A creator under Port’s influence

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John Cassavetes, left, with classmate Rose Ochenkoski. Both were named Class Wit for Port Washington High School's Class of 1947, foreshadowing Cassavetes' later success in entertainment. (Photo courtesy of the Port Washington Public Library)

Port Washington native Robert Fieldsteel was working in a Los Angeles office when he was called in for a reading that would change the course of his career.

“It was really a coincidence, how I met him,” he said in a phone interview.

Fieldsteel was working for performers, playwrights and married couple Renee Taylor and Joseph Bologna, who had rented an editing room for their latest project from another Port native: director, writer and actor John Cassavetes.

Cassavetes, who won acclaim for a 35-year career that saw him direct 12 feature films and nine episodes of television, act in over 80 projects and score three Academy Award nominations, would have turned 90 on Dec. 9.

In time, the filmmaker’s legendary status would be cemented. The Film Independent Spirit Awards, seen as the Oscars of independent film, would name one of its awards after him, specifically for his specialty of low-budget filmmaking. He would be the subject of a 1985 episode of PBS’ long-running program “American Masters” – while he was still alive. “The New Yorker” would call him “maybe the most influential American director of the last half century.”

But at that time, he was holding a reading for a new script.

“John used to have readings all the time, so we were invited to do a reading around a conference table of one of his scripts,” Fieldsteel said.

Cassavetes invited Taylor and Bologna to join his regular stable of actors as they went through it. Fieldsteel was brought along.

With a lack of scripts to go around, Cassavetes looked at Fieldsteel, and pointed at another actor seated at the table.

“He said to me, ‘Go and share a script with him,’ and ‘him’ was Ben Gazzarra,” Fieldsteel said with a laugh.

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The son of Greek immigrant Nicholas Cassavetes and his Greek-American wife, Katherine, Cassavetes was born in New York City but spent the early years of his life in his father’s homeland, where he learned Greek as his primary language. Before he turned 8, his family moved to Port Washington, into a house on Oakland Avenue.

The 1946 Port Washington High School yearbook contains a picture of 17-year-old Cassavetes in pajamas, in character as a rifle-wielding henpecked husband as part of the play “Good Night Caroline.” The yearbook adds that at that year’s drama tournament, the Red Domino, he took home top acting honors, and he is also listed as a feature writer for the school’s newspaper, the Port Weekly, later the Schreiber Times.

In 1947, the year of Cassavetes’ graduation, his classmates voted him as one of the Class Wits. He was also listed as performing in the interclass play and the Red Domino that year, as well as a member of the yearbook staff, while being suspiciously absent from the organizations’ pictures. A line in the senior summary may propose a solution: “…’Hilty’ John Cassavetes and his sensational shots…” suggests that Cassavetes was keen to be behind the camera, taking pictures.

An 18-year-old John Cassavetes beams in his senior picture in the 1947 Port Light yearbook. (Photo courtesy of the Port Washington Public Library)

Cassavetes enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Manhattan, graduating in 1950. At the school in 1953, he met then-aspiring actress Gena Rowlands and married her four months later, beginning a romantic and working relationship that would last 35 years.

Moving to Los Angeles, he worked his way up through crime B-movies before breaking through in 1957’s “Edge of the City,” co-starring Sidney Poitier. During this time, he began working on his first film, “Shadows,” which he shot on weekends for three years before its completion in 1959. The film, funded mostly on donations of listeners from a Jean Shepherd radio show, won acclaim, and critic Leonard Maltin would call it “a watershed in the birth of American independent cinema.”

Cassavetes would direct two studio films, “Too Late Blues” and “A Child is Waiting,” to varying degrees of success in the early 1960s, but would break through as a director in 1968 for the independent drama “Faces,” receiving an Oscar nomination for his screenplay. The same year, shortly after being nominated for acting in “The Dirty Dozen,” he co-starred with Mia Farrow in the blockbuster horror classic “Rosemary’s Baby,” increasing his profile as a performer.

The 1970s saw Cassavetes turn his camera toward Port Washington, filming scenes for his film “Husbands,” featuring Rowlands and friend Peter Falk, at the Nassau Knolls Cemetery, the Port train station and his childhood street, Oakland Avenue.

Fieldsteel was a teenager when “Husbands” was shot in Port, but got to know Cassavetes’ work later on.

“I knew some of his work, I knew he’d filmed in Port,” Fieldsteel said. “And then in college I saw ‘Shadows’ and ‘A Woman Under the Influence.'”

The latter film, released in 1974, would be recognized as Cassavetes’ peak, earning him his only Best Director nomination and Rowlands, as a mentally ill housewife, her first Oscar nomination.

*     *    *

Back at the table read, Fieldsteel, who was considering leaving Los Angeles to return to the East Coast, decided to take a chance.

“I left a resume back at his office, saying that if he had anything open, I’d love to work with him,” Fieldsteel said. “Three days before I left, I got a call and accepted it.”

Fieldsteel’s first day working for Cassavetes meant returning to Port in order to bury his deceased father, Nicholas, at the Nassau Knolls Cemetery. While talking, the two discovered they had neighbors in common, and Fieldsteel would often speak with the director’s mother, Katherine, a frequent cast member in her son’s films, about life in and around Port.

