best film:  The Godfather. This is a fun category for John Cazale. He can match best films with almost any actor. How about flipping this sort of upside down and doing a category for “best worst film” – Cazale may win that in a landslide.  He is in both early Godfather films (1972 and 1974) – both towering masterpieces. He is in The Conversation (1974) – another masterpiece even if we remove the word “towering” this time (and for the remaining mentions considered).  So far, all three (3) films from Cazale are with Francis Ford Coppola during Coppola’s peak stretch. Next is Dog Day Afternoon in 1975 (teaming up again with his acting partner and buddy Al Pacino). This leaves only The Deer Hunter in 1978 in Cazale’s filmography – just those five (5) films total – and they are all worth serious consideration here in this category.


Cazale as Fredo in The Godfather (1972). Cazale may have had a career arch similar to Philip Seymour Hoffman had he had more time to work before his death. PSH, sadly, only lived till 46 himself – but had twenty-two (22) archiveable films and twenty (20) plus years to work. The five (5) films of Cazale’s career sort of mirror the five (5) Paul Thomas Anderson films from PSH if one were to compare and contrast (and appreciate) these two immensely gifted actors.


best performance: The Godfather Part II. John Cazale is simply given more room in the sequel masterpiece. If one were to combine the first two Godfather films, there may be enough of Cazale total to equate to a lead role in a shorter film – but still probably not. Maybe closer to Anthony Hopkins’ sixteen (16) minutes in The Silence of the Lambs.  But for Cazale, his resume (both overall and in The Godfather) is more about the importance of his scenes and the quality of his work in those scenes. Cazale gets the Cuba sequences with Pacino (including the famous kiss scene), and then the big, brilliant “I was passed over” scene and speech back at Lake Tahoe.  Cazale makes Fredo an all-time great devastating cinema character.


Cazale’s “I’m smart and I want respect!” from The Godfather Part II – his finest scene on celluloid – and a pretty tough obstacle for anyone making a case against Cazale being on this list


stylistic innovations/traits:  What John Cazale did to bring Fredo to life is nothing short of genius – and that word should not be thrown around to every actor on this list. Sure, there are actors who simply accomplished much more than Cazale during their longer careers – Cazale’s entire cinematic career constitutes seven (7) years and five (5) films. Cazale is a supporting actor (the term “character actor” tends to lead to needless debate on the definition – but Cazale supported – Pacino three (3) times, Robert De Niro and Gene Hackman once a piece). He stole scenes, added nuance to fantastic films – and helped bring out even better work from some of the best actors of all-time. Cazale was dying of cancer during the shooting of The Deer Hunter and passed away, tragically, at age forty-two (42), before it premiered. He is an unforgettable part of 1970s America cinema.


Cazale as Sal in Dog Day Afternoon (1975).  Cazale is opposite Pacino again here. Pacino referred to Cazale as his acting partner.  Cazale appeared in only five (5) feature films in his career and all of them were nominated the best picture Oscar (including Dog Day Afternoon) – with three (3) of the five (5) winning. All five (5) films landed in the top in the top 250 on this site’s best 500 films of all-time upon last update.


directors worked with:  Francis Ford Coppola (3) and then Sidney Lumet (1) and Michael Cimino (1) once.


top five performances:

  1. The Godfather Part II
  2. Dog Day Afternoon
  3. The Godfather
  4. The Deer Hunter
  5. The Conversation


archiveable films

1972- The Godfather
1974- The Conversation
1974- The Godfather Part II
1975- Dog Day Afternoon
1978- The Deer Hunter