Every class has one, that kid who’s full of quick, attention-getting wit. In 1947, Port Washington High School’s senior class had its own, immortalized in the yearbook as the “class wit,” who was “always ready with a wisecrack.”
John Cassavetes got away with the brash behavior because of his talent. Ever the daredevil, he played “chicken” on Port Washington’s sand-pit cliffs and turned over cars. He also starred in school plays and earned top honors in the Red Domino drama tournament. He played sports and wrote for the school paper, The Port Weekly (later called the Schreiber Times), and the school yearbook.
Fueled by lone-wolf energy, as an adult the maverick actor-director-screenwriter acted in more than 80 projects, directed nine episodes of television and 12 feature films, and was nominated for three Academy Awards for acting, writing, and directing. The New Yorker Magazine called him “maybe the most influential American director of the last half century.”
Cassavetes said others saw him as a rebel and something of a rowdy. Where did all that passionate independence come from?
The son of Greek immigrants, John Nicholas Cassavetes was born in New York City in December 1929 and was raised in Brooklyn and Queens. The family moved often before settling on Oakland Avenue, Port Washington, on Long Island’s North Shore. Struggling through the Depression era, they minimized their poverty. As Ray Carney wrote in his 2001 biography, Cassavetes on Cassavetes, it was a “household swimming with exalted and passionately held historical and political ideals.” At age 5, Cassavetes recited poetry and performed, and at 9, he shot 8-millimeter films with a Bolex camera, foreshadowing his destiny.
Cassavetes the teenager was nagged by “feelings of oppression at the narrowness and conformity of American culture,” wrote Carney. Disinterested, feeling out of place in his upper-middle-class neighborhood, Cassavetes later said, “I was free to…express myself the way I wanted to, while the other kids were what their families wanted them to be.”
After graduating, he drifted, caroused with women, and was kicked out of college. By the time he was 19, the self-described dilettante said he feared work because “All I’d ever done was play basketball and run out with girls.” Then he heard that the American Academy of Dramatic Arts at Carnegie Hall was packed with girls. His father reacted to his plan to study acting saying, “You are going to be representing the lives of human beings. You will speak for all the people who have no voice.”
After graduating in 1950, he went door to door, hitting 50 places a day, seeking work or an agent. He chained himself to a radiator at CBS television begging for a walk-on in You Are There; one theater manager called him “very intelligent but a full-of-energy wacko.” After landing his first film role in 1953 (Taxi), he acted in live TV productions and taught Method Acting. He also met and married actress Gena Rowlands.
But he yearned to direct — without selling “himself and his art to that Satan known as Hollywood,” wrote The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis.
In 1959, he released Shadows, his low-budget directorial debut, shot on weekends for nearly three years. He had appeared on Jean Shepherd’s Night People radio program, which celebrated guerrilla (or street) theater, to peddle an unheard-of concept in a pre-Kickstarter era. Cassavetes asked, “Wouldn’t it be terrific if [ordinary] people could make movies, instead of all these Hollywood bigwigs who are only interested in business and how much the picture was going to gross and everything?”
Money poured in; though he accepted only $5 per listener, the contributions financed the shoestring production, and the American independent film movement was born. Shot on rented and borrowed equipment with a handheld camera and natural lighting, the semi-improvised 16-millimeter cinema verité film dug into the aimlessness and wandering of the beat generation. It cost around $40,000, funded by Cassavetes’ acting earnings and radio listeners.
Continuing to rail against the constraints of Hollywood and the television networks, he made more low-budget indie films, often starring Rowlands, including 1968’s Oscar-nominated Faces. He allowed a young, uncredited production assistant, Steven Spielberg, the opportunity to direct for a day on Faces.
In the 1970s Cassavetes revisited Port landmarks and his childhood street to shoot Husbands, starring Rowlands and friends Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara. Cassavetes acted in studio films, including blockbuster Rosemary’s Baby, mainly to fund his creations, casting family members as leads and using friends’ homes for locations.
The outsider who is still remembered as the father of independent cinema died at age 59 in Los Angeles of cirrhosis of the liver in 1989.
Related Story: Remembering Diahann Carroll, A Trailblazing Mother
For more Rear View columns on Long Island history, visit longislandpress.com/category/past-present/rear-view