Meryl Streep's tragic love affair

The 1970s love affair between Meryl Streep and John Cazale saw them both on new acting paths but their journey together ended in tragedy.
John Cazale and Meryl Streep, circa 1977. Photo / Photofest
John Cazale and Meryl Streep, circa 1977. Photo / Photofest

The actor John Cazale, best known as Fredo Corleone in the Godfather movies, exemplified the French notion of jolie laide, or "ugly-beautiful". It was a concept that Hollywood was just beginning to grasp in the 1970s (at least when it came to men). As the playwright Israel Horovitz liked to say, he looked like St Francis of Assisi but he never seemed to lack for beautiful dates. None of his friends knew how he did it. "He always had girlfriends," said one of them, Marvin Starkman. "He had some of the most beautiful girlfriends to be found, and eventually many of them broke up [with him] because of his slow snail pace about things."

John's friend Al Pacino had signed on to Sidney Lumet's new film, Dog Day Afternoon. It was based on a real incident, in which a hapless criminal had held up a Brooklyn bank to pay for his lover's sex-change surgery. Pacino begged Lumet to see John Cazale for the part of Sal, the sidekick, even though he looked nothing like the real guy. Reluctantly, Lumet agreed. John read about two sentences before the director said, "It's yours."

As they shot Dog Day Afternoon, Pacino was acting in a workshop of a play, Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. He gathered a cast together including John and found a place to rehearse; the Public Theater, run by the powerhouse theatrical producer Joseph Papp.

Papp noticed John Cazale, who might have just the right menace for Measure for Measure, which he was casting for Shakespeare in the Park that summer. He invited John to audition for Angelo.

The night before the audition, John went to his friend Robyn Goodman's place. He was nervous; he hadn't done much Shakespeare. To make matters worse, he would be auditioning opposite the actress playing Isabella, a 26-year-old drama school graduate who came with the project - Papp adored her. If he wanted the part, he'd have to impress Meryl Streep.

The next day, John went in and read his scene from Measure for Measure. "I remember how intense John was," Goodman said, "and how scared he was, and he called right after to say that he thought it went okay. You know, it could have been better ... He was never satisfied with his work."

But he had satisfied Joe Papp, and, just as important, Meryl Streep. He got the part.

All that August, 1976, the subways in New York were plastered with illustrated posters of John Cazale and Meryl Streep: Meryl in her white nun's habit, lips parted and eyes cast down, as if in mid-thought; John gazing at her from behind, with a yearning look and a cocked eyebrow. The thought bubbles coming out of their heads converge into a single cloud, bearing the words "Measure for Measure".

John was besotted. "My husband said to me, 'I think he's falling in love with Meryl,'" Robyn Goodman recalled. "And I said," 'I hope she's falling in love with him.' By the time the show opened, they were madly in love."

Meryl was transfixed by this odd, tender, hawklike creature, whose hold over her was something she couldn't explain. "He wasn't like anybody I'd ever met," she said later. "It was the specificity of him, and his sort of humanity and his curiosity about people, his compassion."

Onstage in the park night after night, they enacted a forbidden attraction by moonlight. Offstage, their attraction wasn't forbidden but it was certainly offbeat. Never had Meryl fallen for someone so peculiar. Side by side, they somehow accentuated each other's imperfections: her forked nose, his bulbous forehead. His pale skin, her close-set eyes. They looked like two exotic birds.

"They were great to look at, because they were kind of funny-looking, both of them," Israel Horovitz said. "They were lovely in their way, but it was a really quirky couple. They were head-turners, but not because 'Wow, is she a beauty!'" He was nothing like her previous boyfriends: high-school football players, dashing leading men. Perhaps she no longer needed a Prince Charming to reassure her of her beauty. She and John didn't "look good" together, but you couldn't take your eyes off them.

"The jerk made everything mean something," she said later. "Such good judgment, such uncluttered thought. For me particularly, who is moored to all sorts of human weakness. 'You don't need this,' he'd say, 'you don't need that'." And yet John was Meryl's gateway to the elite of the acting world; in November, she accompanied him to the legendary acting teacher Lee Strasberg's 75th birthday bash at the Pierre, where the guest list included Al Pacino, Celeste Holm, and Ellen Burstyn.

The romance moved as fast as John moved slow, and before long Meryl moved into his loft on Franklin Street. Now they would be pioneers together, discovering a downtown that had barely discovered itself. She soon learned what past girlfriends has learned before her. "He took his time with stuff," she recalled. "It took him a really long time to leave the house, to lock the car." One time John decided to wallpaper a room. It took him three weeks.

But she didn't mind. Let time move as slow as molasses. They were happy.

