John Cazale was a remarkable talent, though he only appeared in five feature films during his career. From 1972 to 1978, he captivated audiences with roles in some of the era’s most high-profile and critically acclaimed films. Best known as Michael Corleone’s brother, Fredo, in “The Godfather Parts I and II,” he also starred in the gripping Vietnam War epic “The Deer Hunter” and earned a Golden Globe for his performance in “Dog Day Afternoon.”
During this brief yet extraordinarily successful period, Cazale crossed paths with Meryl Streep, whose own career was just beginning to take off. They formed an instant connection while working on a production of Shakespeare’s “Measure For Measure” and became inseparable from that moment on. Sadly, Cazale’s career was tragically cut short when he passed away at the age of 42. His final role was in “The Deer Hunter” in 1978, where he shared the screen with his partner Streep, who remained with him until the end of his life.
In 1977, amid his thriving career and while preparing for a production of Agamemnon, Cazale fell ill. He and Streep visited a doctor, only to receive the devastating news that he had terminal lung cancer. The events were chronicled in Michael Schulman’s biography, “Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep.” The two had fallen deeply in love and were living together in Tribeca when their lives took a dramatic turn. They chose to keep his terminal condition private, sharing it only with each other.
Although Cazale largely stepped back from acting, he fought to secure his final role in “The Deer Hunter.” Everyone involved in the production wanted Cazale in the film, except for the production company, EMI, which argued that his insurance costs were too high due to his terminal illness. Director Michael Cimino faced a fierce battle to keep Cazale in the picture. Robert De Niro, adamant about working with Cazale, ultimately covered the insurance costs. The two stars both appeared in “The Godfather Part II” but did not share any screen time. Cazale joined the cast of “The Deer Hunter” and shot all of his scenes first in a bid to complete his work. He finished filming but passed away before the film’s release. “The Deer Hunter” went on to receive numerous Academy Award nominations, solidifying Cazale as an underrated talent in Hollywood.
Streep continued to work to support Cazale’s medical costs, even though she was uncomfortable with the subject matter of her next project, the miniseries “Holocaust.” She won an Emmy for her role but found it difficult to be away from Cazale for extended periods.
After the production concluded, she returned to be with Cazale for his final months. Streep exhibited incredible strength and selflessness, providing unwavering support without ever revealing the gravity of Cazale’s condition. After ten months of caring for him, Cazale passed away in March of 1978. In his final moments, he comforted Streep, telling her, “It’s all right, Meryl.” This tragic event deeply impacted Streep, and those close to the couple admired her strength and devotion throughout.