John Cassavetes

Accidental Genius: How John Cassavetes
Invented the American Independent Film

John CassavetesI actually had the idea to write a book about John Cassavetes shortly after my Peckinpah book came out in 1991. Having learned my lesson about seeking permission from the estate, I wrote a letter to Cassavetes’ widow, Gena Rowlands, and sent her a copy of “Bloody Sam,” asking to meet with her to discuss the idea of writing a book about John.

I got an extremely polite letter back from her, saying that John had told her he didn’t want a biography – that he wanted the films to speak for themselves – and that he asked her not to cooperate with potential biographers. That was 1992. I put the idea away and that, I assumed, was that.

But something convinced me in 2003 that I could write the book without Rowlands’ cooperation: listening to a radio interview with Laura Hillenbrand about her book, “Seabiscuit: An American Legend,” which I had read in anticipation of reviewing the film based on the book. She talked about how, because she suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome, she had been forced to write the entire book without leaving her house.

That dazzled me. Having put in the legwork to do research at libraries and archives on both coasts for my previous books, I was astonished that a book about events from almost 70 years earlier could be researched and recreated so thoroughly and in such detail, simply by exploiting resources available on the Internet or by telephone.

As I reasoned, Cassavetes came to prominence as an actor and filmmaker at the dawn of the true mass-media era in the 1950s and 1960s –during a period when press access was much less controlled or shaped by publicists and spin artists, the way it is today. So I figured that, given enough similar resources – and the ability to hunt them down in person as well as online – I could do justice to John Cassavetes.

Thankfully, when I approached Gena Rowlands with the idea again, I got a slightly different response than previously. No, she said, she couldn’t help me with my project by talking to me about John. But she had read the Peckinpah book I had sent her earlier – and liked it enough that she would give me her blessing. That opened any number of doors and I’m still greatly appreciative of her leap of faith in helping me.

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