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Ben Gazzara Personified Michigan-Made Anatomy of a Murder Film

February 14, 2012       1 Comments
By: Dave Rogers

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Ben Gazzara, whose appearance as Lt. Frederick Manion in the filmed in Michigan "Anatomy of a Murder" made history.

Ben Gazzara, who died last week at age 81, was one of the last surviving stars of perhaps the most famous motion picture made in Michigan, Anatomy of a Murder.

Only Kathryn Grant Crosby, 79, who was severely injured in a 2010 auto accident that killed her husband Maurice Sullivan, Orson Bean and Donald H. Ross, both 83, survive of the notable cast.

Besides his starring role in Anatomy, filmed in Marquette, Michigan, in 1959, he gravelly-voiced Gazzara appeared in more than 100 films and TV movies. He also starred in the 1960s series 'Run for Your Life,' enjoyed a renaissance in the '90s and won an Emmy in 2002.

New Yorker Gazzara, of Sicilian descent., died Friday, Feb. 3 in his home town of pancreatic cancer, according to his attorney Jay I. Julien.

After making his movie debut starring in "The Strange One," the 1957 film version of "End as a Man," Gazzara again hit the big screen two years later as a jealous Army lieutenant husband, Frederick Manion, accused of murdering his wife's alleged rapist, in director Otto Preminger's "Anatomy of a Murder." Lee Remick played his wife, Laura.

The movie has been called "the best pure trial movie" by critics; it was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won several Golden Globes and New York Film honors.

A 1999 documentary film by John Pepin, reporter for the Marquette Mining Journal, details the behind-the-scenes story of Otto Preminger's classic 1959 courtroom drama "Anatomy of a Murder," which was filmed entirely on location in Marquette County, Michigan.

"Anatomy '59" (2009) explores the true-life 1952 Big Bay, Michigan homicide and trial behind "Anatomy of a Murder," the bestselling book by defense attorney John Voelker, who wrote "Anatomy of a Murder" (1958) under the pen name Robert Traver, and the gripping Preminger motion picture of the same name (1959) starring James Stewart, Lee Remick, George C. Scott, Ben Gazzara and others.

Locals from Marquette County whose lives were touched by the on-location production or events surrounding the original trial are also interviewed. The documentary is available from WNMU-TV, Marquette.

During his 60-year acting career, Gazzara appeared in the independent films he made with writer-director John Cassavetes: "Husbands," "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie" and "Opening Night."

Gazzara played porn-film producer Jackie Treehorn in the Coen Brothers' 1998 cult comedy classic "The Big Lebowski" and had a supporting role in the 1999 remake of the art-heist drama "The Thomas Crown Affair," starring Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo.

On television, Gazzara starred for two seasons, 1965 to 1968, on the NBC prime-time drama "Run for Your Life."

He earned Tony nominations for his appearances in three Broadway productions of the 1970s, a revival of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and his dual roles in a double bill of the plays "Hughie" and "Duet."

Gazzara was married three times, with his first two marriages ending in divorce. He is survived by his third wife, Elke, and daughter Elizabeth.

Gazzara won an Emmy for his supporting role as the love interest of an aging waitress played by Gena Rowlands in the 2002 HBO drama "Hysterical Blindness."

He was nominated for an Emmy for the 1985 TV movie "An Early Frost," in which he and Rowlands played a middle-aged couple coping with a gay son dying of AIDs.

Peter Bogdanovich, who directed Gazzara in two films -- "Saint Jack" in 1979 and "They All Laughed" in 1981 -- once described his working relationship with Gazzara as the best he'd ever had with an actor.

"Benny has the conscience of an artist, which is a rare thing," Bogdanovich told The Times in 1998.

An alumnus of the Actors Studio, Gazzara won notice in 1953 playing a sadistic cadet at a military academy in an off-Broadway production of Calder Willingham's "End as a Man." The play, with Gazzara continuing in the role, marked his debut on Broadway.

On Broadway in 1955, Gazzara also originated the role of Brick, the troubled, alcoholic son and husband in Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," directed by Elia Kazan. He returned to Broadway soon after to play Johnny Pope, a junkie, in Michael V. Gazzo's drama "A Hatful of Rain," a role that won Gazzara a Tony Award nomination.

On television in the 1960s, Gazzara played a police detective opposite Chuck Connors' attorney in the ABC series "Arrest and Trial." And from 1965 to 1968, Gazzara starred in "Run for Your Life," an NBC adventure series about a successful lawyer diagnosed with a terminal illness who decides to live life to the fullest in the time he has left.

"I hated it," Gazzara, who received two Emmy Award nominations for his work on the series, told the New York Daily News in 1999. "So predictable I could almost do the next show without reading the script."

His next picture was "Husbands," the 1970 drama about three suburban New York City commuters -- Gazzara, Cassavetes and Peter Falk -- whose lives are affected by the death of a middle-aged friend. The film received mixed reviews but led to an enduring friendship among the three actors.

Gazzara went on to star in Cassavetes' "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie" in 1976 and "Opening Night" in 1977.

"John created a climate where you could do no wrong," Gazzara said in 2005 in the Times Union of Albany, N.Y. "He allowed you to surprise yourself while he talked around the characters and the action." ###

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"The BUZZ" - Read Feedback From Readers!

mikeschweinsberg Says:       On February 19, 2012 at 11:20 AM
Good review Dave. I watched it several times...
Mother-in-law was either in the movie (ancillary role) or watched it being filmed on set, in ol' Ish.
Agree? or Disagree?

Dave Rogers

Dave Rogers is a former editorial writer for the Bay City Times and a widely read,
respected journalist/writer in and around Bay City.
(Contact Dave Via Email at

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