Cassavetes' Biography

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Born December 9, 1929 in New York City, John Cassavetes was the younger of two sons of Greek immigrants, Nicholas and Katherine Cassavetes. Cassavetes grew up and attended public schools in the Long Island towns of Sands Point and Port Washington. He attended Mohawk College and Colgate University (both in New York State) before enrolling at the New York Academy of Dramatic Arts. He graduated in 1950.

After playing for a time in a Rhode Island stock company while trying to get parts on Broadway, his career got underway when he played a small part in a film, Taxi (Gregory Ratoff, 1953). A year later he began acting in short teleplays, beginning with Paso Double (for the Omnibus series). Cassavetes became typecast as a "troubled youth" in these programs and the motion pictures that were based on these plays. Among these films were Edge of the City (Martin Ritt, 1956) and Crime in the Streets (Don Siegel, 1957).

In 1956 Cassavetes began teaching method acting at a drama workshop in Manhattan. One of the group's improvisations had the makings of a film, Cassavetes thought, and he mentioned the project on Jean Shepherd's Night People radio show. While on the air, Cassavetes suggested that listeners interested in seeing an alternative to Hollywood cinema should send in money to fund his project. Shepherd's audience sent in donations totalling around $20,000; Cassavetes raised a similar amount from his show-business friends and from his own savings. With these funds he embarked (with his acting workshop and a volunteer crew) on his first film, Shadows.

Made intermittently over two years, Shadows changed the landscape of American cinema. Actors improvised within loosely defined situations and the story evolved as the shooting progressed. Everything was filmed with a hand-held 16mm camera. The score composed by jazz great Charles Mingus further added to the improvisational, cinema veritè feeling.

Unable to interest American distributors, Cassavetes screened Shadows to enthusiastic audiences in Europe (including the 1960 Venice Film Festival, where it received the Critics Award). In 1961 Shadows was released in America under the auspices of a British distributor.

Impressed by the success of Shadows, Paramount hired Cassavetes to make a series of films but released him after the financial and critical failure of Too Late Blues, his first film for them. He then directed A Child is Waiting for Stanley Kramer (and United Artists). After a falling out with Kramer, Cassavetes was given just two weeks to edit the film. Kramer re-cut the film (making it overly sentimental, according to Cassavetes). Cassavetes, infuriated, spoke out against Kramer and the film, washing his hands of the project.

Unwilling to have his vision compromised by studio heads and producers, Cassavetes acted in several films – most notably Rosemary's Baby (Polanski, 1967) and The Dirty Dozen (Aldrich, 1967), for which he was nominated for an Oscar – so that he could finance his own films and thereby retain artistic control.

Faces, shot and edited in 16mm over three years, was the first product of this strategy. Though not improvised on-camera as was Shadows, the film marked a return to that film's improvisational, cinema veritè style. It premiered in 1968 and was a financial and critical success, being nominated of two Academy Awards and winning five awards at the Venice Film Festival.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Cassavetes worked independently or with modest studio backing when it was offered with complete artistic control. In the latter category are Husbands (Columbia, 1970), Minnie and Moskowitz (Universal, 1971), Gloria (Columbia, 1980), and Love Streams (Cannon, 1984). Of the self-financed are The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976/78), Opening Night (1978), and what many consider Cassavetes' finest film, A Woman Under the Influence (1974). All feature remarkable performances by one or more actors from his regular stable of players including Peter Falk, Ben Gazzarra, and most notably, his wife (since 1954) Gena Rowlands.

Sadly, Cassavetes' final film was, as Cassavetes put it, the "aptly titled" Big Trouble (1985). Cassavetes reluctantly stepped in to direct in mid-production after Andrew Bergman, the film's writer and director, quit the project. Cassavetes considered it a disaster and was embarrassed to have his name attached to the film. Raymond Carney has persuasively argued (Film Comment: May-June 1989, p. 49) that because of the nature of the project and the final product (it hardly shows the stamp of a Cassavetes film) Love Streams rightly deserves to be considered Cassavetes' final cinematic statement.

