Watch and Learn

If you ask most people if they know who John Cazale is, chances are they'll scratch their heads. But show them a picture of the actor from the first two installments of the "Godfather" saga, and they'll likely reply, "Oh, you mean Fredo." Still, they probably won't realize that he's also the same guy from "Dog Day Afternoon," "The Deer Hunter," and "The Conversation." Remarkably, these are the only features that Cazale acted in—all of which were nominated for Academy Awards for best picture and three of which won. Tragically, in 1978 he died at age 42.

Cazale was the ultimate character actor, or as Sam Rockwell describes him, "He was truly a transformational actor." Rockwell, a hard-core fan of the late actor, is featured in a new documentary, "I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale," which begins airing June 1 on HBO. It's a must-see for actors and fans. If you don't subscribe to HBO, rent it on DVD when it's available. And in the meantime, if you have never seen one or more of the above-mentioned classics, or if it's been a long while since you revisited them, watch them again and pay close attention to Cazale's passionate yet subtle work.

As his co-stars (Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, John Savage, Gene Hackman, and the love of his life, Meryl Streep), directors (Francis Ford Coppola, Sidney Lumet), friends, and other admirers (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Steve Buscemi) make clear in this great documentary, Cazale tapped into a place within himself that few actors dare to go. His risks paid off big-time. Though he was never nominated for an Oscar, he elevated every scene he appeared in and challenged his fellow actors to do some of their best work. Pacino, who starred in three pictures with Cazale as well as an Off-Broadway play, acknowledges, "I think I learned more about acting from John than anybody."

Cazale was brilliant at bringing out the vulnerability of his characters, whether it be jealous, slighted brother Fredo in the "Godfather" films or creepy, volatile, pathetic Sal, Pacino's partner in crime in "Dog Day." Cazale's close friend Robyn Goodman shares, "John felt very strongly that [in] finding the character, you had to find pain first—where that character was in pain, where he hurt. He felt that that was the major motivation and that would translate into positive choices as an actor." Or as Rockwell succinctly puts it, "It's not easy to play weak." Most actors, if given the choice, would rather play Michael Corleone than Fredo any day.

While often intense, Cazale instinctively knew how to bring lightness, even humor, to a scene. Above all, he magically made you root for his characters, despite the fact that they may be traitors, criminals, or just wimps. Says Lumet, "Cazale broke your heart."

It breaks my heart that this wonderful actor didn't win his battle with cancer at such a young age. One can only imagine the further body of work he would have accumulated—both on screen and on stage (Cazale acted in 10 Israel Horovitz plays)—in the subsequent three decades had he lived. But the work that lives on should serve as inspiration for any actor who wants to elevate his or her craft. If you're serious about your craft, go study him and get inspired.