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TELEVISION REVIEW

A-list actors recall a short but sterling career

By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / June 1, 2010

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If the 1970s represented a golden age of film, its luster derived not just from the movies that were made but also from the extraordinary acting careers that were minted in that decade.

Al Pacino. Meryl Streep. Robert De Niro. Richard Dreyfuss. Gene Hackman. While a few of them had movie roles in the 1960s, they all became big stars in the ’70s, and they all had one thing in common: At one time or another, they all acted opposite a guy from Revere who never came close to their marquee status but who made each of them better actors.

His name was John Cazale, and he is the subject of a splendid (though lamentably short) documentary titled “I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale,’’ airing tonight at 8 on HBO.

Cazale appeared in only five movies before succumbing to lung cancer at 42 in 1978 — but what movies they were!

And what a squirmily indelible presence he was as Fredo Corleone in “The Godfather’’ (1972) and “The Godfather, Part II’’ (1974); as Hackman’s surveillance partner in “The Conversation’’ (1974); as an edgy bank robber in “Dog Day Afternoon’’ (1975); and as De Niro’s sad-sack hunting buddy in “The Deer Hunter’’ (1978). (The HBO documentary’s title is drawn from that unforgettable scene in “The Godfather, Part II’’ when Michael Corleone confronts his brother with the knowledge of his betrayal: “I know it was you, Fredo.’’)

Onstage and onscreen, Cazale specialized in the hapless but somehow soulful loser, and he usually played supporting roles. Offstage and offscreen, things were quite different. For that rising generation of talented actors, Cazale functioned as both guide and goad, as conscience and example. “I think I learned more about acting from John than anybody,’’ says Pacino.

That is an impressive bit of testimony, considering the source, and its general sentiment is echoed by Streep — who had a love affair with Cazale and nursed him through his final days — and even by actors who never worked with Cazale, such as Steve Buscemi and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Why was Cazale so influential? In part, it was because of his commitment to the craft of acting — Streep describes it as “monomaniacal’’ — and his capacity to surprise his costars and directors with a small behavioral nuance that added texture to a scene and that challenged them to take their own games up a notch.

“I Knew It Was You’’ showcases a few examples: the happy little hop-step Fredo takes in “The Godfather’’ as he ushers Pacino’s Michael Corleone into a Las Vegas welcome party that Michael will soon bring to an abrupt end; the way Cazale uses body language while prone in a chair to convey a complicated mixture of guilt, grief, and rage during a showdown with Michael in “Godfather, Part II’’; the ad-libbed moment in “Dog Day Afternoon’’ when Pacino’s Sonny asks, “So what country do you want to go to?’’ and Cazale’s Sal replies, “Wyoming.’’

“Even in the most comic characters he played, there was always something tragic,’’ Streep says. “And even in the most tragic characters he played, there was always something very funny.’’

A friend named Robyn Goodman says that to Cazale the key to a character was to find where that character was in pain. “I Knew It Was You’’ suggests that Cazale’s own pain derived from an overbearing father, but the documentary does not explore that or much else about his early life.

Born in Revere, Cazale was trained in the Boston University theater program. During his stage career, he acted in 10 plays by Gloucester playwright Israel Horovitz (including “The Indian Wants the Bronx’’ opposite Pacino, one of three plays they appeared in together). Cazale consistently urged other actors not to settle for the first interpretation of a character that came to mind. “Directors used to call him ‘Twenty Questions,’ ’’ says Streep. “He was never, never, never satisfied with just the outlines of a character or just filling out the expected thing. . . . He would say to me, ‘There’s a lot of other possibilities.’ ’’

That sounds like a recipe for aggravatingly long days on the set for a director, yet Francis Ford Coppola and Sidney Lumet speak of Cazale with respect and affection. “The subtlety in his acting was so amazing, the emotional depth of it,’’ says Lumet, who directed “Dog Day Afternoon.’’ The no-nonsense De Niro, meanwhile, makes it clear that while Cazale was creative, he did not overact or seek to steal scenes.

A wistful aura of what-might-have-been pervades “I Knew It Was You.’’ Before he died after a film career that lasted only six years, writer Mark Harris observes, Cazale’s “talents were getting richer with every movie.’’

Today, Cazale’s name is largely unknown, even though the five movies he enriched are an enduring part of the culture. All the more reason to watch this documentary and hear the reminiscences of the superb actors who constitute part of Cazale’s legacy. The most unforgettable character they ever met? Then and now, they knew it was him.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

I KNEW IT WAS YOU: Rediscovering John Cazale

Directed by: Richard Shepard

On: HBO

Time: Tonight, 8 p.m.