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John Cassavetes: Godfather of Indie Cinema

Getty Images / Ron Galella Collection / Ron Galella

John Cassavetes: Godfather of Indie Cinema

Compelling, quirkily complex characters. Use of nonprofessional actors. Emphasis on improvisation. Shooting on location. Handheld cameras, shoestring budgets, non-formulaic stories.

If this looks like a checklist for getting your film into Sundance, consider that John Cassavetes, who would have been 81 today, was making films with these characteristics way back in 1957. Little wonder that he is considered the godfather of American independent cinema.

Born Dec. 9, 1929, in New York City, he moved with his immigrant parents back to Greece as a young child, only to return to the United States at age 7, unable to speak English. He nonetheless graduated high school and spent a year at Colgate University before transferring to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.

In 1950 he began his acting career in the theater and in television. Though he was twice rejected by and had philosophical differences with the hugely influential Actors Studio (where Lee Strasberg mentored young actors like James Dean, Marlon Brando, Sidney Poitier, and later stars like Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino), in his own workshop, he embraced their improvisational techniques. It was in one of these workshops that he created the characters and conflicts that would be at the core of his first film, Shadows, the story of a young black woman who passes as white.

In true indie entrepreneurial style, he raised funds for the film largely by soliciting donations on the popular late night talk radio program Night People by asking the question, "If there can be off-Broadway plays, why can't there be off-Broadway movies?"

The idea was as revolutionary as the film itself.

Shot with a cast and crew of volunteers on the streets of New York in 16mm, the film didn't get commercial distribution in America, though it won the Critics Award at the Venice Film Festival in 1960. But commercial success wasn't a yardstick for Cassavetes. "We were working for the fun of doing something we wanted to do," he said. "It was more important to work creatively than to make money. We would never have been able to finish if all the people who participated in the film hadn't discovered one fundamental thing: that being an artist is nothing other than the desire, the insane wish to express yourself completely, absolutely."

Cassavetes next returned to acting, starring in the feature film Edge of the City (1957) opposite Sidney Poitier and playing the lead in Johnny Staccato, a short-run drama on NBC. He moved to California for more opportunities but was largely absent during the early sixties, trying his hand at novels and cranking out unproduced screenplays while his wife, Gena Rowlands, enjoyed a flourishing career. He pursued acting throughout the 1960s, appearing in Don Siegel's The Killers in 1964 (notable as the last film Ronald Reagan made before entering politics), Devil's Angels (1967) and Rosemary's Baby (1968). He also earned an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor for his role in 1967's The Dirty Dozen.

Cassavetes worked in television development but found the work depressing and unrewarding. What he really wanted was to go back to his DIY roots, to make another movie like Shadows.

That film would be Faces, which chronicles one night in a failing marriage of an upper middle-class, middle-aged couple as they go their separate ways for a night on the town. Desperately searching for pleasure and escape, they instead are forced at every turn to confront the emptiness of what their lives have become. Funded out of his own pocket (so unprecedented at the time that his lawyer told him it was a legal non-starter) and shot over a six-month period largely in his home (and that of his very understanding mother-in-law), it would take another three years of sporadic editing before Faces would finally be released in 1968.

The movie shared many similarities with Shadows, but the landscape had changed in the 1960s as filmgoers became more sophisticated through exposure to European "art" films. Cassavetes' second effort thus met with a much better reception (it was, in fairness, a more accomplished film than its predecessor). Faces garnered Oscar nominations for best original screenplay, best supporting actress and best supporting actor and re-launched the career of its director.

But instead of cashing in, Cassavetes continued to work mostly outside the mainstream Hollywood system, and his remarkable run of films in the 1970s — Husbands (1971), Minnie and Moskowitz (1971), A Woman Under the Influence (1974), Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), Opening Night (1977) — is an accomplishment that ranks with any director's body of work before or since.

He continued to write and direct in the 1980s, but his dependence on alcohol diluted his output and his later films ranged from mildly disappointing to flat-out disastrous. After years of illness, Cassavetes died Feb. 3, 1989, of liver disease. He was 59.

Both his son Nick Cassavetes and his daughter Zoe Cassavetes have become successful independent filmmakers in their own right. But then all American directors who've maxed out a credit card, 'stolen' location shots, begged favors from friends and family members, and otherwise bucked the system in order to bring their visions to the screen can rightly be said to be the sons and daughters of John Cassavetes.