They were two of the best actors of their generation, they were madly in love—and they were doomed. The story of John Cazale and Meryl Streep is one of Hollywood’s most heartbreaking tales.
When it comes to Hollywood prestige, no one has quite as much cachet as Meryl Streep—but few remember just how beloved and acclaimed her one-time partner John Cazale was. Cazale spent ten years as a stage actor, garnering rave reviews and befriending future stars like Al Pacino. He got his big break when a casting director suggested him for the part of Fredo Corleone in The Godfather.
Cazale was thrilled to make his film debut alongside Marlon Brando, an actor he idolized. His success in the role ensured that he got more parts, including in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation and Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon—alongside his friend Al Pacino.
Cazale returned to the stage in 1976, where met a promising young actress named Meryl Streep. They fell in love and moved in together—but just as quickly as their happiness began, it was threatened by a sad twist of fate.
Cazale made his Broadway debut in 1977’s Agamemnon, but fell ill soon after. It was his only performance, as he withdrew immediately. Doctors diagnosed him with late stage lung cancer. It was a crushing blow—but Cazale was determined to keep acting.
Nearly everyone involved with the 1978 film The Deer Hunter—from Robert De Niro to director Michael Cimino—wanted Cazale in the film. Streep took a part that was out of character for her, just so she could be close to him. The film studio was against casting Cazale, fearing that his illness and potential absences would cause insurance issues—but he made it onto the screen one last time.
Cazale never saw The Deer Hunter. He spent his final days in a hospital with a stoic Streep by his side. In a version of the story—perhaps apocryphal—a doctor told Streep that Cazale was gone, and she began to weep. As the tale goes, Cazale then opened his eyes, said “It’s all right, Meryl…it’s all right”, before dying.
Pacino later said of the pair: "I've hardly ever seen a person so devoted to someone who is falling away like John was. To see her in that act of love for this man was overwhelming”. And Streep later revealed the heartbreaking gesture that had allowed them to spend his last few months together: Robert De Niro had put up the money to pay for the insurance for Cazale, so he could be in The Deer Hunter.