After a three-and-a-half year illness, John Cassavetes died February 3, 1989. Cassavetes is survived by his wife Gena Rowlands, and their children Nicholas, Alexandra, and Xan. His spirit continues to inspire countless independent and maverick filmmakers around the world.

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Four books and two packets of material are available with much more information about the life and work of John Cassavetes:

Ray Carney, The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism, and the Movies (New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 48 illustrations, paperback, 322 pages. This book is available directly from the author for $20.

The Films of John Cassavetes tells the inside story of the making of six of Cassavetes' most important works: Shadows, Faces, Minnie and Moskowitz, A Woman under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Love Streams.

With the help of almost fifty previously unpublished photographs from the private collections of Sam Shaw and Larry Shaw, and excerpts from interviews with the filmmaker and many of his closest friends, the reader is taken behind the scenes to watch the maverick independent at work: writing his scripts, rehearsing his actors, blocking their movements, shooting his scenes, and editing them. Through words and pictures, Cassavetes is shown to have been a deeply thoughtful and self-aware artist and a profound commentator.

This iconoclastic, interdisciplinary study challenges many accepted notions in film history and aesthetics. Ray Carney argues that Cassavetes' films participate in a previously unrecognized form of pragmatic American modernism that, in its ebullient affirmation of life, not only goes against the world-weariness and despair of many twentieth-century works of art, but also places his works at odds with the assumptions and methods of most contemporary film criticism.

Cassavetes' films are provocatively linked to the philosophical writing of Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James, and John Dewy, both as an illustration of the artistic consequences of a pragmatic aesthetic and as an example of the challenges and rewards of a life lived pragmatically. Cassavetes' work is shown to reveal stimulating new ways of knowing, feeling, and being in the world.

This book is available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, your local bookseller, or, for a limited time, directly from the author (in discounted, specially autographed editions). See below for information how to order this book directly from the author by money order, check, or credit card.

Clicking on the above links will open a new window in your browser. You may return to this page by closing that window or by clicking on the window for this page again.

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For reviews and critical responses to The Films of John Cassavetes, please click here. (Use your back button to return.)

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Ray Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes (Faber and Faber in London, and Farrar, Straus and Giroux in New York), copiously illustrated, paperback, approximately 550 pages. Available directly from the author for $25.

Cassavetes on Cassavetes is the autobiography John Cassavetes never lived to write. It tells an extraordinary saga – thirty years of film history, chronicling the rise of the American independent movement – as it was lived by one of its pioneers and one of the most important artists in the history of the medium. The struggles, the triumphs, the crazy dreams and frustrations are all here, told in Cassavetes' own words. Cassavetes on Cassavetes tells the day-by-day story of the making of some of the greatest and most original works of American film. –from the “Introduction: John Cassavetes in His Own Words"

Click here to access a detailed description of the book and a summary of the topics covered in it.

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Cassavetes on Cassavetes is available in the United States through Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and in England through Amazon (UK), Faber and Faber (UK). It is also available at your local bookseller, or, for a limited time, directly from the author (in discounted, specially autographed editions) for $25 via this web site. See below for information how to order this book directly from this web site by money order, check, or credit card (using PayPal).

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Ray Carney, John Cassavetes: The Adventure of Insecurity
(Boston: Company C Publishing, 1999), 25 illustrations, paperback, 68 pages. This book is available directly from the author for $15.

  • New essays on all of the major films, including Shadows, Faces, Husbands, Minnie and Moskowitz, A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Opening Night, and Love Streams
  • New, previously unknown information about Cassavetes' life and working methods
  • A new, previously unpublished interview with Ray Carney about Cassavetes the person
  • Statements about life and art by Cassavetes
  • Handsomely illustrated with more than two dozen behind-the-scenes photographs

    Click here to access a detailed description of the book.

