NEW YORK - Ben Gazzara, whose powerful dramatic performances brought an intensity to a variety of roles and made him a memorable presence in such iconic productions over the decades as the original "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" on Broadway and the film "The Big Lebowski," has died at age 81.
Longtime family friend Suzanne Mados said Gazzara died Friday in Manhattan. Mados, who owned the Wyndham Hotel, where celebrities such as Peter Falk and Martin Sheen stayed, said he died after being placed in hospice care for cancer. She and her husband helped marry Gazzara and his wife, German-born Elke Krivat, at their hotel.
Gazzara was a proponent of method acting, in which the performer attempts to take on the thoughts and emotions of the character he's playing, and it helped him achieve stardom early in his career with two stirring Broadway performances.
In 1955, he originated the role of Brick Pollitt, the disturbed alcoholic son and failed football star in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." He left the show after only seven months to take on an equally challenging role, Johnny Pope, the drug addict in "A Hatful of Rain." It earned him his first of three Tony Award nominations.
In 1965, he moved on to TV stardom in "Run for Your Life," a drama about a workaholic lawyer who, diagnosed with a terminal illness, quits his job and embarks on a globe-trotting attempt to squeeze a lifetime of adventures into the one or two years he has left. He was twice nominated for Emmys during the show's three-year run.
Gazzara made his movie debut in 1957 in "The Strange One," Calder Willingham's bitter drama about brutality at a Southern military school. He had previously played the lead role of the psychopathic cadet, Jocko de Paris, on Broadway in Willingham's stage version of the story, "End of Man."
He followed that film with "Anatomy of a Murder," in which he played a man on trial for murdering a tavern keeper who had been accused of raping his wife.
After "Run for Your Life" ended in 1968, Gazzara spent the rest of his career alternating between movies and the stage, although rarely with the critical acclaim he had enjoyed during his early years.
In the 1970s, he teamed with his friend director John Cassavetes for three films, "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie" and "Opening Night." In another Cassavetes film, he appeared with Falk, and the two became friends (it was Cassavetes who introduced them to the Wyndham Hotel, according to a 1982 article in New York magazine).
Gena Rowlands appeared with Gazzara in "Opening Night," which also starred Cassavetes. Cassavetes and Rowlands were married; he died in 1989. Falk died last year.
"It breaks my heart to have this era come to an end. Ben meant so much to all of us. To our families. To John. To Peter. To have them gone now is devastating to me," she said in a statement.
She said her prayers and thoughts went out to "all his loyal and wonderful fans throughout the world."
Rita Moreno, who played Gazzara's wife in the 2000 film "Blue Moon," said, "He was a wonderful man, and I so enjoyed working with him. I wish I could have had the pleasure more often."
Other Gazzara films included "The Bridge at Remagen," "The Young Doctors," "They All Laughed," "The Thomas Crown Affair," "If It's Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium," "The Spanish Prisoner," "Stag" and "Road House." He also made several films in Italy.
He appeared on Broadway in revivals of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," "Awake and Sing!" "Strange Interlude" and several other plays.
Gazzara began acting in television in 1952 with roles on the series "Danger" and "Kraft Television Theater." Before landing "Run for Your Life," he played a police detective in the series "Arrest and Trial," which lasted two seasons.
Born Biagio Anthony Gazzara in New York on Aug. 28, 1930, he grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in a cold-water flat with a bathtub in the kitchen. His parents were immigrants from Sicily who met and married in New York, and his first language was Italian. Although he was baptized under his birth name, his parents always called him Ben or Benny.
As a child he became fascinated with movies, and after giving his first performance, in a Boys Club play, he knew he had found his life's work.
"I disliked high school," he once said, "and after two years of it I left without telling anyone at home."
Instead he spent his days in movie theaters.
He entered Erwin Piscator's Dramatic Workshop in 1948. Eighteen months later he auditioned for the Actors Studio run by Lee Strasberg and was accepted.
The school was a beehive of activity in those days, turning out such followers of method acting as Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Barbara Bel Geddes, Shelley Winters, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Rod Steiger and Julie Harris.
"There's a lot of voodoo about the Actors Studio," Gazzara told The Associated Press in 1966. "In the best sense it was a place for professionals to stay in touch with their craft, where newcomers and professionals mingled, to grow, to try parts they would never get in the professional theater and to even fall on their face."
Gazzara's first two marriages, to actresses Louise Erikson and Janice Rule, ended in divorce.
While filming "Inchon" in Korea in 1981, he met Krivat. They married the following year, and the union endured.
"Elke saved my life," Gazzara said in 1999. "When I met her, I was drinking too much, fooling around too much, killing myself. She put romance and hope back in my life."
He adopted Krivat's daughter, Danja, as his own. She recalled on Friday that he was a "complex soul" and that his role as a father to her and his own daughter was challenging.
"I adored Ben, and so did his daughter," she said. "But we both had difficulty with him ... I think the difficulty lay in his complexity of being an actor and those layers that you have, that you bring with you."
Besides Danja, Gazzara is survived by his wife, daughter Elizabeth and a brother.
Former Associated Press writer Bob Thomas in Los Angeles contributed to this report.