The tragedy that shaped Meryl Streep: The death of her first love, John Cazale.

‘Fitting’ is a word too basic to describe the little-known story of Meryl Streep’s first, tragic love.

She seems to carry within her something different, a wire of electricity travelling the opposite way than the rest of us. It strengthens her mark on this world and seems to slice her, and her talent, into a different dimension.

She and her husband, American sculptor Don Gummer, have been married since 1978 but the circumstances that brought them together, and the love Streep had for another, serves as an explanation, as such, for her and Gummer’s notoriously private, protective life.

Meryl Streep describes the violence she has faced. Post continues after video.

Streep was 26 when she arrived in New York City to act on Broadway in 1976. She had just received her Masters of Fine Arts from Yale in Connecticut after growing up the daughter of an art editor mother and a pharmaceutical executive father in New Jersey.

She hadn’t always wanted to act. As a teenager, she had known this about herself:

  • She didn’t “understand” singing, she told the author of her 2014 biography, Karina Longworth. But, with a childhood listening to Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, the Beatles and Abba, she knew she loved it.
  • And she had no intention of working in film: “I was always in plays, but I thought it was vain to be an actress,” Streep told Indiana University’s Barbara Klinger in 2014. “Plus, I thought I was too ugly to be an actress.”

Something within her was ignited, however, when she appeared in the 1969 university play Miss Julie. Others noticed it, too. “I don’t think anyone ever taught Meryl acting. She really taught herself,” Streep’s drama professor at Vassar College, Clinton Atkinson, told Longworth.


Streep didn’t intend to study Fine Arts at Yale, either. She had applied for law school after graduating from Vassar, but serendipitously slept through her alarm on the morning of her admission interview. She committed herself to acting and, between trips to London where she busked to afford food while trying to catch the eye of theatre scouts, she finished her studies and found herself in New York.

Times Square was just around the corner as a 26-year-old Streep rushed back and forth in the darkness behind the stages off Broadway.

But it was a different time, then. There were no bright lights and the street hawkers weren’t selling Yankee hats. It was an area filled with grime and go-go bars, with sex shops offering peep shows and adult theatres in between those Streep was appearing in.

Streep was cast in six plays in her first year in New York. Law school was forgotten, but nothing was certain as the city loomed above her and the curtain rose and fell upon her and her dreams each night.

Meryl Streep
Meryl Streep in 1970; New York. (Photo via Getty)

A little more than a decade prior, actor John Cazale made the same move. He had been born in the most northern-eastern corner of Massachusetts. He studied acting at university in Boston and, after graduating, he made his money as a taxi driver.

This, he knew (and everyone knew), would not do.

Cazale's 1959 performance at Boston's Charles Playhouse, as character George Gibbs in Our Town when he was only 23, was described by critic Jean Pierre Frankenhuis as part of a "revolution not soon to be forgotten".

"Cazale's portrayal is absolutely stupendous, hilarious, touching, thrilling," Frankenhuis wrote for the university newspaper. "A comedian of the first order," he declared of the 23-year-old with the curtain of dark hair and melancholy in his eyes.

So Cazale moved to New York City, too. He made money as a photographer while he searched for acting work.


In 1965, he toured the nation in a play called The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window. And, upon his return to New York while working as a messenger on the production of Standard Oil, Cazale met the now-notorious Hollywood heavyweight Al Pacino.

It was the start of something huge.

"I think I learned more about acting from John than anybody," Pacino said in a recent interview. "You never knew where acting started with John, and where it ended. He became whoever it is he was playing. You'd wonder where he was during rehearsals, and then he'd just transform."

In 1971, while Streep was still roaming the corridors of Yale and perhaps planning her next trip to London, a casting director sitting in the audience of a small theatre in Manhattan's West Village spotted Cazale and knew something for certain: the actor who "became his character" so entirely would be perfect for the role of Fredo Corleone in the upcoming production of The Godfather.

Cazale and Pacino, alongside Cazale's idol Marlon Brando, worked together to produce the box-office record breaking 1972 film, as well as its 1974 sequel The Godfather Part II.

