The film director, writer and actor John Cassavetes, hailed as a fiercely independent filmmaker and a pioneer of American cinema verite, dies on this day in 1989 at the age of 59, in Los Angeles. Born in New York City, Cassavetes studied acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts there. As an actor, he subscribed to the Method school, in which actors attempt to replicate the emotional conditions under which the character they are portraying is operating. Cassavetes racked up an impressive number of TV roles in the 1950s, on programs such as Studio One, Kraft Theater and Playhouse 90; he also reprised some of them on the big screen.
In the late 1950s, Cassavetes starred in the well-reviewed TV series Johnny Staccato. By that time, he had met and married the actress Gena Rowlands, who would go on to star in many of his films; they would have three children, Nicholas, Xan and Zoe. Cassavetes got funding for Shadows (1960), his first film as a director, by making an appeal on a radio show to listeners who wanted an alternative to the standard Hollywood fare. Filmed on the streets of New York City on a shoestring budget, the movie was shot on 16-millimeter film stock using a hand-held camera; the script was partially improvised and the actors were from a Method class Cassavetes had been teaching. When the film was released, its images were blown up to 35-millimeter, causing them to take on a grainy, “real-life” look that was praised by film critics, especially in Europe, where Shadows won the Critics Award at the Venice Film Festival. The movement in cinema verite, films that portrayed their characters in everyday situations with dialogue and settings that were as natural as possible, was gaining ground in France, and Cassavetes’ film became one of the first American examples of the genre.
The success of Shadows got Cassavetes contracts for two studio films, Too Late Blues (1962) and A Child is Waiting (1963). He took so long over filming and editing that the studios eventually took control away from him, and both films flopped at the box office. Over the next two decades, Cassavetes acted in movies to earn money for his own projects. Among his many notable film roles were The Dirty Dozen (1967), for which he earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor, and Rosemary’s Baby (1968), in which he played Mia Farrow’s sinister husband. As a director, Cassavetes was best known for complicated domestic dramas such as Faces (1968) and Husbands (1970), in which he starred with Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara. He had his biggest mainstream success with A Woman Under the Influence (1974), for which Rowlands garnered a Best Actress Oscar nomination and Cassavetes was nominated for Best Director.
His later films included The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), Gloria (1980), which won the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival; Love Streams (1984) and Big Trouble (1986). Perhaps due to the strongly personal nature of Cassavetes’ films, reviews were usually divided equally between raves and pans. In the years after his death, however, his films were issued in DVD sets and studied in film school classes, and his reputation as a pioneering filmmaker became more generally acknowledged. Cassavetes’ son Nick followed in his footsteps, directing 1996’s Unhook the Stars, starring Rowlands, and 1997’s She’s So Lovely, an adaptation of one of his father’s unfinished screenplays.