In his own words, Fieldsteel’s duties while working for Cassavetes ranged from gofering to booking screenings. He also worked as part of the crew on the director’s 1980 mob thriller “Gloria,” which earned Rowlands another Oscar nomination. A few years of failed filmmaking attempts followed.

“The years that I worked with him were tough, because he was writing all these films and he couldn’t get them made,” Fieldsteel said. “Every star, every actor wanted to work with him, but no studio would fund his movies.”

1981 saw Fieldsteel co-produce a trilogy of Cassavetes-directed plays at a 65-seat theater in Los Angeles. The first, “Knives,” was written by Cassavetes and starred Falk, while the last two, “Love Streams,” starring Rowlands and Jon Voight, and “The Third Day Comes,” starring Rowlands and Michael McGuire, were written by playwright Ted Allen. Fieldsteel himself had a featured role in “Knives.”

Cassavetes directing Peter Falk in rehearsals for the play “Knives” in Los Angeles in 1981. (Photo courtesy of Robert Fieldsteel)

“It was pretty crazy, nobody slept for three months,” Fieldsteel remembers. “He did the plays because he wanted to create. He wasn’t directing films, but he was acting.”

As a person, Fieldstein says, Cassavetes was “brilliant” and funny, and at the same time, dedicated to his family.

“He worked really, really, really hard but he was also very family-oriented,” Fieldsteel said. “He and Gena weren’t into the Hollywood scene, and their mothers moved to L.A. to be near them.”

Fieldsteel also watched through the years as Cassavetes’ three children, Nick, Alexandra and Zoe, came of age, and says he often looked after Alexandra, who was nicknamed “Xan,” when she was a teenager.

“When we had a suite of offices on the Columbia Pictures lot, I was partly responsible for looking after Xan, but we actually had a really good time, it wasn’t a chore for either one of us,” Fieldsteel recalled.

Noting that Xan, like her brother and sister, followed her father into filmmaking as a career, Fieldsteel said that he had been “really, very impressed” by her film “Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession,” about one of the first pay cable channels.

“It really expresses who she is without being autobiographical,” Fieldsteel said, admiration in his voice.

In 1983, Cassavetes returned to filmmaking when he struck a deal with independent studio Cannon Films to fund an adaptation of “Love Streams” starring himself and Rowlands. The studio, better known for low budget B-pictures like “Enter the Ninja” and “Breakin,'” had snapped up Cassavetes, as well as directors Jean-Luc Godard and Franco Zeffirelli, in an attempt to legitimize itself. Fieldsteel wound up receiving his first-ever screen role in the film, as a doctor.

“Cannon gave him a lot of freedom,” Fieldsteel said. “He saved them a lot of money because he shot a lot of the film at his house, and they let him film in sequence.”

“Love Streams” would win critical acclaim, and today holds a rare 100% rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, but opened against fellow Cannon Films stablemate “Bolero,” an erotic thriller starring Bo Derek, leading to negligible box office results.

During the “Love Streams” shoot, though, signs were already showing that Cassavetes may not see many more productions.

“He was already starting to get ill on that shoot,” Fieldsteel said.

*     *    *

Fieldsteel was visiting Port in early 1989, and upon checking the answering machine at his childhood home, heard multiple messages telling him the same tragic news.

“They had all called to tell me that John had died,” he said.

Cassavetes, who died at age 59 of cirrhosis of the liver, was survived by Rowlands, as well as his children, all of whom followed in his footsteps by becoming directors. All four members of the family were unavailable for comment.

Being unable to attend the Los Angeles burial, Fieldsteel went to the Nassau Knolls Cemetery on Port Washington Boulevard, where Cassavetes had once shot scenes from “Husbands,” and sat where his parents, Nicholas and Katherine, were buried.

Fieldsteel continued to live and work in Los Angeles, popping up in episodes of “Married…With Children,” “Wings” and “Party of Five,” among other shows, and becoming a playwright. In 2002, the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle awarded Fieldsteel the Ted Schmitt Award for World Premiere of an Outstanding Play for his play “Crazy Drunk.”

“They asked if there was anyone I wanted to give me the award, and I said, ‘Gena Rowlands,'” Fieldsteel said.

Rowlands then presented Fieldsteel with the prize at a 2003 ceremony, marking the last time he saw her in person.

Now a resident of Macon, Georgia, and a part-time professor at Wesleyan College, Fieldsteel says that if Cassavetes were still alive, he “would have stayed very much who he was.”

“I still think he would have a very fertile mind and imagination,” Fieldsteel said. “I think he still would be working, if he could. He sometimes used to refer to a script he’d written, and he’d say, ‘this will be one of my old man films that I’ll direct where I can just sit there and point.'”

Fieldsteel also says that Cassavetes looked back on his hometown warmly, and that he thought the people of Port were “sweet.”

“He had very fond feelings for Port Washington,” Fieldsteel said.

Cassavetes (left, with camera) snaps fellow Port native Robert Fieldsteel during rehearsals for “Knives.” (Photo courtesy of Robert Fieldsteel)

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