It was with this dichotomy - one person a critically acclaimed, world famous film star, and the other a talented but recent graduate with big dreams - that the two worlds of Streep and Cazale collided, attached themselves to one another, never to let go.

John Cazale shouldering a light machine-gun beside Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon in 1975 (Photo via Getty)

During the 1970s, The New York Shakespeare Festival was exploding on Broadway. It was an initiative to bring Shakespeare to the people for free, and spearheaded in the '50s by producer and director Joseph Papp.

This is how Streep and Cazale met. In June 1976, they were cast alongside each other in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure.

Streep played Isabella, a nun, and Cazale a rotten judge named Angelo who was left in charge of the city.

"Once he was in that play," actor Marvin Starkman later said, New York Post reports. "The only thing he talked about was her."


The Shakespeare version goes like this: Angelo prohibits sex between unmarried couples, and sentences Isabella's brother to death for breaking this law. When Isabella appears in front of Angelo, begging him to spare her brother's life, he lusts after her and tries to strike a devastatingly hypocritical deal: Sex for her brother's life. Isabella tricks Angelo, and he is finally revealed a fraud to the city and its true leader.

"He thought I acted perfectly," Streep later said, referring to Cazale, The Guardian reports. "But without the least feeling."

Cazale's name for her? "A delicious robot."

It was like this, that their lives changed forever. The two friends and lovers laughing together offstage. They fell into hopeless, mutual, earth-moving, love.

"They were so happy," Pacino recalled. "I felt they could do anything."

Soon, Streep moved into Cazale's Tribeca apartment on the lower west side of the city. And the pair - 14 years apart in age and experience - promised each other they would marry as soon as they landed their next major roles.

"There was some foreboding, I think. He saw something in the future," Pacino said later. "I didn't know what it was. But he might have seen what was going to happen to him, or felt it. I don't know. He didn't want to have children, I don't think."

Streep and Cazale spent their days taking each other to dinner in Little Italy, where restaurant patrons would waive the bill and speak with them both in Italian.


"They were great to look at, because they were kind of funny-looking, both of them," said playwright Israel Horovitz, as reported by New York Post. "They were lovely, in their way. A really quirky couple."

But, as they were walking the city's pavements, and talking together about work and bills and the future and the plans they had for the holidays, something dark was spreading within Cazale.

He was performing Agamemnon on Broadway when he felt it. Streep was starring nearby in the musical called, ironically, Happy End.

The illness was becoming unmanageable and, when Cazale began missing performances in May 1977, he finally decided to see a doctor supported by Streep and Papp.

The diagnosis was lung cancer that had spread to the bones. It felt "like you’ve been struck dead on the spot", Papp said, New York Post reports.

"John fell silent. For a moment, so did Meryl. But she was never one to give up, and certainly not one to succumb to despair. She looked up and said, 'So, where should we go to dinner?'"

And like that, they continued.

Cazale had been offered a major role the 1978 film The Deer Hunter alongside Robert De Niro. It was the role that should have been their ticket to marry. Instead, it meant time he and Streep would never have together.

To combat this, Streep agreed to act in the same film, the role of a character she hated - "essentially a man’s view of a woman," she called it - just so she could be close to her lover. She knew time was precious.


Pacino was there, still, taking his friend to radiation appointments. Streep was next to Cazale at every other moment.

No one knew how sick he was but soon, it became too difficult to hide. The producers of The Deer Hunter balked. They didn't want to cast a sick Cazale and downright refused to insure him.

It wasn't until Streep threatened to quit that they agreed to keep Cazale on. And, in reports that have neither been confirmed nor denied by the actor, De Niro offered to pay for Cazale's insurance. "He was sicker than we thought," De Niro said later, New York Post reports. "But I wanted him to be in it."

Streep told the film's producers to shoot all of Cazale's scenes first. She knew he wouldn't live to see it finished.

He wouldn't live to see it nominated for five Academy Awards, either.

Meryl Streep in a scene of The Deer Hunter glances at John Cazale. (Photo via Getty)

The end of Cazale's life came within a cocoon.

