Fri. Jun 14th, 2024

Whenever we think of Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” trilogy, a handful of underlying themes come to mind. We generally glance back to “The Godfather” films as a landmark in cinema – a milestone in the living arts. The first abstraction that enters our cerebrum is the grueling Don Corleone played by the late Marlon Brando. We are then awed by the fiery charisma and cool bravado of Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone, the sweet innocence and overt neutrality of the lovely Diane Keaton’s Kay, the complexity of mafia culture being integrated into American society, and lastly the code of respect emphasized greatly by the psychological depth of its characters.

“The Godfather” trilogy is ranked amongst the greatest film franchises ever made and much of the credit falls on the shoulders of director Francis Ford Coppola and screenwriter, Mario Puzo who also was primarily responsible for the macrocosm “The Godfather” was set in. And who could forget composer, Nino Rota, who penned the film’s iconic score and last but not least the performances of James Caan and Robert Duvall?

“The Godfather” ternion ultimately did for the gangster film genre what “2001: A Space Odyssey”did for science fiction. Like Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola completely re-energized and, to a degree, reinvented a basic Hollywood pulp fiction action-entertainment genre and appropriately cropped the category as a vehicle for the high aesthetic ambitions of a post-New Wave film auteur. Within his narrower focus on 20th Century American civilization as opposed to Kubrick’s philosophical speculations on human evolution, Coppola and Puzo shape the story of the Corleone family into an epic yet satiric vision of American business, federal government, criminal justice, and ultimately moral decline.

“The Godfather’s” brilliantly constructed opening sequence sets the grave tone for the remainder of the trilogy as the wedding of Don Corleone’s daughter, not only establishes the Don’s character, the nature of his organization, the role of family and Sicilian tradition in his world, and the nature of his four sons, but also fortifies the relationship between the Don’s world and the legitimate pragmatism of society. For instance, the film’s opening words are those of Bonasera, a petitioner for a wedding “favor,” whose voice over a dark screen first asserts the American Dream – the opportunity for prosperity and success, and an upward social mobility achieved through hard work in which he confidently utters, “I believe in America. America has made my fortune.” It isn’t until Bonasera shifts away from the aforesaid ideals of proletarian society and turns to a disillusioned contradiction in which he states, “For justice, we must go to Don Corleone.” While the aforementioned actors and contributors are highly deserving of the film’s various accolades and achievement, fans and scholars seeming forget one of the film’s most essential characters, Fredo Corleone played by Italian actor, John Cazale.

Now many of you are wondering why I am addressing such a docile yet fragile ethos Fredo was, deeply layered in the film’s highly-characterized premise. Believe it or not Fredo was an important component to “The Godfather’s” primary plotline much like the significance of mysterious bounty hunter, Boba Fett, in the “Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.”  Boba Fett played by Jeremy Bulloch, was a lethal yet silent mercenary who was specifically hired by the Galactic Empire under the command of Darth Vader to locate and capture rebel pilot, Han Solo and the crew of the Millennium Falcon in order to draw Vader’s son to his grip. Fett, in comparison to Corleone, maintained a minimal but pivotal role in his respective franchise. Fett’s capture of Han Solo eventually lured Luke Skywalker to his father, Vader transpiring into an astounding revelation that further shaped the landscape of the Galactic Civil War.

Fredo Corleone, on the other hand, betrayed his brother Michael after taking sides against the family when his hired goons shot up Michael’s home. Fredo was then confronted by Michael at an expo in Cuba in which he famously uttered, “I knew it was you, Fredo.” That was the parlous moment we knew that Fredo’s days were numbered. We knew that Fredo’s demise was around the corner. Although Bulloch’s character went on to deliver the wanted smuggler to Jabba the Hutt who initially arranged the bounty to begin with, the fearless bounty hunter was caught in a deadly crossfire involving Solo and Skywalker when his jetpack exploded heaving the Mandolorian warrior into the Great Pit of Carkoon. Fett would eventually live to see another day when he miraculously escaped the Sarlacc Pit unscathed, only to prosper and prevail. Fredo’s outcome was less than fortunate.

Despite Fredo’s attempts to have his brother killed, Michael did not act quickly to eliminate his unintelligent sibling due to the wishes of his aging mother. When their mother finally passed, it was then judgment day for Fredo. On the waterfront of the family’s Lake Tahoe condo, Fredo was brutally murdered by Michael’s body guard, Albert Neri while fishing on his small boat. While very dissimilar in regards to ethics and nature, both Corleone and Fett served as instrumental characters to the story arcs of their respective franchises.

Aside from the character of Fredo Corleone, actor, John Cazale himself is worth studying and noting. It is most intriguing considering that “The Godfather” was Cazale’s screen debut. Like Joe Pesci, Cazale embarked  on his film career later in his adulthood as he was 35 years old at the time of film’s production. When Pesci underwent his acting career, his characters would commonly stick out like a sore thumb. His characters were typically boisterous, wisecracking, and often times volcanic when faced by opposition. Cazale, however, was always an individual of mystery and uncertainty, as audiences were left in the dark about what kind of person he was portraying.

Born in Revere, Massachusetts, of a half-Italian family, Cazale studied drama at Oberlin College and Boston University, from which he graduated. It was not until his outing as a messenger for Standard Oil in New York City where Cazale received his big break. Through mutual rapport with another aspiring actor, Al Pacino, Cazale met Francis Ford Coppola who was immediately impressed upon greeting him.

