John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands’ marriage lasted for more than 30 years, despite them often being at each other’s throats. And together, the director and his actress wife created a slew of successful, critically acclaimed independent films. What’s more, many of today’s most influential auteurs cite Cassavetes’ behind-the-camera work as inspiration for their own.
But out of the spotlight, Cassavetes and Rowlands built a family – sometimes at the expense of their careers. The actress had to pull out of a partnership with MGM to have their first child, for example. Yet that didn’t stop Rowlands from acting while pregnant for Faces – one of her and her husband’s most noteworthy movies.
Today, Cassavetes and Rowlands’ kids have all grown up, and one of them in particular looks exactly like his parents. Nick Cassavetes acted in two of his father’s films to boot, although he later dreamed of doing something outside of the Hollywood realm. But what exactly is the son of these two iconic stars up to today?
Well, before we find out, let’s trace the path of Cassavetes and Rowlands’ relationship. The future couple both attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts at the same time – albeit in different age groups. Yet the pair’s romance didn’t blossom until a few years after they had left the academy – even though they were quite different in personality.
Yes, it wouldn’t appear that the two were ideally suited at all. The passionate Cassavetes was romantic and occasionally jealous; Rowlands, on the other hand, craved her independence. And their combination apparently made for an explosive pairing. Indeed, in a 2017 article for the British Film Institute, Matthew Thrift would claim of the couple, “[Their] arguments were ground-shaking from the get-go and would only escalate from there.”
But Cassavetes and Rowlands managed to make their way down the aisle on April 9, 1954. Thus, they began a partnership that was both personal and professional. The two would work together often, in fact, with Rowlands serving as her husband’s muse. Even so, it would take a few years for them to get on their feet in the film industry.
In 1959 Cassavetes helmed his first film, Shadows, in which Rowlands had a small uncredited role. And, unfortunately, the movie required the director to lead several costly re-shoots that left him $30,000 in debt. Today, that amount would be the equivalent of about $264,065 – needless to say, then, Cassavetes was in trouble financially.
Worse still, Rowlands couldn’t provide much help to Cassavetes during this time. The actress had had to break a contract with MGM after finding out she was expecting their first child, leaving Cassavetes to solve their financial crisis alone. And, funnily enough, he managed it with an acting gig that he didn’t even want to take.
Yes, a Universal executive figured Cassavetes a good fit to play the titular role in TV series Johnny Staccato. Behind closed doors, though, the director raged at the thought of trading the silver screen for the small screen. According to Thrift, he would confide in Rowlands, saying, “I’m an artist! I don’t do television series!”
Nevertheless, Cassavetes took the part in order to repay the costs of Shadows. And doing so proved a smart move, as the film not only went on to scoop the Critics Award at the Venice Film Festival, but it also became the first successful independent movie in American history. Nowadays, Johnny Staccato’s release is still considered to be a milestone in the genre.
Around the same time, Rowlands’ career would take off independently from her husband’s – at least, at first. In 1960 she appeared on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which saw the filmmaker introduce scary or otherwise strange stories. Then, the following year, she starred in the Western Lonely Are the Brave alongside Kirk Douglas and Walter Matthau.
The 1960s also brought Rowlands a year-long part on the popular drama series Peyton Place. The prime-time soap opera ran from 1964 to 1969, transitioning from black and white to color during that period. And although the fledgling star had begun to work independently from Cassavetes, the decade would eventually see the pair collaborating on three occasions.
First, Cassavetes had the chance to direct his first studio picture, A Child Is Waiting. But although this may have seemed like a golden opportunity, it didn’t go as planned for Cassavetes, who apparently didn’t get along with many people on set. In fact, it’s said that he and the film’s star, Judy Garland, almost came to blows. Perhaps, then, his only ally during shooting was Rowlands, who had just a small role in the flick.
The final straw for Cassavetes came when he saw the final edit of the film, however. Studio executives had changed the focus of A Child Is Waiting, meaning the storyline was no longer focused on the children but on the adult characters instead. So Cassavetes demanded his name be removed from the credits. He even punched the man responsible: one Stanley Kramer.
And thanks to that furor, the director may have had little hope of obtaining another studio contract again. Cassavetes thus returned to independent filmmaking, with his next project being 1968’s Faces – the first of his movies to have Rowlands in a starring role. In order to pay for the flick, though, the couple refinanced their home multiple times.
Cassavetes pushed Rowlands to her limit on set as well. Indeed, it’s said that he continually annoyed and provoked his wife to get the shots he envisioned – even though she was pregnant again. Understandably, then, the couple completed the movie with tension between them. But their efforts appeared to pay off. After it came out, you see, Faces was saluted as a masterpiece and received several Oscar nominations.
Yes, Faces earned Cassavetes an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. The film also garnered praise from critics as well as famous directors; Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen have both since cited the movie as an inspiration in their own careers. Faces would be just the first of Cassavetes and Rowlands’ joint projects, however.
Between 1969 and 1984, Rowlands and Cassavetes would work on eight more films together. Two of these – 1974’s A Woman Under the Influence and 1980’s Gloria – even saw Rowlands’ hard work honored with Academy Award nominations. So, even if the couple’s relationship was fiery, they seemed to have a good thing going.
And in 2016 Rowlands reflected on her husband’s impressive catalog of independent features. When asked why his movies continue to endure with audiences, she told Variety, “His films were really about people. They weren’t about monsters or aliens. They were about people you might know or be related to. I get approached by a lot of young people who want to know how John started doing these pictures.”
As such, Cassavetes’ legacy has lived on after the director’s death in 1989 from cirrhosis of the liver. Now, he’s seen as somewhat of a pioneer in the independent film industry. But he and Rowlands also appear to have inspired their children in their own careers. Yes, Nick, Zoe and Xan are all filmmakers, too.