Photo / Theo Westenberger Archives
Photo / Theo Westenberger Archives

A few weeks after Meryl auditioned for the title role in film Julia, director Fred Zimmerman gave the part to Vanessa Redgrave. He offered Meryl a small part as Lillian Hellman's gossipy friend Anne Marie. But he had too many blondes in the movie already. Would she consider wearing a wig? Of course, Meryl told him. She'd do anything.

She flew to London to film her scenes. It was her first time acting in a movie - in the company of Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave, no less.

Her first day on the set, she broke out in hives. For one thing, she looked awful: the curly black wig she'd been given made her look harsh and her costumes were all absurd hats and furs and red period dresses. Meryl prepared dutifully, but when she showed up she was handed a rewrite. Her panic was evident in the red splotches on her neck, which the makeup people frantically pancaked over.

Most intimidating: her scenes with all with Jane Fonda. At 38, no film actress was more prominent or more controversial. Her sex-kitten Barbarella days were behind her. So was Hanoi Jane. With Fun with Dick and Jane, she had reclaimed her stature as a mainstream star, and now used her clout to foster socially conscious projects like Julia, which featured her bravely outwitting Nazis.

Meryl was brought over to meet Fonda. "She had an almost feral alertness," Meryl recalled later, "like this bright blue attentiveness to everything around her that was completely intimidating, and made me feel like I was lumpy and from New Jersey, which I am."

They rehearsed once through, and Fonda encouraged her to improvise. On the first take, Meryl embellished a bit. It seemed to work well. On the second take, feeling bold, she thought: I'll try something else!

Fonda leaned in and told her, "Look down."

"What?"

"Over there." Fonda pointed down. "That green tape on the floor. That's you. That's your mark. And if you land on it, you will be in the light, and you will be in the movie."

She was grateful for the help - she needed it - but she also observed the way Fonda carried her stardom. It seemed as if half of what Jane Fonda did was maintain the machinery of being Jane Fonda, as opposed to acting. "I admire Jane Fonda," Meryl said not long after. "But I also don't want to spend all my time immersing myself ... in the business of myself ..."

By the end of April 1977, Meryl and John were both in rehearsals for separate Broadway shows. Come May, she'd be starring in Happy End, while he played the title role in Agamemnon 20 blocks north. By day, they'd have the cobblestones of Franklin Street. At night, they'd have the lights of Broadway.

There was just one problem: John Cazale was coughing up blood.

It became clear that something was seriously wrong with John. Meryl had noticed "disturbing symptoms," and at her urging he agreed to see a doctor - previews be damned. But the two actors knew nothing about navigating the Manhattan medical world, where the doctors' offices on Park Avenue could be booked up for weeks. Luckily, they knew someone with clout, maybe the only person in the downtown theater who could get anything he wanted with a phone call. Joseph Papp.

Beleaguered as he was by his bloated theatrical empire, Papp would throw everything aside to help an actor or playwright in an hour of need. He arranged for them to see his doctor, William Hitzig, at his practice on the Upper East Side. Hitzig arranged to loan his chauffeur and vintage Rolls-Royce to John and Meryl and they spent the day being driven to what seemed like every cancer specialist in the city. It was grimly ironic: here they were, like two movie stars arriving at a premiere, but with any sense of luxury eased by the hovering dread.

After several exhausting days, Meryl and John sat in Dr. Higzig's office. Nothing in the doctor's kindly demeanor betrayed the horror of the diagnosis: John had advanced lung cancer, and would need to start radiation immediately.

John fell silent. For a moment, so did Meryl. But she was never one to give up, and certainly not the kind to succumb to despair. Maybe it was just the uncanny sense of confidence that she was always able to trick herself into having, or at least showing. But right then, Meryl dug into some great well of perseverance and decided that, as far as she was concerned, John was going to live.

She looked up and said, "So, where should we go for dinner?"

Meryl and John were planning their next move, one that had little to do with doctors and radiation and everything to do with what brought them together in the first place: acting. They would star together in a movie.

A certain mythic miasma would forever cloud The Deer Hunter. The murkiness of its origins was indicative of the deeper mysteries that came to haunt the film: Was Russian roulette really played in Vietnam? Does it matter? Is it even a Vietnam movie, or a mediation on grand themes of friendship and manhood? Is it anti-war - or fascist - propaganda? A masterpiece or a mess?

Knowing that a movie about Vietnam would be a hard sell, the studio needed a star to play the Russian lead, Michael Vronsky. Aside from being noticeably non-Russian, Robert de Niro couldn't have been more tempting. His roles in Mean Streets, The Godfather: Part II and Taxi Driver had solidified him as the rough-and-tumble-hero of the New Hollywood.

Director Michael Cimino and De Niro began scouting for actors to round out the cast. De Niro saw Meryl Streep in The Cherry Orchard, and a few weeks later when Ciminio caught her in Happy End, she got the offer to play Linda, a supermarket checkout girl torn between De Niro's character, Michael, and her engagement to his friend Nick, played by Christopher Walken.

