Filmmaker John Cassavetes Did Everything One Way—His

updated 02/20/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/20/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

He was, in a sense, Everyman as filmmaker. In fact, he was blue-collar and earthbound enough to reject the "film" label and say that he was proud to do movies. Director, writer and actor John Cassavetes, who died from complications of cirrhosis last week in Hollywood at 59, would have wanted his obituaries written in the same stark shades of his best films: grainy black and white.

Cassavetes was a barroom brawler of an artist. Like his friends Ben Gazzara and Peter Falk, with whom he made perhaps his most memorable movies, Husbands and A Woman Under the Influence, he eschewed the best table at Spago's in favor of the smoky back room of P.J. Clarke's. And like most of the giants of both movies and brawling, he never hesitated to lead with his chin.

Sometimes the critics responded with a wet kiss, sometimes a shot to the jaw. Sometimes both. "You can never be sure," New York Times critic Vincent Canby wrote of Cassavetes, "whether what you're seeing is artful or artless."

Either way was fine with Cassavetes. He may have been confusing but he never was a con man. Like his wife, actress Gena Rowlands, and his various close friends in the business, Cassavetes delivered to audiences what he wanted, on his fiercely personal terms. When it all worked, as in his numerous low-budget, original pictures, everybody was happy. Shadows, for example, was a crude work made with $40,000. Despite the absence of some of the traditional niceties—a formal script, continuity of plot, careful framing of actors—Village Voice critic Jonas Mekas proclaimed, "The tones and rhythms of a new America are caught in Shadows for the very first time." Faces was cited by one reviewer as "the most brilliant home movie ever made."

It was only when he ventured into the slick and higher-priced movie world that Cassavetes tended to shoot blanks. He also kept it all in perspective. "I'd rather work in a sewer than make a film I don't like," he said. "Sometimes I will act in them, however," perhaps referring to movies like Machine Gun McCain and Incubus. A genius at raising money for his own projects, he had no instinct for the fiduciary jugular: "I turned down Rocky. Don't I have great business acumen?"

But business was never the point. Gazzara may have summed up Cassavetes as well as anyone last week. "John was more interested in the surprise the actors gave him if let free with their imaginations," said Gazzara. "He hated the word auteur. He felt he made actors' films."

When he died, he was serene in the knowledge that he never wavered from that principle. He also held on to the searing pride that helped make him unique. "Certainly in my own day," said Cassavetes, "I bow to no one."

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