John Cassavetes retained a strong sense of Greek identity throughout his life, but John Cassavetes does not appear to have been active in the Greek Orthodox church as an adult.
Although John Cassavetes was seen as an iconoclastic, highly individualistic outsider in his artistic and professional life, he was exceptionally traditional with regard to his famous devotion to his wife and family. He married actress Gena Rowlands and worked with her professionally throughout most of his career. Although they were both highly demonstrative and passionate on the sets of their many film productions and theatrical together, and certainly seemed to have a "stormy" relationship, they had a strong marriage. They remained married from 9 April 1954 until John Cassavetes' death on 3 February 1989. John Cassavetes was committed not only to his own marriage and family, but also to the idea of marriage and family in general. He frequently spoke about family relationships and relationships with friends as being of utmost importance in life.
Of course, as is well know, acting and filmmaking were also driving passions in his life. He had a rather indifferent attitude toward money and fame. He was truly driven by the artistic aspects of acting and filmmaking.
From: Ray Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes, Faber and Faber: London and New York (2001), page 1:
[John Cassavetes said:] My father, Nicholas John Cassavetes, came to America with his sister and brother when he was fourteen. He was born in Larissa, Greece, in 1893, and heard about this country when a missionary came through town one day saying there was brotherhood in America, that if you wanted to work and learn, the American people would open their arms and hearts to you. They went first to Bulgaria... and then ton Constantinople, where they worked until they saved up the boat fare... On 1 January 1908, my dad and his brother Arthur arrived at Ellis Island... My dad began looking for Greeks all over town, searching for that familiar dark-olive skin tone, until he found fellow immigrants who gave him work.
Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes, page 2:
After he left school in 1915, having completed the equivalent of three years of school work, Nicholas Cassavetes briefly served in the US Army as an interpreter, and from 1915-22, as Honorary Secretary and then Director of the Pan-Epiotic Union in America. In that capacity he wrote The Question of Northern Epirus at the Peace Conference, published by Oxford University Press in 1919. It is a passionate, personal plea for the assistance of the American people in helping the Epirote people (his own national group) free themselves from Albanian rule.Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes, page 3:
Nicholas [the father of John Cassavetes] married Katherine Demetri, approximately fifteen years his junior, on 24 April 1926, and the couple had two sons: Nicholas John, who later became a Wall Street stockbroker... and John Nicholas, on 9 December 1929.Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes, page 4:
In the early 1930s, the father took the family back to Greece for six years. John was two.Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes, pages 4-5:
[John Cassavetes said:] The family went back to Greece when I was young and we returned to America when I was eight. I'm told that at school at the time I couldn't speak English, only Greek. But the language barrier means nothing to me. Language is just a bunch of symbols. People's emotions are fundamentally the same everywhere.
The mother's and father's personalities complemented each other. The father [of John Cassavetes] was bookish, intellectual and idealistic. He instilled a love of the Classics in his son that would endure throughout his life, reading Plato and Sophocles in Greek to young John, while the boy planted and weeded the family garden.Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes, pages 5-6:
[John Cassavetes said:] My father was a quiet, serious, thoughtful man -- very artistic and creative and original, but he did it on his own. He wrote two books that were never published. For the first, The Sanhedron, he went to Israel and researched Jesus's trial. After [John Cassavetes' film] Shadows, I wanted to work with Dreyer on a movie of it. The screenplay was called Thirty Pieces of Silver. Then there was another, Blood and Oil, taking on Standard Oil. When he finished it in 1939, he knew he could never get it published, but he wanted to tell the truth about what the company had done. He was an idealist and a real intellectual.About John Cassavetes' mother, from: Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes, pages 6-7:
[Carney:] Nicholas Cassavetes [the father of John Cassavetes] was a serious student of history and world culture who saw America as, at least potentially, a new Athens. He personally subscribed to the ideals of classic Greek civilization and judged America insofar as it realized -- or failed to realize -- those ideals. As is the case with many immigrants from less democratic cultures, traditional and 'old world' in his own values, the father had strong convictions about the failure of Americans to live up to the ideals on which their culture was founded. He felt that America was being eroded from within by social divisiveness, narrow self-interest, personal immorality, and lack of what he called 'discipline'. In his words, 'to escape the destiny of Greece and Rome' America needed to return to 'traditional ideals of discipline, patriotism and moral value'. During the 1920s and 1930s, the New York Times published more than twenty letters by him about a range of matters, and in 1944, he published a thirty-four-page booklet titled Near East Problems. Young John Cassavetes grew up in an household swimming with exalted and passionately held historical and political ideas -- in which American cultural values were, for better and for worse, continuously compared with those of classical Greece. The boy was told of both the potential greatness and the actual shortcomings of American society, and reminded that he was from a background hat should allow him to be better than most Americans.
