John Cassavetes, born December 9, 1929, was fully Greek in Heritage. His father, Nicholas was born in Greece, his mother Katherine, nee Demetre, was born in New York City of Greek Heritage. During the Depression, John’s father moved his family to Greece for obvious reasons. John was seven years old and had to learn English when they moved back to the United States. Moving back was motivated by the dictatorship of Metaxas (1936-1941) whose reign was far removed from Democratic governance.
John spent his late childhood in Long Island City (1945-1947) and attended Port Washington High School where he wrote for the newspaper and year book. At 18, he went to Blair’s Academy, a boarding school in New Jersey. Then he enrolled in Champlain College, Vermont but was expelled for poor grades. When he told his father that he was going to New York to pursue acting career, he told him, “you have to work hard and I expect you to portray human emotions, truthfully.”
Returning to New York, he met friends who were students of the Academy of Dramatic Arts who recommended that he enroll. He graduated (1950) at 21 years old and began performing small parts in the theater and TV. His first main role was, The Night Holds Terror (1955). The next, more prominent role was, Crime in the Streets (1956) and then, he got the leading role as drifter in, Edge of the City that gained him the acclaim he deserved, critics comparing him with Marlon Brando.
He married Gena Rowlands (1954–until his death) and had three children, Nicholas, Zoe, and Alexandra. With his close friend, Peter Falk, he made six movies, all highly acclaimed. One, starring his wife, A Woman under the Influence, (1974) won his wife a Best Actress Oscar nomination. The film was one of his masterpieces, along with, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Opening Night (1976).
He was undoubtedly gifted in writing and directing, often financing his own films when there was doubt from others that the film would succeed. He was strong in his opinions, very driven, and at times, overpowering. His one film, Shadows starring Bobby Darin, won the Critics Award at the Venice Film Festival. One film, Too Late Blues (1961) was poorly received but the writing, which was John’s, was considered remarkable.
In 1969, he wrote a scathing, Letter to the Editor of Life magazine, strongly criticizing the magazine for publishing a photo of the notorious Charles Manson. In the 80s, he began having health issues, mainly due to his heavy drinking. He died February 3, 1989 of cirrhosis of the liver. Gena never remarried and died at 90 years old.
Like many highly talented personalities, the genius of his abilities surfaced later in his life due either to instability, the vast location changes in his early life, or due to reticence, the reluctance of approaching that something within him that might find disapproval from his parents. But, when that special enlightenment refused to dissipate, he approached it like a bright light shining in a dim room. His imagination took flight; his writing abilities strengthened once again and he began to sense a longing to show the world what he can do. His three masterpieces were, A Woman under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Opening Night.
In 1997, eight years after his father’s death, John’s son, Nicholas, born 1959, revised one of the films his father wrote, She’s So Lovely. It was well received. It is believed that Nicholas had brought the piece to life because he wanted the world to remember and recognize his father’s amazing talent, the messages within each story. All in all, John made 31 films, all revealing some form of human frailties and courage, too, but, all reflecting what his father had advised.