This book is available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, your local bookseller, or, for a limited time, directly from the author (in discounted, specially autographed editions). See below for information how to order this book directly from the author by money order, check, or credit card.

Clicking on the above links will open a new window in your browser. You may return to this page by closing that window or by clicking on the window for this page again.

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Ray Carney, Shadows (BFI Film Classics, ISBN: 0-85170-835-8), 88 pages. This book is available directly from the author via this web site for $20.

"Ray Carney is a tireless researcher who probably knows more about the shooting of Shadows than any other living being, including Cassavetes when he was alive, since Carney, after all, has the added input of ten or more of the film’s participants who remember their own unique versions of the reality we all shared."—Maurice McEndree, producer and editor of Shadows

"Bravo! Cassavetes is fortunate to have such a diligent champion. I am absolutely dumbfounded by the depth of your research into this film.... Your a definitive piece of scholarly detective work.... The Robert Aurthur revelation is another bombshell and only leaves me wanting to know more.... The book movingly captures the excitement and dynamic Cassavetes discovered in filmmaking; and the perseverance and struggle of getting it up there on the screen."—Tom Charity, Film Editor, Time Out magazine

John Cassavetes’ Shadows is generally regarded as the start of the independent feature movement in America. Made for $40,000 with a nonprofessional cast and crew and borrowed equipment, the film caused a sensation on its London release in 1960.

The film traces the lives of three siblings in an African-American family: Hugh, a struggling jazz singer, attempting to obtain a job and hold onto his dignity; Ben, a Beat drifter who goes from one fight and girlfriend to another; and Lelia, who has a brief love affair with a white boy who turns on her when he discovers her race. In a delicate, semi-comic drama of self-discovery, the main characters are forced to explore who they are and what really matters in their lives.

Shadows ends with the title card "The film you have just seen was an improvisation," and for decades was hailed as a masterpiece of spontaneity, but shortly before Cassavetes’ death, he confessed to Ray Carney something he had never before revealed – that much of the film was scripted. He told him that it was shot twice and that the scenes in the second version were written by him and Robert Alan Aurthur, a professional Hollywood screenwriter. For Carney, it was Cassavetes‘ Rosebud. He spent ten years tracking down the surviving members of the cast and crew, and piecing together the true story of the making of the film.

Carney takes the reader behind the scenes to follow every step in the making of the movie – chronicling the hopes and dreams, the struggles and frustrations, and the ultimate triumph of the collaboration that resulted in one of the seminal masterworks of American independent filmmaking.

Highlights of the presentation are more than 30 illustrations (including the only existing photographs of the dramatic workshop Cassavetes ran in the late fifties and of the stage on which much of Shadows was shot, and a still showing a scene from the "lost" first version of the film); and statements by many of the film's actors and crew members detailing previously unknown events during its creation.

One of the most interesting and original aspects of the book is a nine-page Appendix that "reconstructs" much of the lost first version of the film for the first time. The Appendix points out more than 100 previously unrecognized differences between the 1957 and 1959 shoots, all of which are identified in detail both by the scene and the time at which they occur in the current print of the movie (so that they may be easily located on videotape or DVD by anyone viewing the film).

By comparing the two versions, the Appendix allows the reader to eavesdrop on Cassavetes' process of revision and watch his mind at work as he re-thought, re-shot, re-edited his movie. None of this information, which Carney spent more than five years compiling, has ever appeared in print before (and, as the presentation reveals, the few studies that have attempted to deal with this issue prior to this are proved to have been completely mistaken in their assumptions). The comparison of the versions and the treatment of Cassavetes' revisionary process is definitive and final, for all time.

This book is available through University of California Press at Berkeley, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and in England through Amazon (UK) and The British Film Institute. For a limited time, the Shadows book is also available directly from the author (in discounted, specially autographed editions) via this web site. See information below on how to order this book directly from the author by money order, check, or credit card (PayPal). The Japanese edition of <i>American Dreaming</i>

Clicking on the above links will open a new window in your browser. You may return to this page by closing that window or by clicking on the window for this page again.

