If Ben Gazzara Gets Hung Up, the Analyst Is Always In: It's His Wife, Janice Rule
Over the centuries, kings have been attended by their personal confessors and jesters; opera singers and boxers by claques; actresses by hairdressers; and congressmen by assistants. Possibly, what they really should have had was just a live-in shrink. That luxury, after all these years, has befallen volatile actor Ben Gazzara. Therapy begins at home for him now—his wife, Janice Rule, herself a star for 25 years, is midway through training to become a psychoanalyst. She’s specializing in treating—who else?—fellow actors.
Gazzara, mind you, professes to be beyond analysis (“Sicilians don’t need it; they get it out some other way”), and indeed his ego doesn’t seem to require Janice’s expert reinforcement of late. After a slump lasting much of the last decade, Ben is, at 45, currently stunning Broadway audiences in a revival of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Janice, 44, already busy enough interning with actual patients, was turned on to this second career by her own highly successful analysis. “A psychoanalyst friend had asked me whether actors had identity problems,” she recounts. “I said, ‘Of course,’ and he said that he had been in a panel discussion with a group of actors and they all denied that they had identity problems.” Rule, though she had little formal education, was thus inspired to put her voracious reading and personal experience into a paper on the subject. “Anna Freud and Erik Erickson have no degrees either,” she points out. That maiden monograph was so ground-breaking that it was sent to the eminent Dr. Karl Menninger, who personally helped her edit it for presentation at a colloquium at the Chicago Psychoanalytic Institute. For a novice, Janice points out, “that was like debuting straight onto Broadway.”
When Ben and Janice met, their biggest problem was staying on Broadway. They’d been cast opposite each other in a troubled play, The Night Circus. “Benny was adorable,” Janice recalls. “Little did I know! He kept saying, ‘My darling, everything is going to be all right.’ We closed in a week.” Then Janice adds, “Actually, we did meet five years before at a New Year’s Eve party.” Gazzara growls, “I don’t remember this meeting.” “You were a very angry young man at that time,” Janice charges. “I was not,” Ben mutters. “Well, maybe you thought I was after you, one of the number of girls who was after you,” Janice teases. “Aha, that sounds more like it,” Ben agrees. Then she springs the trap. “You don’t have to repress it,” she retorts, lapsing ominously into trade jargon. “I was not after you. I simply got you.”
What she landed was a mean-street Manhattan kid of immigrant stock. His dad was a carpenter and roofer, but Ben started acting at 12—”My voice was this deep even then”—at the Madison Square Boys’ Club. “It screwed up my schooling,” he reports, “because up until then I was a fantastically gifted student. I stayed out of school 54 days in a row and went to movies.” Gazzara did go briefly to night school at City College of New York. He then made his way to Erwin Piscator’s Dramatic Workshop and the Actors’ Studio before bursting on Broadway in three straight hit roles—including Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and the junkie in A Hatful of Rain. He was variously described as the heir to Garfield, Bogart or Brando.
Janice arrived just as suddenly. Born in Norwood, Ohio, to Irish parents (her father deals in industrial diamonds), she grew up dreaming of becoming a prima ballerina. “At 4,” she claims, “I was dancing around the house en pointe.” By 15, she was saving for ballet lessons by working as a chorine for “a bunch of drunks” at the Chez Paree nightclub in Chicago. Janice then moved to New York to study at Balanchine’s school, but ended up at the Copacabana and as a Broadway gypsy. Flattened by a sprained ankle, she began to read plays and decided to switch to acting. A Warner Bros, talent scout spotted Rule’s auburn hair and green eyes, and made her a starlet—a recalcitrant one. “They wanted me to go to Ciro’s and the Macombo with men I didn’t know. Hollywood was a disaster.” So Janice bounced back to New York, and in 1953 scored in William Inge’s Picnic.
Along the way, she bombed in brief marriages to playwright N. Richard (The Rainmaker) Nash and Robert (Wild in the Streets) Thorn. “I love writers,” she confesses. “I still do.” Benny, meanwhile, also had a bum trip to the altar. “I was married at 21,” he reflects. “What a moron I was! It’s the marriage to feel like a grownup. Of course, she came from another culture—she was what we [Italians] call a ‘white’ girl. Swedish. It was that kind of romantic thing, built on nothing.” At first, Janice worried that Gazzara’s mother “would think I was a whore or something” as a double divorcée. “But that wonderful woman took my hand and said, ‘Janny, if I hadda been raised in this country I would have married three, four, maybe five times until I found the right one.” Gazzara adds proudly, “It was her way of telling Janice she was one of the family. She was a great woman.”
In the mid ’60s Ben and Janice were both in movies (his included A Rage to Live; hers The Chase), but then the roles dried up. Reluctantly, they moved to California for his best-known role of the doomed attorney (and sometime director) of NBC’s Run for Your Life, but the grind almost ruined their marriage. “When you’ve been spoiled by playing in works by top authors,” he says, “it’s punishing to do inferior material.” Also, he admits, “I was in a manic state, and a little too much boozing went on. There were slam-bang fights in public places. I have to give Janice four stars for hanging in there.”
They still have a four-bedroom house in Westwood, where Rule stays during her current studies at the Southern California Psychiatric Institute. Their younger daughter, Liz, 17, agreed to shift to an L.A. school to be with Mom. (Says Janice: “I was terribly moved by her compassion.”) Ben calls Liz “the Italian” in the family, and next year she’ll study art in Florence. Their home base remains their old ten-room pad on Manhattan’s Riverside Drive, and their other daughter (by Rule’s second marriage), Kate, 19, a carpenter’s apprentice, is now staying there with Ben.
Janice is still trying to sort out how “a strange bird” like herself will apply her psychiatric training. She’s determined to use her new discipline, says Rule, to correct the simplistic, scholarly interpretations of the past holding that actors are “exhibitionists fixated at the age level of 2 or 3.”
Anyway, Gazzara (whose last movies, Capone and The Killing of A Chinese Bookie, were DOA at the box-office) has no hangups about supporting Janice’s new career. “When the kids were growing up, she turned down a lot of work.” Ben already sounds like a man who knows how to avoid a fixated state.