The great Ben Gazzara has died at the age of 81. He had a long and rich life, and from the 1957 release of The Strange One (which is a very strange film) on he was “Ben Gazzara,” and that really meant something. But what? Gazzara was almost as much of a vibe as he was an actor. He was magnetic but also a bit of a hider. In film after film he was always some variation of a jaded, laconic, laid-back smartass with a very slight grin starting to emerge.

As a member of the ’50s generation that broke through in the age of Brando, Clift, Newman and Dean, Gazzara never really lucked out with that One Big Role that might have made him a star. I’m not sure he was really made of what you’d call “star material.” There was always something aloof and diffident about Gazzara. He was constantly urban and subterranean and coffeehouse and sometimes vaguely snarly and resentful, but at the same time smooth and cool and settled.

For me, Gazzara’s best performance was as Henry Chinaski in Marco Ferreri‘s Tales of Ordinary Madness (’83). There was also his volcanic work in John CassevettesHusbands (’70) and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (’76), of course, and in Peter Bogdanovich‘s Saint Jack (’79) and They All Laughed (’81`). Not to mention his snippy, sharp-mouthed murder defendant in Otto Preminger‘s Anatomy of a Murder (’59) and Jackie Treehorn, of course, in the Coen BrothersThe Big Lebowski (’97).

He was married to Janice Rule from ’61 to ’79, and reportedly had an affair with Audrey Hepburn between ’79 and ’81.

Gazzara’s Wiki bio reports the following: “During filming of the big-budget war movie The Bridge at Remagen co-starring Gazzarra and his friend Robert Vaughn, the U.S.S.R. invaded Czechoslovakia. Filming was halted temporarily, and the cast and crew were detained before filming was completed in West Germany. During their departure from Czechoslovakia, Gazzara and Vaughn assisted with the escape of a Czech waitress whom they had befriended. They smuggled her to Austria in a car waved through a border crossing that had not yet been taken over by the Soviet army.”

This is a great story. I wish I could say that I smuggled someone out of a country that had just been taken over by the bad guys. The waitress was probably in her early 20s when this happened. She’s in her mid ’60s today, if alive. Whatever happened to her? How did her life work out?