I Knew It Was You: John Cazale Docu on HBO

His big-screen acting career comprised just five movies—but they were five of the most memorable films of his generation. Each earned a Best Picture Oscar nomination and teamed him with some of the most acclaimed actors and directors of the 20th century.  Many of his contemporaries remember him as one of the brightest talents of his day, and he is venerated by some of today’s most celebrated actors and filmmakers. Yet, just three decades after his promising career ended with his untimely death, actor John Cazale is largely unknown to the general public.

Between 1972 and 1978, Cazale co-starred in The Godfather, The Godfather: Part II, The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon and The Deer Hunter. Collectively, the films hauled in no less than 40 Oscar nominations—including 14 for Cazale’s co-stars—and hundreds of millions in box office receipts.  But while even casual film fans can reel off the stars of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 Oscar-winning masterpiece The Godfather, many draw a blank when it comes to the actor who played “Fredo Corlone.”  With his latest documentary, I KNEW IT WAS YOU, feature film director Richard Shepard seeks to remedy that disparity. “It’s amazing how many young actors and filmmakers revere Cazale’s work, because he’s not generally known to most people,” Shepard says. “Part of the reason for doing this movie was to rectify that.” 


Interspersed with clips from Cazale’s movies and rarely seen photos and home video, I KNEW IT WAS YOU features interviews with a pantheon of Hollywood royalty, including Al Pacino, Gene Hackman, Robert De Niro, Richard Dreyfuss, Meryl Streep and Sidney Lumet, many of whom befriended and worked alongside the Massachusetts-born actor, and one of whom—Streep—fell in love with him. The film also includes insights from a younger generation of actors and filmmakers inspired by Cazale, among them Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Rockwell, Steve Buscemi and Brett Ratner, who produced the film.


In addition to exploring Cazale’s filmography, the documentary revisits his roots in theater. Cazale was discovered by The Godfather casting director Fred Roos in 1971 at an off-Broadway revival of “Line.” Coppola immediately saw in Cazale the potential for what would become his most memorable role—Fredo in The Godfather films. (The title of the film is derived from Michael Corleone’s famous line, “I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart.”) As Coppola recalls in the documentary, “He had all the qualities I had hoped for in Fredo, and there was no hesitation to cast him.” 


Although Cazale himself was never nominated for an Academy Award, his peers say his acting prowess brought out the best in their own performances. Coppola wrote a role for Cazale in The Conversation, and Cazale’s trademark intensity reached new levels as the tragicomic Sal in Dog Day Afternoon


Cazale’s final role was in Michael Cimino’s Best Picture Oscar winner The Deer Hunter.  When shooting began, Cazale had already been diagnosed with lung cancer and was deemed uninsurable. But his friend Robert De Niro used his own money to ensure Cazale could act in the film.  Cazale went on to give another performance, but died before the film was released in 1978. He was 42.


Shepard and producer Stacey Reiss spent three years getting I KNEW IT WAS YOU made. “John was always my favorite actor,” says Shepard the director and producer, who also wrote and directed The Matador, starring Pierce Brosnan, and won a 2007 Emmy Award for directing the “Ugly Betty” pilot. “But when I wanted to read something about him, I found nothing. It was like he was forgotten.” 


The film’s producer, Brett Ratner, director of such blockbuster hits as the Rush Hour trilogy and X-Men: The Last Stand, adds:  “It’s astonishing how many Academy Awards were given to John Cazale’s peers in the five films he acted in. John wasn’t even nominated once. Its about time that John got the recognition he deserves. I’m so proud to be a part of a film that reintroduces one of the greatest actors of our generation to a whole new audience.”


“It was amazing to me the outpouring of A-list actors and directors who all agreed to participate in this film,” says producer Reiss.  “It is a testament to how much John was loved and admired among his peers.