs, and seemed so unfair since the two actors were still in the process of establishing their legacies. While I was watching the news coverage of Ledger’s passing I started to think of other great actors whose promising careers were cut short and who will forever leave admirers wondering about what might have been. Ledger’s career could probably be compared best to River Phoenix, the young child star who ditched the pretty boy pop film roles in lieu of more daring performances in films like Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho or The Mosquito Coast.

Then there is the classic tale of James Dean, a rebel who died at 24, or tragic comic departures such as John Belushi and Chris Farley. Still the one tragic loss that I was reminded of and continues to be overlooked time and time again is that of one John Cazale, undoubtedly one of the finest characters actors to come out of the finest cinematic decades, the 1970s.
Cazale only made five feature films in his short career, all of which were either Oscar best picture winners or contenders, and still hold the ranks as some of the greatest American films ever made. He is probably best known for his tragic performance as the weak Corleone brother Fredo in The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, the latter featuring one of the most chilling and memorable kisses ever seen on celluloid.

Getting his start in theater, Cazale jumped onto film scene after landing the Godfather role after his longtime friend Al Pacino snagged the film’s coveted lead role. He would later work with the Godfather auteur, Francis Ford Coppola, in 1974s The Conversation, as Gene Hackman’s witty surveillance assistance. After his scene stealing performance in the second Godfather outing, Cazale shared the screen yet again with Pacino in Sidney Lumet’s masterpiece, Dog Day Afternoon, as the dimwitted but empathetic bank robber, Sal Naturile. It was Afternoon’s riveting performance that potentially could have launched him into leading man role but sadly his next film, Michael Cimino’s equally lauded epic, The Deer Hunter, would be his last.

While his performance in Hunter as small town Pennsylvania laborer Stan “Stosh” is minor compared to the film’s trio of stars–Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and the rising Meryl Streep, who, it should be noted, was engaged to Cazale during the film’s production–his character was key to establishing the converse worlds portrayed in the film. The scenes building up to certain characters’ departure to Vietnam and their return home convey more than any other war film the thin line between war and home, heaven and hell as seen through the eyes of those who have witnessed battle.

He also managed to provide a bit of comic relief in the film, most notably seen in the film’s introductory wedding ceremony crescendo in which his inebriated and jealous character hits his date for dancing with another man instead of actually socking said male. Later during an intense scene involving a revolver he shares a moving scene with De Niro’s scarred Vietnam vet, Mike.

Sadly Cazale was diagnosed with bone cancer right before filming commenced on Hunter and despite his ailing health he completed production, encouraged by Cimino, his friends and Streep. He would pass before the film’s release and sweep at the 1979 Academy Awards.

It’s hard to say where Cazale’s career would have gone had he not succumbed to cancer. While for the most part his roles were bit or character in nature, Dog Day Afternoon, being the exception, his scene stealing moments proved that he had potential to being a leading man. His role as Fredo was pinnacle for the Corleone family story and his tragic portrayal of Pacino’s partner in crime in Afternoon was ripe with empathy and a level of camaraderie that no doubt reflected the two actor’s true relationship. Pacino who got his start in theater alongside Cazale, often referred to the actor as “my acting partner.”

While Cazale may not have been as young as Ledger (he was 42 when he died) or many other actors who passed too premature, his departure felt all the more tragic because of the brevity of his acting career. Still his legacy is forever eternalized in five masterpieces. It’s been just shy of 30 years since Cazale passed away and while his films are still adored by many I believe he deserves a spotlight for his stellar performances, especially for those who may not know about this wonderfully gifted actor.

Brad Renfro will be remembered best for his breakthrough performance in the Grisham to screen film, The Client, opposite Susan Sarandon, but check out his daring roles in Larry Clark’s Bully or Apt Pupil, not to mention a small but comical part in Ghost World.

Ledger was just starting to explore his acting range but luckily he left behind one role that will no doubt define his short career. The shy but deeply complicated character, Ennis Del Mar, in Brokeback Mountain is the kind of role that takes courage but is also a true actor’s dream. And Ledger nailed it. With The Dark Knight just around the corner, a supposed spooky take on joker that apparently sent shivers down the spine of his co-stars, including Sir Michael Caine, there is one more possible masterpiece left to add to Ledger’s short canon.