John Cazale

John Cazale

If you watched some of the defining movies of the 1970s, you know John Cazale. Chances are, though, you probably don't realize it. He was Fredo in "The Godfather" and "The Godfather, Part II" and the lunatic bank robber in "Dog Day Afternoon." He was also in "The Conversation" and "The Deer Hunter."

Those five movies are his entire film catalog. So why, 32 years after his untimely death, are actors still singing his praises? Because, as they explain in HBO's "I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale," airing Tuesday, June 1, he was one of the best.

Actors and film buffs have long admired him, and director Richard Shepard recalls wanting to know more about Cazale.

"There wasn't much, and that's a shame," he says. "Someone should make a film about him."

Shepard's well-done documentary took three years to make. Much of that time was spent waiting for Meryl Streep to talk about Cazale. Like so many fine actors, Cazale influenced her, but they were also involved, having met while performing Shakespeare in the park.

"Meryl Streep was by his side till the end," Al Pacino says. "She was an angel. As great as she is in all her work, that's what I think of."

Streep, as usual measured yet passionate, says, "He was such a special human being and a uniquely talented actor."

Pacino, Gene Hackman and Steve Buscemi rave about Cazale.

"He was a technically brilliant actor," says Philip Seymour Hoffman.

The five films Cazale were in garnered 40 Oscar nominations, though none for him. Cazale was a quiet guy who liked to act and smoke; he loved the Boston Red Sox and questioning each role. He didn't have leading-man looks, but his intensity and vulnerability made every role memorable.

Shepard says he hopes people watch and say, "Oh, my God, I love that guy, and I always noticed him, and now I have learned something about him.

"He is part of our national collective conscious."