Streep had just returned from reluctantly shooting the TV miniseries Holocaust. The show required a two-month stint in Austria and she took the job only to help pay Cazale's medical bills. No one was ready, ever, to give up on him returning to health.

Before Christmas in 1977, Streep and Cazale shut out the rest of the world. Neither took on any work and, as snow fell on the city in which they'd met and loved and moved each other, they held each other close. They stayed in the Tribeca apartment, and Streep was there with Cazale at every medical, radiation, and chemotherapy appointment.

"I’ve hardly ever seen a person so devoted to someone who is falling away like John was," Pacino said later. "To see her in that act of love for this man was overwhelming."

The end of their world was nearing but the insulation they'd woven around themselves served as protection from reality like down against the cold. "I was so close, that I didn’t notice the deterioration," Streep said.


It was this way for five months, until the start of March in 1978 when they could no longer live without full-time care. Cazale was admitted to a cancer treatment hospital and, at 3am on March 12, Cazale's doctor uttered: "He's gone".

Michael Schulman, the author of Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep, wrote a passage about Cazale's final moments and the anguish of a then 28-year-old Streep.

"She pounded on his chest, sobbing, and for a brief, alarming moment, John opened his eyes. 'It’s all right, Meryl,' he said weakly. 'It’s all right.' Then he closed his eyes and died. Streep’s first call was to Cazale’s brother, Stephen. She sobbed throughout. 'I tried,' she told him, 'I tried'."

Cazale was 42.

"He wasn’t like anybody I’d ever met,” Streep said later. "It was the specificity of him, and his sort of humanity and his curiosity about people, his compassion."

Pacino describes his friend the same way.

"He was my acting partner but he was like my older brother, too," Pacino said. "He had a great sense of reality, if that means anything. John was here. He occupied a space. He was grounded. All I wanted was to act next to him for the rest of my life."

Meryl Streep photograhed outside of the Public Theater in 1979. (Photo via Getty)

Streep, not yet 30 and alone in a city that had given her so much but taken everything away, didn't want to stay in the apartment she'd shared with Cazale.

At the same time, a friend of her brother's, Don Gummer, was preparing to go travelling and offered Streep his place as a refuge from her grief.

"Meryl was shattered by John's death and I did what I could to help and pretty quickly I realised I was falling in love with her," he said, Yours reports.

Gummer grew up with five brothers in Louisville, Kentucky. He studied art across the country, from Indiana to Boston to Yale, as well. In 1973, he had his first solo show and he was married in the early 70s to a woman called Peggy.

When the aspiring sculptor offered the grieving actress his place as an escape, there's no way he could have known...


Six months later, they were married.

"I haven’t got over John’s death, but I’ve got to go on living and Don has showed me how to do that," the then 29-year-old actress reportedly said at the time of their wedding.

Meryl Streep.
Meryl Streep and husband Donald Gummer during the opening of "Crimes of the Heart" in 1981. (Photo via Getty)

Streep, now 74, has gone onto win countless awards. She is a three-time Oscar award winner, and the most nominated actress of all time.


She has won two British Academy Film Awards; nine Golden Globe Awards; two Screen Actors Guild Awards; and, in 2016, was the recipient of the Cecil B. DeMille Award for her overall contribution to filmmaking.

Gummer, 76, was there in the background. Always there. A figure unfamiliar, his smile often wry with humour.

Streep and Gummer have been separated for "more than six years," a representative for the actor confirmed on Saturday.

"While they will always care for each other, they have chosen lives apart," they said.

Their last public appearance together was at the 2018 Academy Awards. Their marriage lasted 45 years.

"I didn't get over it. I don't want to get over it," Streep told biographer Longworth of Cazale's death. 

"No matter what you do, the pain is always there in some recess of your mind, and it affects everything that happens afterwards."

But she is humble and she knows how Cazale impacted her life, her acting, even. Surely, she still feels him today.

"As time goes on I'm just more grateful to be alive," Streep told The Telegraph. "I have so many friends who have been ill and I'm really grateful for everything I've been given."

"I've been given a great deal."

This article was originally published in June 2018. It was updated in October 2023.

Feature image: Getty.  

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