Yet a career in film wasn’t Nick’s first life goal. After having grown up around his creative parents, he chose not to pursue the same path, deciding instead to accept a basketball scholarship at Syracuse University. But when an injury sidelined Nick permanently, he began to reconsider his future.
From there, Nick enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts – the same place his parents had once attended. Then, after completing his studies, he embarked on a film career of his own. His first credit in a non-Cassavetes film was 1986’s Mask, which also stars Cher and Sam Elliott.
Since then, Nick has acted in both movies and TV shows. Some of his better-known silver-screen credits include Face/Off, starring John Travolta and Nicolas Cage. He even made an appearance in 2013’s The Hangover: Part II. On TV, meanwhile, he has guest-starred on series such as Matlock, L.A. Law and Entourage.
Then, in 1996, Nick was ready to show off another creative skill: directing. But as he told Columbia College Chicago newspaper The Chronicle in 2007, he had embarked on this new avenue without any guidance from his father. For one thing, Nick emphasized that his dad had passed away long before he had chosen to switch career. What’s more, it appeared that Cassavetes hadn’t exactly seen it as his job to school the young Nick in film anyway.
Yes, Nick went on to explain that his father had hardly taught him much about the craft of moviemaking. “We never really talked film theory. My experience with my dad was more along the lines of how to be a man, how to be yourself, how to free yourself from what society tells you to do [and] how to release yourself as an artist,” the actor revealed.
Still, even as he pursued his directorial career, Nick considered himself to be more like Rowlands. “I’m much more like mom than dad. We’re probably more reflective; our thought processes probably occur in a quieter way than John’s. John’s thoughts exploded out of his body. He was a wildly entertaining guy,” he explained.
Nick added, “I’m very, very lucky to have [Cassavetes] as a father.” Nonetheless, he refused to put himself in the same category as his dad when it came to directing. “In no way, shape or form can I compare myself with him because a guy like him comes along every hundred years,” the filmmaker’s son asserted.
Still, it very much appeared that Nick was following in Cassavetes’ footsteps. In fact, his directorial debut, Unhook the Stars, even featured Rowlands. She starred in the movie alongside Marisa Tomei, with both women going on to receive Screen Actors Guild nominations for their work.
And Nick’s next movie had ties to his father, too. You see, Cassavetes had penned the script to 1997’s She’s So Lovely – a romantic flick that his son went on to direct. The work remains the only posthumous film of Cassavetes’ to have been made, even though the late trailblazer is said to have written more than 40 unproduced screenplays before his death.
Yet the similarities between dad and son apparently don’t end there. At the time of She’s So Lovely’s release, Indiewire’s Tom Cunha drew parallels between the pair, writing of Nick, “His interest continues to lie with independent projects that stir him on emotional and/or intellectual levels.”
Cunha interviewed Nick in 1997, too, during which he asked the filmmaker if he had felt any pressure in bringing one of Cassavetes’ screenplays to life. The second-generation director replied, “You don’t go into work every day going, ‘Gosh, I better do good. Dad would have been really disappointed if I didn’t.’ There is so much to do on a film and so little time to do it.”
But Nick did admit he had reveled in producing She’s So Lovely – partly because his mom was in the flick. “I remember one day on the set, I was sitting there, and things were going well, and we were on schedule and the performances were great. [And] the notion came to myself, ‘Gosh, this is going to be my favorite film I ever do,’” the moviemaker revealed.
Nick continued, “My mother is in the film, [there are] three wonderful actors [Sean Penn, Robin Wright and John Travolta] and a script of my dad’s.” With this, the director concluded, “It doesn’t get a whole lot better than that.” Nevertheless, it was only 1997 at that point, and Nick’s directorial career had just begun.
Then in 2002, Nick helmed his next film, John Q. – an adrenaline-filled drama starring Denzel Washington. And while this time he didn’t have his mother in the cast, the movie’s storyline still had a personal flavor for the director. In John Q., you see, Washington’s character’s son needs a transplant that his insurance policy doesn’t cover.
And in 1988 Nick and his then-wife, Isabelle Rafalovich, had had their second daughter, Sasha, who was devastatingly diagnosed with a heart defect. Perhaps, then, the filmmaker could relate to the plight of his movie’s protagonist. In any case, it seems that audiences responded well to the touching picture, as it went on to rake in more than $102 million at the worldwide box office.
Then, of course, Nick would see even more success from his next movie: 2004’s The Notebook. And those who have seen the beloved romantic flick may know that the director once again recruited Rowlands to his cast. In 2012 he explained to The Globe and Mail what it was like to direct his mom.
“It’s role-playing. Today, you’re the actress, and I’m the director, and I get to boss you around, and you’re going to be difficult,” Nick began. “Then, at the end of the day, we go back to normal. You have to completely separate your personal selves from your jobs. My dad directed me, he directed my mom [and] I’ve directed her.”
As for Rowlands, she couldn’t believe the success of The Notebook, which grossed over $115 million internationally. Even so, she had a theory as to why the drama had proven so popular, telling Variety that the movie appeared to depict a different kind of love story to those commonly seen on screen.
In 2016 Rowlands explained to the publication, “I didn’t think The Notebook] would have that kind of impact. I think it was such a big hit because it was about the realization that love can last your whole life. You don’t see it depicted that way a lot. In most films you don’t get to see a story like that go from the beginning to the end with the possibility that love can be perhaps eternal.”
Of course, Rowlands and Cassavetes’ story is one that spanned a lifetime, too. And the tale continues, as their three children – Nick included – pursue Hollywood careers. Touchingly, Nick has also noted that one of his own children appears to possess the family’s creative gene. Yes, in 2012 he told The Globe and Mail that his daughter planned to direct him in a project, too.