Celebrities

'Anatomy of a Murder' star Ben Gazzara dies at 81

Feb. 3, 2012 at 7:05 PM ET

Ben Gazzara died Friday of pancreatic cancer, The New York Times reported

The star of award films and plays such as "Anatomy of a Murder" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" was 81 years old.

Gazzara employed his distinctive, guttural voice and powerful stare most memorably in a series of film collaborations with the director John Cassavetes. 

For the maverick director, Gazzara played a collection of bitter spouses and down-on-their heels gamblers and theater directors in films such as "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie" and "Opening Night." 

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Like Peter Falk, his co-star in Cassavetes' "Husbands," Gazzara was perfectly suited to the director's signature examinations of bruised men who struggle to articulate and come to grips with their emotions, fears and hopes in a rapidly changing world. 

Fittingly, he died the same day that Cassavetes did more than twenty years ago. 

Among his other notable film roles were an accused rapist in "Anatomy of a Murder" (1959), the smooth-talking pornographer Jackie Treehorn in the Coen Brothers' "The Big Lebowski" (1998), and a grandfather separating from his wife of 40 years in Todd Solondz's "Happiness"(1998). 

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Less successful was his starring role opposite his then-lover Audrey Hepburn in Peter Bogdanovich's "They All Laughed" (1981). The romantic comedy was a box office and critical disaster.

As for "Roadhouse" (1989), the critics hated the Patrick Swayze action movie too, but thanks to frequent television play, Gazarra's role as villainous businessman became a cult favorite. 

On stage, Gazzara originated the role of the alcoholic, sexually confused Brick in Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." It helped make his name, but he saw the role go to Paul Newman in the 1958 film adaptation.

Even after Hollywood beckoned, Gazzara was comfortable migrating from stage to screen, making frequent appearances on Broadway. He was nominated for three Tony awards for playing a drug addict in "A Hatful of Rain," for doing double duty in two short plays Eugene O’Neill’s “Hughie” and David Scott Milton’s “Duet," and for playing the alcoholic George in a revival of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf."

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His last Broadway role came in 2006's acclaimed revival of the social protest drama "Awake and Sing!"

Gazzara's performance in HBO's "Hysterical Blindness" earned him his first Emmy award in 2006. He also  earned plaudits for his starring role in the TV movie, "An Early Frost" (1985), one of the first nationally broadcast works to deal with the AIDS crisis. 

Gazzara was married three times to Louise Erickson (1951–1957), actress Janice Rule (1961–1979), and German model Elke Stuckmann.

He his survived by Stuckmann, their daughter, and an adopted daughter. Gazarra's brother, Anthony, also survives him. 

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