The father was a Roosevelt Democrat in the 1930s. In later years he crusaded on behalf of a range of social causes and political reforms. He was a Greek patriot, collecting Greek art and religious icons, and defending traditional Greek values against being watered down by modernization. In the following passage, the filmmaker talks about his father as he was in his seventies.
He still works close to eighteen hours a day. He won't stop; he's in travel and immigration, and plans to make millions. He's probably responsible for bringing in most of the Greeks who now live in America [this is probably an exaggeration]. My mother calls him the champion of lost causes; he's one of those Greek-American patriots who tries to move mountains. Right now, he's fighting an archbishop because the archbishop wants to replace Greek with English as the language in church services. A few months ago, I was having dinner with my mother and I asked her where my dad was. He was out on the street picketing the archbishop.
Katherine Cassavetes was extroverted, animated and status-conscious. The daughter of a Greek ship captain (a prestigious position within Greek society), she was a member of the Park Avenue high Greek aristocracy (where the family joke was that Aristotle Onassis was an upstart businessman without true 'style' or 'class'). She was fluent in Greek, Italian, English and Yiddish.Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes, page 36:
...on Friday 19 March , he [John Cassavetes] and [Gena] Rowlands got married in a small, brief ceremony at the Little Church Around the Corner in downtown Manhattan. It was a whirlwind courtship; they had been going together only four months.Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes, page 496:
[A copy of the marriage certificate published in the book shows the actual name of the church: "Extract from the Register of the Parish of the Church of the Transfiguration, New York N.Y." The words "Rev. Norman J. Gatir, Jr. Rector" are printed underneath the name of the church, but this person's name is crossed out. The Little Church Around the Corner is an Episcopalian church that was well known in the theatrical community.]
[Nick Cassavetes said:] To have a philosophy is to know how to love. And to know where to put it. And to know the importance of friendships and the importance of continuity. And all the other philosophies, negative philosophies, seem to be a more modern bastardization of what philosophy is. And I don't think a person can live without a philosophy. That is, where can you love? What's the important place that you can put that thing because you can't put it everywhere. You'd walk around, you gotta be a minister or priest saying, 'Yes, my son' or 'Yes, my daughter, bless you.' But poepl edon't live that way. They live with anger and hostility and problems and lack of money and lack of . . . with tremendous disappointments in their life. So what they need is a philosophy. What I think everybody needs in a way is to say, 'Where and how can I love? Can I be in love so that I can live? So that I can live with some degree of peace?' You know? And I guess every picture we've ever done has been, in a way, to try to find some kind of philosophy for the characters in the film. And so that's why I have a need for the characters to really analyze love, discuss it, kill it, destroy it, hurt each other, do all that stuff - in that war, in that word-polemic and picture-polemic of what life is. And the rest of the stuff doesn't really interest me. It may interest other people, but I have a one-track mind. That's all I'm interestedin, is love. And the lack of it. When it stops. And the pain that's caused by loss of things taken away from us that we really need. So Love Streams is just . . . another picture in search of that grail . . . or whatever.Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes, page 505:
The screenplay of Son has several passages in which Cassavetes comes as close as he ever did to summarizing his own feelings and beliefs.Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes, page 388:
In one passage, Son talks about the tyranny of social and moral conventions to keep people 'in line':
SON: Morality [and] religion [are forms] of structure. Disapproval is a form of structure. So here's a line. When you get off the line, you hear a little beep. And you don't know why you get back on the line, but if you don't get back on the line, something's going to beep at you, and most people get back on the line. And the people who don't, hear the beep all the time. So that's probably why we take drugs. To open up their minds to a place where there is no beep.
