Cazale acted in just five movies and all of them were nominated for Best Picture with three of them winning the Academy Award.
“He wasn’t like anybody I’d ever met,” said Meryl Streep once about John Cazale. It was something that a lot of people said about Cazale, an actor who was best known for his role as Fredo in The Godfather. Their love story was tragic and short-lived and yet, the dedication they had to each other until he passed away from cancer was something people still talk about. “Meryl stayed by his side every single moment,” recalled The Deer Hunter director Michael Cimino. At the time, Streep was still a young actress, ready to break out, and become the star as we know her today. Cazale had started out much later in life as an actor but he was a powerhouse. He acted in just five movies his entire life and all of them were nominated for Best Picture with three of them winning the Academy Award, reported New York Post. “I learned more about acting from John than anybody,” said Al Pacino, who starred alongside him in The Godfather and The Dog Day Afternoon.
Streep and Cazale first met in 1976 when they were cast opposite each other in Measure for Measure, a play. They were smitten with each other in no time. “Once he was in that play, the only thing he talked about was her,” said actor Marvin Starkman. Streep says he had a human quality that very few people have. “It was the specificity of him, and his sort of humanity and his curiosity about people, his compassion,” she said. “They were great to look at because they were kind of funny-looking, both of them,” said the playwright Israel Horovitz. “They were lovely in their way, but it was a really quirky couple. They were head-turners, but not because, ‘Wow, is she a beauty!’”
Cazale would take her to dinner in Italian restaurants where they insisted he eat for free simply for the joy of having "Fredo" eat at their place. Within no time, they were living together in Cazale’s Tribeca loft. Life couldn't have been any more perfect for the pair but then, he started to fall ill. A visit to the doctor left them stunned. Cazale was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and it had spread throughout his body. Michael Schulman, who penned Streep's biography Her Again, described the scene. “John fell silent,” wrote Schulman. “For a moment, so did Meryl. But she was never one to give up, and certainly not one to succumb to despair . . . She looked up and said, ‘So, where should we go to dinner?’”
Cazale dropped out of his play while Streep continued acting to pay his medical bills. Streep was taking parts she would never otherwise take to help Cazale with the treatment he needed. Al Pacino would take Cazale to radiation treatments, sitting in the waiting room. Cazale filmed his final movie, The Deer Hunter, while undergoing treatment. He starred alongside Streep and Robert De Niro. The production company wanted to fire him on account of him being terminally ill, citing outrageous insurance costs. “I was told that unless I got rid of John, [they] would shut down the picture,” Cimino said later. “It was awful. I spent hours on the phone, yelling and screaming and fighting.” Streep later revealed that De Niro covered Cazale’s insurance costs. “He was sicker than we thought,” said De Niro, “but I wanted him to be in it.” All his scenes were filmed first.
Streep starred in Holocaust, a film that was being shot in Austria, to continue paying his medical bills. Her boyfriend was dying and she was stuck in Austria. “I was going crazy. John was sick, and I wanted to be with him,” she said. “She was very anxious to do her very last scene and then zip back out,” said director Marvin Chomsky. “I mean, I don’t even think we had a moment to say goodbye.” When she returned to New York, Cazale's condition had deteriorated. She decided to never leave his side. For five months, there was no news of Streep in the movie industry. She was by his side at every appointment and radiation treatment. Cancer had spread to his bones and he was weak. “She was always a strong-willed, persistent, hopeful person, and I think she just applied all her spirit and strength to taking care of him,” said Schulman.
On March 12, 1978, at 3 a.m, Cazale passed away. "He's gone," his doctor informed her. Schulman wrote, "She pounded on his chest, sobbing, and for a brief, alarming moment, John opened his eyes. ‘It’s all right, Meryl,’ he said weakly. ‘It’s all right.’” Then he closed his eyes and died. It was a year that would change her as a person and an actor. Her deeply tragic loss was followed by her meteoric rise in the industry. She won an Emmy for Holocaust, an Oscar nomination for The Deer Hunter, and an Academy award for her role in Kramer vs. Kramer.
“The death is still very much with me. It has forced me to confront my own mortality, and once you do that, you look at things differently,” she said. Al Pacino says the image of Meryl Streep taking care of Cazale is seared into his mind. "When I saw that girl there with him like that I thought, 'There’s nothing like that.' As great as she is in all her work, that’s what I think of when I think of her," said Al Pacino.
Cover image sources: Left: Godfather | Paramount Pictures; Right: Getty Images | Photo by Evening Standard