Perhaps better known to the general public as an actor, John Cassavetes' true artistic legacy derives from his work behind the camera; arguably, he was America's first truly independent filmmaker, an iconoclastic maverick whose movies challenged the assumptions of the cinematic form. Obsessed with bringing to the screen the "small feelings" he believed that American society at large attempted to suppress, Cassavetes' work emphasized his actors above all else, favoring character examination over traditional narrative storytelling to explore the realities of the human condition. A pioneer of self-financing and self-distribution, he led the way for filmmakers to break free of Hollywood control, perfecting an improvisational, cinéma vérité aesthetic all his own.
The son of Greek immigrants, Cassavetes was born December 9, 1929, in New York City. After attending public school on Long Island, he later studied English at both Mohawk College and Colgate University prior to enrolling at the New York Academy of Dramatic Arts. Upon graduating in 1950, he signed on with a Rhode Island stock company while attempting to land roles on Broadway and made his film debut in Gregory Ratoff's Taxi in 1953. A series of television roles followed, with Cassavetes frequently typecast as a troubled youth. By 1955, he was playing similar parts in the movies, appearing in pictures ranging from Night Holds Terror to Crime in the Streets.
Cassavetes' career as a filmmaker began most unexpectedly. In 1957, he was appearing on Night People, a New York-based radio show, to promote his recent performance in the Martin Ritt film Edge of the City. While talking with host Jean Shepherd, Cassavetes abruptly announced that he felt the film was a disappointment and claimed he could make a better movie himself; at the close of the program, he challenged listeners interested in an alternative to Hollywood formulas to send in a dollar or two to fund his aspirations, promising he would make "a movie about people." No one was more surprised than Cassavetes himself when, over the course of the next several days, the radio station received over 2,000 dollars in dollar bills and loose change; true to his word, he began production within the week, despite having no idea exactly what kind of film he wanted to make.
Assembling a group of students from his acting workshop, Cassavetes began work on what was later titled Shadows. The production had no script or professional crew, only rented lights and a 16 mm camera. Without any prior experience behind the camera, Cassavetes and his cast made mistake after mistake, resulting in a soundtrack which rendered the actors' dialogue completely inaudible (consequently creating a three-year delay in release while a new soundtrack was dubbed). A sprawling, wholly improvised piece about a family of black Greenwich Village jazz musicians -- the oldest brother dark-skinned, the younger brother and sister light enough to pass for white -- the film staked out the kind of fringe society to which Cassavetes' work would consistently return, posing difficult questions about love and identity.
Unable to find an American distributor, the completed Shadows appeared in 1960, and was widely hailed as a groundbreaking accomplishment. After receiving the Critics Award at that year's Venice Film Festival, it finally was released in the U.S. with the backing of a British distributor. The film's success brought Cassavetes to the attention of Paramount, who hired him to direct the 1961 drama Too Late Blues with Bobby Darin. The movie was a financial and critical disaster, and he was quickly dropped from his contract. Landing at United Artists, he directed A Child Is Waiting for producer Stanley Kramer. After the two men had a falling out, Cassavetes was removed from the project, which Kramer then drastically re-cut, prompting a bitter Cassavetes to wash his hands of the finished product.
Stung by his experiences as a Hollyw