“When I first saw John, I instantly thought he was so interesting,” recalled Pacino. “Everybody was always around him because he had a very congenial way of expressing himself.”  While living together in a communal house in Provincetown, Massachusetts, Cazale and Pacino were cast in a play by Israel Horovitz, “The Indian Wants the Bronx,” for which they both won Obie Awards in 1967-1968. He later won another Obie for the leading role in “Horovitz’s Line,” where he was noticed by “Godfather” casting director Fred Roos, who then suggested him to director Francis Ford Coppola.

Cazale was described by those close to him as being “often shy” and “very emotionally sensitive.” Close friend and frequent co-star Al Pacino collaborated with him on three films and various theater productions during his short-lived career. In his brief run, Pacino and Cazale starred together in four films, consisting of the entire “Godfather” trilogy as well as “Dog Day Afternoon.” “ In the screenplay, Cazale’s role was written to be a smart-ass street kid. But Al came to me and said, ‘Sidney, please, I beg you, read John Cazale for it.’ And when John came in I was so discouraged and thought ‘Al must be out of his mind.’ This guy looks thirty, thirty-two, and that’s the last thing I want in this part. But Al had great taste in actors, and I hadn’t yet seen him in “The Godfather.” And Cazale came in, and then he read, and my heart broke. . . . “One of the things that I love about the casting of John Cazale … was that he had a tremendous sadness about him. I don’t know where it came from; I don’t believe in invading the privacy of the actors that I work with, or getting into their heads. But my God – it’s there – in every shot of him. And not just in this movie, but in “Godfather II” also.” Cazale also appeared in Francis Ford Coppola’s psychological thriller, “The Conversation”, and Michael Cimino’s Oscar-winning war drama, “The Deer Hunter.”

To date, Cazale appeared in five full-length feature films while alive, plus a sixth using archival footage that was included in “The Godfather Part III” making him the only actor to have this multi-film distinction. All six films were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. “The Godfather”, “The Godfather Part II”, and “The Deer Hunter” all won for the category. Although he never received an Oscar nomination, wrote Bruce Fretts, he “was the walking embodiment of the aphorism acting is reacting, providing the perfect counterbalance to his recurring co-stars, the more emotionally volatile Al Pacino and Robert De Niro.” Pacino himself once commented, “All I wanted to do was work with John for the rest of my life. He was my acting partner.”  The actor’s momentary career is quite profound considering his relationship with Academy Award-winning actress, Meryl  Streep.  Streep in Cazale’s eyes was a match made in heaven. The two were introduced by Robert De Niro in which they all starred in the Public Theater’s 1976 production of “Measure for Measure” – Cazale’s last stage performance before his ugly diagnosis. The Boston Globe asks, “Why was Cazale so influential? In part, it was because of his commitment to the craft of acting.” To Streep, he was “monomaniacal”, which had an effect on his co-stars, who were then “challenged to take their own games up a notch.” Despite being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in 1978, Cazale continued work with his romantic partner, Streep, in “The Deer Hunter.” According Pacino who was a creative consultant on the production of “The Deer Hunter,” Cazale’s love for Streep was unlike anything he ever encountered. “I’ve hardly ever seen a person so devoted to someone who is falling away like John was,” said Pacino. “To see her in that act of love for this man was overwhelming.”

Since his death, Cazale’s work has been oft-forgotten. When I proposed this article, I received a ton of feedback. Many people I spoke to knew very little about the circumstances surrounding John Cazale’s death especially my parents and my elders who grew up during the height of the film’s eminence in the 1970s. Even my grandmother who was 38 at the time of “The Godfather’s” release had no clue what actor’s name was. It’s strange considering how news media and breaking headlines were still vital part of communications, but unlike the Machine Age in which we live today, word did not travel fast and efficiently as there was no form of internet or cellular data. Entering the new millennium, Cazale’ life and career were profiled in the documentary film, “I Knew It Was You,” directed by Richard Shepard, which premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival and was later scheduled by HBO.

Cazale shattered hearts on the silver screen with vivid portrayals of volatile, vulnerable, and vacillating men. Cazale was described as an actor “whose intense face is known to just about any serious cinema fan but whose name often escapes them” and that shouldn’t be too surprising. Prior to compiling this piece, I never knew the name of the actor nor did I realize he was the personage of a tragic Hollywood success story. There is no question that Cazale was an underrated talent during his brief Los Angeles excursion. The fact that he was limited to only six films is saddening, but impressive from an aesthetic standpoint. Like his fellow co-star, Pacino, Cazale was a virtual unknown before his enlistment into “The Godfather” and just simply by his tranquil demeanor and dramatic tangibles, Cazale did so much with so little to obtain the role of Fredo Corleone. Cazale and Pacino are two rare examples of actors who were initially a dice roll but molded into premier character artists overnight. If you get a chance to watch “The Godfather” again or even the criminally-ignored “Conversation,” pay close attention to John Cazale’s characters because if anything is certain, these were the crowning achievement of a wonderful actor and an outstanding person.

Drew Mattiola is a third-year student majoring in communication studies. He can be reached at

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