Chris Game on John Cazale in 'Dog Day Afternoon'

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Photo Source: Warner Bros./Photofest
"There's just something in that face that takes you into an area…that's very dark. Personally dark…and [pauses]… heartbroken." So says the late great Sidney Lumet of my favorite actor, John Cazale. The first time I discovered the geography of that incredibly nonpareil visage was on a summer day in 1976. I was 6 years old, sprawled out face down on the linoleum in my bedroom. (Yes, there was linoleum in my bedroom.) The surface of the floor was cooling as I enjoyed my Slurpee and Red Vines. I was reading Mad magazine's parody of "Dog Day Afternoon," "Dum-Dum Afternoon." I kept staring at that face, just the way they drew Cazale. I knew I would have to learn everything I could about the owner of this face.

Cut to: a year later. I am sitting on the lima-bean green shag carpeting in my father's apartment and I am being confronted with the face and artistry of John Cazale for the first time. "Dog Day Afternoon" is the Saturday night movie and I'm allowed to stay up and watch it. The television we are watching it on has a rotary dial that clicks when you change channels. The choices of channels are 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11, and 13. That's it. No cable and no remote: "Dog Day f---ing Afternoon" is on! There are no distractions and no turning back. The experience is a visceral and galvanizing one for me. (And that's only partially due to the fact that my father has been feeding me sips of his beer.) On that evening—amidst the forest of shag—with a 7-year-old's buzz on, I found my calling. That performance by John Cazale coerced me to become an actor. Others wanted to be Pacino. I wanted to be Cazale. (Later, I realized I wanted to be Sidney Lumet and work with Cazales and Pacinos—and that's when I found my vocation.) But that evening I watched the face of a clearly ancient soul brought to me through the character of Sal.

Cazale only made five films and he played one character twice: precious Fredo from "The Godfather." Cazale died of cancer while making "The Deer Hunter." He was in love with Meryl Streep at the time. He was 42. He would be dead a year after my epiphany moment. I've never seen an actor convey more pathos or act with less vanity than Cazale as Sal (except maybe, of course, Cazale as Fredo). Go back and look at the way Cazale inhabits characters, the way he wears their clothes. The way he uses furniture. Pacino mentions the way he would "check out the environment." In life, we are nearly always more engaged in everything around us than the person we're speaking or listening to. Cazale always found those moments.

As Fredo, Cazale almost shrinks himself. The lips are thin, the mustache is thin, the clothes are too big (look at how small he looks in his suit as he flees Michael in Havana). He embodies that chair like a praying mantis on his back, flailing on the ice, then collapses in exhaustion. As Sal, he seems so much larger. It's all in the stride. He appears to elongate himself with a stride that seems six feet across; and with the flairs, and the machine gun, and the Cuban shoes, it looks even wider. He seems to constantly fill the entire frame even when he is back in the distance of a long shot.

Favorite moments? The Wyoming moment. You know the moment if you've seen it. Pacino's character, Sonny, asks Sal what country he'd like to be flown to after the bank robbery they are in the midst of committing. Cazale's answer is "Wyoming." He doesn't play it for laughs. He plays it as an innocent. It's the moment he takes before discovering and then the moment after Sonny tells him that Wyoming is not a country, when Sal purses his lips and we see into his cold soul and it shatters our hearts.

Then, there's the moment when Sal asks Sonny if he was serious about throwing the bodies of the hostages out. Sal says he's ready. In that moment, Cazale says more with a stare and a swallow than most actors convey in a career. The tragedy Cazale willfully infuses in this film is that these innocent lives are in his hands. It's not about the f---ing money; it's an act of desperation.

A heist film has never had a character like this and cinema will never have another John Cazale. Both Streep and Pacino credit Cazale with teaching them more about acting than anyone else. Streep said what made John special was "the specificity of him." And I like that: "the specificity of him."

Chris Game has been casting commercials, music videos, and movies for more than a decade. His work includes three features—"The Good Humor Man," "The Uninvited," and the upcoming "Scary or Die"—as well as current ad campaigns for Swiffer and Chrysler. He is also an acting teacher and a founding member of and frequent director and actor with the Elephant Theatre Company in Los Angeles.