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Biagio Anthony Gazzarra was born in New York City on August 28, 1930, the son of Italian immigrants Angelina Cusumano, from Castrofilippo, and Antonio Gazzarra, from Canicattì, both in the province of Agrigento, Sicily. Antonio was a laborer and a carpenter. Ben lived on East 29th Street and First Avenue; when he was 11, he found out there was a drama program at Madison Square Boys and Girls Club, located across the street, and he signed up discovering his love for theatre. He attended New York City's Stuyvesant High School, but graduated from Saint Simon Stock in the Bronx.

He then went to City College to study electrical engineering. After two years, he realized that it wasn’t what he wanted to do, so he started taking acting classes at the Dramatic Workshop of The New School in New York, with the influential German director Erwin Piscator, and afterward he joined the Actors Studio.

In 1951 he married Louise Erickson, but the marriage only lasted six years.

In 1954, Ben changed his name, made several appearances on NBC's legal drama Justice, and on stage in various Broadway productions around this time, including creating the role of Brick in Tennessee Williams' Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1955) opposite Barbara BelGeddes, directed by Elia Kazan. He joined other Actors Studio members in the 1957 film The Strange One; then came a high-profile performance as a soldier on trial for avenging his wife's rape in Otto Preminger's courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder (1959).

Ben married Janice Rule in 1961. They had a daughter, Elizabeth, and they were together until 1979.

He acted in several television series, beginning with Arrest and Trial, which ran from 1963 to 1964 on ABC, and the more-successful series Run for Your Life from 1965-68 on NBC, receiving two Emmy nominations for "Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series" and three Golden Globe nominations for "Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series - Drama." Contemporary screen credits included The Young Doctors (1961), A Rage to Live (1965) and The Bridge at Remagen (1969). During filming the last movie, the Soviet army invaded Czechoslovakia, and the cast and crew were detained. When they were finally allowed to leave, Ben and his friend Robert Vaughn, smuggled a Czech waitress to Austria in a car waved through a border crossing that had not yet been taken over by.

Some of the actor's most formidable characters were those he created with his friend John Cassavetes in the 1970s. They collaborated for the first time on Cassavetes's film Husbands (1970), in which he appeared alongside Peter Falk and Cassavetes himself. In The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), Opening Night, while appearying in the television miniseries QB VII (1974), and the films Capone (1975); Voyage of the Damned (1976); High Velocity (1976); and Saint Jack (1979). Ben also directed the Columbo episodes A Friend in Deed (1974) and Troubled Waters (1975).

Gazzara told Charlie Rose in 1998: "When I became hot, so to speak, in the theater, I got a lot of offers," he said. "I won't tell you the pictures I turned down because you'll say, 'You are a fool,' and I was a fool."

In the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, Ben appeared in Bloodline (1979), and They All Laughed (1981, directed by Peter Bogdanovich), both co-starring with Audrey Hepburn with whom he had a love affair. Audrey fell deeply in love with Ben but he left her after a short while, making her deeply distraught. Then Inchon (1981); Tales of Ordinary Madness (1982); The Girl from Trieste (1982); and A Proper Scandal (1984).

In 1982 he married German model Elke Krivat. He starred in the AIDS-themed TV movie An Early Frost (1985), for which he received his third Emmy nomination. He played a villainous role in Patrick Swayze’s film Road House in 1989, which the actor jokingly said is probably his most-watched performance.

Ben appeared in 38 films, many for television, in the 1990s. He worked with renowned directors such as the Coen brothers (The Big Lebowski), Spike Lee (Summer of Sam), David Mamet (The Spanish Prisoner), Walter Hugo Khouri (Forever), Todd Solondz (Happiness), John Turturro (Illuminata), and John McTiernan (The Thomas Crown Affair).

In 2003, he was in the cast of the experimental film Dogville, directed by Lars von Trier, starring Nicole Kidman, as well as the television film Hysterical Blindness (his first Emmy Award).

Ben Gazzara was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1999 but he continued to work to his last day; his last Broadway appearance was in the revival of Awake and Sing! in 2006. On February 3, 2012, he died of pancreatic cancer at Bellevue Hospital Center in New York.