For reviews and critical responses to Ray Carney's book on the making of Shadows, please click here.

Ray Carney, American Dreaming: The Films of John Cassavetes and the American Experience (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985). $20.

[From the original dust jacket description:] John Cassavetes is known to millions of filmgoers as an actor who has appeared in Rosemary’s Baby, The Dirty Dozen, Whose Life Is It, Anyway?, Tempest, and many other Hollywood movies. But what is less known is that Cassavetes acts in these films chiefly in order to finance his own unique independent productions. Over the past 25 years, working almost entirely outside the Hollywood establishment, Cassavetes has written, directed, and produced ten extraordinary films. They range from romantic comedies like Shadows and Minnie and Moskowitz to powerful, poignant domestic dramas like Faces and A Woman Under the Influence to unclassifiable emotional extravaganzas like Husbands, The The Hungarian edition of <i>American Dreaming</i>Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Gloria.

This is the first book-length study ever devoted to this controversial and iconoclastic filmmaker. It is the argument of American Dreaming that Cassavetes has single-handedly produced the most stunningly original and important body of work in contemporary film. Raymond Carney examines Cassavetes’ life and work in detail, traces his break with Hollywood, and analyzes the cultural and bureaucratic forces that drove him to embark on his maverick career. Cassavetes work is considered in the context of other twentieth-century forms of traditional and avant-garde expression and is provocatively contrasted with the better-known work of other American and European filmmakers.

The portrait of John Cassavetes that emerges in these pages is of an inspiringly idealistic American dreamer attempting to beat the system and keep alive his dream of personal freedom and individual expression – just as the characters in the films excitingly try to keep alive their middle-class dreams of love, freedom, and self-expression in the hostile emotional and familial environments in which they function. His films are chronicles of the yearnings, desires, and frustrations of the American dream. He is America’s truest historian of the inevitable conflict between the ideals and the realities of the American experience.

"By far the most thorough, ambitious, and far-reaching criticism of Cassavetes' work has been accomplished by Raymond Carney, currently Professor of Film and American Studies at Boston University. Carney wrote the first book-length study of Cassavetes, who languished in critical obscurity until the publication of Carney's American Dreaming in 1985.... In Carney's view, to settle the accounts of our lives, to decide once and for all, is, for Cassavetes, to tumble headlong into the abyss of nonentity upon which we incessantly verge. Carney argues that Cassavetes has re-invented the craft of filmmaking in ways that drastically alter our casual habits of film viewing. To adapt William James' terminology (which Carney is indebted to) Cassavetes' works are concerned less with the events and finished episodes that make up the 'substantive' parts of our experience and more with the moments of insecurity, the 'transitive' slippages during which our habitual strategies for understanding and stabilizing our relationships with ourselves and others cease to function in any useful way.... Carney's work with Cassavetes, placed within the context of his later book, American Vision, on Frank Capra, can be viewed as an attempt not only to further the understanding of American film, but to forge a new synthesis of understanding in American Studies, making his critical works valuable not only to film scholars, but to students of American culture generally."Lucio Benedetto, PostScript Magazine

American Dreaming: The Films of John Cassavetes and the American Experience (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1985), the first book ever written about Cassavetes' life and work, in any language. It has long been out of print but is now newly available through this web site for $20 in a Xerox of the original edition. You may order with a credit card through PayPal or through the mail with a money order. See below.


In addition, two packets of Ray Carney's writings on John Cassavetes (material not included in any of the above books) are also specially available through this web site. These packets contain the texts of many of his notes and essays about the filmmaker. Each packet is available for $15.00.

Collected Essays on the Life and Work of John Cassavetes (a packet of essays by Ray Carney previously published in magazines, newspapers, and periodicals and now unavailable). Approximately 130 pages.

