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John Cassavetes: The Greek-American Pioneer of Independent Films

John Cassavetes
John Cassavetes as Johnny Staccato from the television program of the same name. Public Domain

John Cassavetes, the Greek American director and actor, died on this day on February 3rd, 1989.

Cassavetes is credited with inspiring the American independent film industry with the release of his film “Faces”, which was one of the first independently financed films to receive an Academy Award nominations.

Gena Rowlands has stated that her husband’s interest in filmmaking was “in reality and what people say in their homes to each other.”

“Faces” explores the relationship between a married couple, played by John Marley and Lynn Carlin, who decide to separate after 14 years of marriage. Marley seeks the company of a young professional escort played by Gena Rowlands, and Carlin spends her time with a hippie cowboy played by Seymour Cassel.

John Cassavetes wanted his characters to “analyze love”

Cassavetes’ films were all personal and intimate stories about people. John Cassavetes himself had said that he wanted his characters to “analyze love… the rest of the stuff doesn’t interest me. I have a one-track mind for love.”

In his own life, Cassavetes found love with Gena Rowlands. They met in New York City when they were both young actors in the 1950s. They married in 1954 and had three children, Nick, Alexandra and Zoe.

As an actor, Cassavetes starred in notable Hollywood films throughout the 1950s and 1960s, including Edge of the City (1957), The Dirty Dozen (1967), and Rosemary’s Baby (1968).

He began his directing career with the 1959 independent feature Shadows and followed with independent productions such as Faces (1968), Husbands (1970), A Woman Under the Influence (1974), Opening Night (1977), and Love Streams (1984).

He intermittently continued to act and direct on studio projects such as Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky (1976) and his own directorial works: A Child is Waiting (1963), Minnie and Moskowitz (1971), and Gloria (1980).

Director Peter Bogdanovich has said that Cassavetes had an “extraordinary understanding of women” as evidenced in many of his films including “A Woman Under the Influence” (1974) which Rowlands starred in.

Cassavetes was a truly caring and compassionate person– a rarity in show business.

Bogdanovich has described Cassavetes as the “only director of his generation that could be called a poet”. A collection of five of Cassavetes’ independent films was released on DVD in 2004 called “John Cassavetes–Five Films” by The Criterion Collection.

Cassavetes was born in New York City, the son of Greek American actress Katherine Cassavetes, who was to be featured in some of his films, and Greek immigrant Nicholas John Cassavetes, who was born in Larissa. He had an elder brother.

Members of the Cassavetes family later settled in Volos and Zagora. His early years were spent with his family in Greece, when he returned at the age of seven, he spoke no English.

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