Movies didn't rank high among her ambitions, and she had told herself that she wasn't an ingenue. "They needed a girl between two guys," she said later, "and I was it."

But there was another pull to The Deer Hunter, one that superseded her typecasting concerns: it had a role for John Cazale, as steelworker Stanley.

On set, Meryl watched John carefully, making sure he didn't overextend himself. He was weak, and it showed. Beneath his flannel shirt was a small tattooed mark on his chest made by the radiation techs, like the crosshairs in a hunting rifle's scope. Most of the cast knew what he was up against, although nobody really talked about it.

When they could, the couple would steal some private moments. "They talked quietly together," cast member Mary Ann Haenel recalled. "They had their heads together. They walked together. They looked happy. But every now and then, you would see that look that they would give each other - it was a deep look."

Meryl Streep. Photo / Theo Westenberger Archives
Meryl Streep. Photo / Theo Westenberger Archives

All Meryl wanted to do was to be with John, but fate was pulling her two directions. One: his hard-fought road to recovery. The other: show business, where she was increasingly in demand. Her next project was the nine-hour television miniseries Holocaust. Meryl took the job for one reason: money. She had been quietly helping to pay John's medical bills, and after The Deer Hunter, neither of them knew when he'd be able to work again. She expected John would go with her to Austria to film, but when the time came he was just too weak.

The shoot went for two and half grim months. Meryl spent her last few weeks on set counting down the hours. When she returned to New York, John was limping. He was in worse shape than ever.

No one saw Meryl for a while. No one saw John either. Offers for parts came and went. Friends called the loft for John, and Meryl would pick up.

"He's really ready to go to sleep at the moment. Maybe another time ..."

Click.

On trips to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, the doctors took note of John's undaunted companion. When one surgeon remarked on her distinctive beauty, John said it was an example of nature at its finest: "One that I hope to keep seeing as long as possible."

Her resolve convinced everyone - couldn't they tell she was acting her heart out? As she wrote to her Yale acting teacher Bobby Lewis, "My beau is terribly ill and sometimes, as now, in the hospital. He has very wonderful care and I try not to stand around wringing my hands but I am worried all the time and pretending to be cheery all the time, which is more exhausting mentally physically emotionally than any work I've ever done. I have not worked, thank God, since October, or I don't know how I would have survived."

John's lung cancer had metastasised to the bone and he got weaker by the day, which Meryl attributed to the chemotherapy. The accoutrements of her own life seemed trivial; the only role she had time for now was nurse. Despite their troubles, Meryl valued that time, with the distractions of show business far away and the two of them alone together, sharing the intimacy of close quarters. "I was so close," she said, "I didn't notice the deterioration."

Meryl's brother Third (Harry Streep III), had been calling the loft, hoping for good news about John, who was now too ill to leave the house. Usually Meryl averted his concern with an upbeat deflection: "We're doing great!"

Then, one day, her answer was different. "He's not doing so good."

It was the first time she had betrayed any lack of hope. It was the day John Cazale moved into Memorial Sloan Kettering for the last time.

Meryl kept watch in the hospital at all hours, as John seemed to shrink into his neat white bed. She kept his spirits up with the only elixir she had: performance. She filled the room with comic voices, reading him the sports pages with the whiz-bang delivery of Warner "Let's go to the videotape!" Wolf.

When friends visited, they saw not Meryl's weariness but her fortitude. "She took care of him like there was nobody else on earth," Joe Papp said later. "She never betrayed him in his presence or out of his presence. Never betrayed any notion that he would not survive. He knew he was dying, the way a dying man knows it." Nevertheless, "She gave him tremendous hope."

Decades later, Al Pacino would say, "When I saw that girl there with him like that I thought, there's nothing like that. I mean, that's it for me. As great as she is in all her work, that's what I think of when I think of her."

Around three in the morning on March 12, 1978, John closed his eyes. "He's gone," the doctor said. But Meryl wasn't ready to hear it, much less believe it. What happened next, by some accounts, was the culmination of all the tenacious hope Meryl had kept alive for the past 10 months. She pounded on his chest, sobbing, and for a brief, alarming moment, John opened his eyes.

"It's all right, Meryl," he said weakly. "It's all right."

What was it that brought him back? A final rush of blood to the brain? Her sheer force of will? Whatever it was, it lasted only for a second or two. After that, John Cazale closed his eyes again. He was forty-two.

Meryl called his brother, Stephen, waking him up.

"John is gone," she told him.

"Oh, God," Stephen said.

She burst into tears. "I tried."

Edited extract from Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep, by Michael Schulman, published by Faber and Faber on June 27, $37.

- Canvas

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