A loose-leaf bound packet of Ray Carney's writings on John Cassavetes is specially available only through this web site. The packet has the complete texts of program notes and essays about Cassavetes that were published by Ray Carney in a variety of film journals and general interest periodicals between 1989 and the present. It contains more than fifteen separate pieces – including the keynote essay commissioned by the Sundance Film Festival for their retrospective of Cassavetes' work at the time of his death as well as the memorial piece on Cassavetes awarded a prize by The Kenyon Review as "one of the best essays of the year by a younger author."

This packet also contains the text Ray Carney contributed to the "Special John Cassavetes Issue" of PostScript edited by Ray Carney, including "A Polemical Introduction: The Road Not Taken," "Seven Program Notes from the American Tour of the Complete Films: Faces, Minnie and Moskowitz, Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Love Streams."

The Collected Essays on the Life and Work of John Cassavetes is not for sale in any store, and available exclusively on this web site for $15.00 under the same credit payment terms or at the same mailing address as the other offers.


"Special Issue: John Cassavetes." PostScript: Essays in Film and the Humanities Vol. 11 Number 2 (Winter 1992). Guest editor: Ray Carney $10.

Handsomely illustrated. 113 double-column pages (50,000 words).

A memorial tribute to the life and work of John Cassavetes. Essays by Ray Carney, George Kouvaros, Janice Zwierzynski, and Carole Zucker. Interviews with Al Ruban and Seymour Cassel by Maria Viera. A history of the critical appreciation of Cassavetes' work and a bibliography of writing in English by Lucio Benedetto. The issue is illustrated with more than 40 behind-the-scenes photos of Cassavetes and his actors and contains many personal statements by him about his life and work.

This issue includes eight essays by Ray Carney about Cassavetes' life and work: "A Polemical Introduction: The Road Not Taken," and "Seven Program Notes from the American Tour of the Complete Films, about Faces, Minnie and Moskowitz, Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Love Streams." But note that Ray Carney's contributions to the special Cassavetes issue of PostScript magazine are also available as part of the packet, The Collected Essays on the Life and Work of John Cassavetes, which contains many other pieces by Prof. Carney as well. The Collected Essays packet is listed separately above at a price of $15. But if you would like a Xerox copy of the entire PostScript magazine issue (which includes the other additional material by the other authors listed above), the PostScript issue is available separately for $10. You may order it with a credit card through PayPal or through the mail with a money order. See the instructions below.


In addition, a packet comparing the two versions of Shadows is available: A Detective Story – Going Inside the Heart and Mind of the Artist: A Study of Cassavetes' Revisionary Process in the Two Versions of Shadows. Available direct from the author through this site for $15.

This packet contains the following material (most of which was not included in the BFI Shadows book):

  • An introductory essay about the two versions of the film
  • A table noting the minute-by-minute, shot-by-shot differences in the two prints. (In the British Film Institute book on Shadows, this table appears in a highly abridged, edited version, at less than half the length and detail presented here.)
  • A conjectural reconstruction of the shot sequence in the 1957 print
  • A shot list for the 1959 sequence
  • The credits exactly as presented in the film (including typographical and orthographical vagaries indicating Cassavetes' view of the importance of various contributors)
  • An expanded and corrected credit listing that includes previous uncredited actors and appearances (e.g. Cassavetes in a dancing sequence; Gena Rowlands in a chorus girl sequence; and Danny Simon and Gene Shepherd in the nightclub sequence)
  • Notes about the running times of both versions and information about dates and places of early screenings
  • A bibliography of suggested additional reading (including a note about serious mistakes in previous treatments of the film by other authors)

Very little of this material was included in the BFI book on Shadows due to limitations on space. This 85-page (25,000 word) packet is not for sale in any store and is available exclusively through this site for $15.


The five books, two packets, and issue of PostScript magazine may be obtained directly from the author, by using the Pay Pal Credit Card button below, or by sending a check or money order to the address below. However you order the book or books, please provide the following information:

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Text Copyright 2003 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.