June 7, 1989 | “That's a sweet smile, isn't it? A real cutie. Now I ask you: Who could hate a guy like this?”
Ben Gazzara was heartily amused by the glossy photograph, one of the publicity stills crammed into a pocket of the press kit for Road House. In the picture, Gazzara's wearing a grin that appears almost cherubic. His eyes are aglow with merry mischief. And, yes, his cheeks practically beg to be pinched -- playfully, of course.
If you didn't know better, you might think Gazzara is playing one of Santa's more mature elves in the United Artists release.
But then you read the caption on the photo: “Ben Gazzara portrays Brad
Wesley, the brutal town patriarch whose lust for power barely overshadows his violent greed . . .”
Gee. But he looks like such a nice guy.
Gazzara clearly has time of his life during almost every frame of Road House, a luridly violent, larger-than-life melodrama that stars Houston-born actor Patrick Swayze as Dalton, the world's greatest barroom bouncer. Dalton is hired to contol the blood-and-guts action at a rambunctious Missouri honky-tonk. This puts him at odds with Brad Wesley, a gleefully wicked sadist with a song in his heart and a fist in someone else's face.
“I really enjoy villains,” Gazzara said during a recent Manhattan press gathering to promote Road House. “Actually, I came into movies as a villain. In 1957, my first film, called The Strange One, I was Jocko de Paris. The New Yorker called me ‘the most huggable heavy since Bogart.’ I remember that review -- the only review I've ever remembered.
“So when I read the script for this, I was interested. (Producer Joel Silver) faxed it to me at the Hassler Hotel in Rome. You can imagine me unrolling this long, long fax, all over the floor, and laughing. And once I laughed, I bought it. The character made me laugh, and I figured, ‘I've got to do this, it's too delicious.’
“And when we were filming, I never worried about going over the top, because he was so much fun to play. You just worry about being the predictable villain. So, you try to find a sense of humor, the opposite colors to play, to play against the evil -- and to have some fun with the part.”
Indeed, Gazzara repeatedly provides some much-needed comic relief between the beatings, shootings and throat-rippings that take up so much screen time during Road House. At one point, he even breaks into song, warbling “Sh-Boom” (as in, “Life could be a dream, sh-boom . . .”) as he drives down a country road, plotting his next outrageous activity.
“That's the only thing that's been a disappointment, really,'' Gazzara said, screwing his face into a mask of mock severity. ''Originally, I had four songs in it. And I'm really angry -- they cut out three of my songs. I could have been on the soundtrack album.
“I think I'm gonna sue.”
During more than three decades of acting in films, television and theater, Gazzara, who turns 59 in August, has managed to strike a near-perfect balance between what he calls “popcorn movies” (The Young Doctors and The Bridge at Remagan ) and more serious projects. Not surprisingly, he places Road House in the former category. In the latter, he counts Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder, Peter Bogdanovich's Saint Jack, the original Broadway stage productions of A Hatful of Rain and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and every independently produced film he ever made for the late, great John Cassavetes.
“John was a genius, and a great artist, and we're never gonna see his like again,” said Gazzara. Cassavetes -- who directed Gazzara in Husbands, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Opening Night -- died of complications arising from cirrhosis of the liver earlier this year. “But he was courageous. And he faced death the way he faced his career. He was just incredible. He knew he would die from this illness, but if you'd go by to cheer him up, he would send you out laughing. He kept writing, he kept creating, he kept dreaming until the last moment.”
Shortly before Cassavetes’ death, Gazzara and Peter Falk (another veteran of Husbands ) were working on a play written by Cassavetes, Begin the Beguine. It's a comedy, and Gazzara thought it was promising. Since Cassavetes’ passing, however, the project has been placed on indefinite hold.
In addition to the “popcorn movies” and serious projects, Gazzara admits to some major embarrassments on his resume. Speaking of The Neptune Factor, a low-rent sci-fi thriller he filmed 1973, he's brutally frank: “I would like to destroy the negative, and all the prints.'' And he has even fewer kind words for Inchon (1982), the multimillion-dollar Korean War drama produced by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church.
“We didn't know there was Moonie money behind the film until we were six weeks into production,'' Gazzara said. “Actually, though, I guess it must have been fate that I be in that movie. I turned it down three times, until the producer told me Laurence Olivier was gonna be in it, playing Gen. Douglas MacArthur. And I thought to myself, ‘Well, why am I being such a purist? If Olivier's in it, why can't I?’
“And when we were filming, I met my wife, Elke. She's from Germany, and she was working as a model (in Korea) at the time. We've been together ever since.”
In recent years, Gazzara and his wife have spent most of their time in Rome, where Gazzara has appeared in several Italian movies. The son of an immigrant Sicilian laborer, the New York-born Gazzara finds that his neighbors “look at me as a son of their land. An American, but not really. They like me a lot there. Especially the women. They think I'm sexier than Patrick Swayze.”
Italian investors have bankrolled Gazzara's next project, Beyond the Ocean, a drama he plans to direct on location in Bali. He also will play the lead role in the film, co-starring with Jill Clayburgh and Treat Williams.
“This tan you see on me comes from location hunting eight weeks ago,” Gazzara said. “The Bali sun never leaves your face.
“I hate to tell the story of films. But I will say Beyond the Ocean is about a powerful man who's not having fun anymore, and tries to find out why he's not having fun anymore. And he starts to have it again, with many, many complications. And, I hope, a lot of humor, a lot of dips and turns in the story.”
As a director, will he be influenced by the no-frills, emotionally-direct style of John Cassavetes?
“Well, of course. You work with an artist like that, and I hope some of it rubs off. Certainly, the main thing I will try to do, and John did so brilliantly, is create a climate for the actor, to give him the freedom to be free -- to surprise himself, and therefore surprise you, the director.
“Interestingly enough, it was the Italians who also financed Husbands. John went over to make a gangster picture with Peter Falk (Machine Gun McCain ) in 1968, and the last thing he said before he left, he said, ‘I think I'll get the money to do our picture.’ I went to Czechoslovakia to do The Bridge at Remagen. And then the Russian tanks roll in.
“And then I get a call the next day, from John, saying, ‘Ben, don't get killed! I got the money!’ And sure enough, we moved our production to Rome, and rebuilt the bridge there, to finish the picture. And the three of us are in Rome, so we started rehearsals for Husbands. With Italian money.”