John Cassavetes (1929-89) was a pioneer, not simply in technique or the crazy risks he took for his art, but in his distinctly humanistic approach to cinema. Fifteen years after his death, he is revered as the spiritual godfather of the American independent film, but an appreciation of his considerable legacy is incomplete without a survey of his contributions to television, for it was his background as an actor in that medium that honed his aesthetic as a director. The hallmarks of a Cassavetes film -- the roving camera, the combustible atmosphere, the improvisatory (but fiercely rehearsed) performances -- are all exponents of the live television dramas in which Cassavetes got his start in the fifties. As a familiar face on the leading anthology programs of the era, he was at the vortex of a dynamic and intensely creative dramatic form that prized character exploration over plot, emotional veracity over narrative gimmickry. This emphasis on personal relationships, on the small, messy, raw truths of the human condition, left an indelible impression on Cassavetes, just as the experience of working in episodic television, with its hurried shooting schedules, meddling studio bureaucracies, and resolved storylines, provided both the grounding and impetus he needed to set out on his own. Television not only shaped the do-it-yourself paradigm Cassavetes brought to fruition with such intensely personal films as "Shadows," "Faces," and "A Woman Under the Influence," but enabled him to explore -- as both an actor and a director -- themes and ideas that would preoccupy him throughout his life. The Museum's nine-part screening series, which includes several programs unseen since their original broadcast, offers the first comprehensive overview of Cassavetes's parallel career on television.

Package 1: "Johnny Staccato" As an actor, Cassavetes is probably best known for such Hollywood fare as "The Dirty Dozen" and "Rosemary's Baby" -- and for his short-lived stint on television as the ivory-tickling gumshoe Johnny Staccato. Cassavetes had initially balked at a series commitment, but faced with the task of finishing his debut feature "Shadows," he agreed on the condition that he could name his own producer and have a creative hand in the show. With its noirish setting (a smoky jazz club known as Waldo's), Elmer Bernstein's brassy inflections, and a highly charged mise-en-scŽne, Staccato was a broodier, grittier, more character-driven cousin to Peter Gunn. At Cassavetes's urging, the show tackled some hefty themes -- payola, dope addiction, the Red Scare -- but it was the star's radical notion of downplaying the heroic qualities of his detective (suggesting, for instance, "I want to not solve some crimes too") that really raised the ire of the sponsors. Cassavetes took his views to the press: "I feel very privileged to be in a business where I'm paid to communicate and certainly I think that the public, the people that watch us or pay us our salary in essence, deserve to get the best of what we can give, not just, say, as I've heard so many times on a studio floor, 'What's the difference, it's television.' Well, it's not television to me and probably that's where I get a reputation of being kind of hot because I won't put up with it." In the end, Staccato proved too hip for the room and Cassavetes, who always took his work as seriously as a surgeon, opted out after twenty-seven episodes. The badge of "difficult, temperamental maverick" would stick with him the rest of his life. Four episodes will be screened: "The Nature of the Night," "A Piece of Paradise" (directed by Cassavetes), "A Nice Little Town," and "The Wild Reed." (1959-60; 25 minutes each)


  • DATE: 2005
  • RUNNING TIME: 1:43:46
  • COLOR/B&W: Color and B&W
  • CATALOG ID: T:85085
  • GENRE: Drama, police/private detective
  • SUBJECT HEADING: Drama, police/private detective


  • John Cassavetes
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