In another passage, Son and his mother talk about love in a world without God, and about the importance of beauty, grace and 'class' in life and art:
SON: Your husband, my Father, God Almighty, either he has messed up the world, or we don't deserve anything but pain and suffering. Maybe there is no God. Maybe there's nobody. Do you see what I'm saying? Maybe there's just you and me, Mom. Do you understand? And there's enough love there. We don't have to make somebody else up in order to love more. Do you see what I'm saying?
MOTHER: I agree with you. Your father's a very stubborn man. Intellectual, you know? But it's still a beautiful world. So maybe he likes it messy. And, you know, because of the brain power that He has, he doesn't realize and other people are not as smart, so when they see pain, it's too painful. I told Him, You can't be too stiff. Too important. You gotta have more Marilyn Monroes and Jack Bennys. And Charlie McCarthys. And Tallulah Bankheads and Roosevelts. Hemingways. A few more people like Katharine Hepburn. You know? Charlie Chaplins. Poeple that are higher class. You can't have all low class, so that everybody's low. Put more high class in there, you know, with graceful people like Garbo, so that people can look up a little bit instead of looking down all the time.
[John Cassavetes'] real love is not naked bodies but the costumes that adorn them. Cassavetes and Shaw frequented strip-clubs less to see exposed skin than to study the art of concealing it. Cassavetes was, in fact, quite conservative in his attitude toward nudity - in life and in art. There are no 'love scenes' in his work and extremely few moments in which you see anyone unclothed. Here and in Love Streams, when it came to playing nude scenes, Casavetes was extremely deferential to his actresses, never asking them to do anything they were personally uncomfortable with or that would violate their sense of modesty.The reason why the two girls Robert Harmon sleeps with in Love Streams are not naked is that, when they expressed shyness about removing their clothes, Cassavetes allowed them to keep them on. In a similar vein, he told his actors and crew to be extremely respectful when they shot the dressing-room scenes in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. The line - 'What kind of strip-joint is this? Nobody takes their clothes off' - was actually something Gazzara improvised on the spot in response to Cassavetes' decision to allow his actresses to stay clothed for some of the stage sets.Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes, pages 507-508:
[Nick Cassavetes said:] I don't understand all this interest in nudity. This desire to bare it all. Bodies are boring. It's our imaginations that make them interesting. Every woman looks better with her clothes on than naked. I tell my daughters that. Playboy is the worst - to try to make it sophisticated for an audience to swallow; then, ten years later, they come up with a few pubic hairs. Isn't that wonderfully daring? I loathe Playboy. They ust do it because there's money in it. Because we live in a Puritan society.
We've becoming a voyeuristic society. I also think we're starting to lose faith in the idea that one man and one woman can totally please each other in bed. Sex is becoming something of a community activity; more and more people have to hop into the sack together in order for all of them to achieve sexual satisfaction. That kind of thing finally robs sex of all its deliciouis and very private pleasures. When sex becomes commonplace, when the girl you want is trying out half your suburban community and the same is true of you, where are the romantic and secret pleasues you need out of sex? I don't like sex to be ordinary and rational and organized and sane. That was what kept me away from meeting Elia Kazan. As a young man, I saw him with these three girls going upstairs in a club. I never wanted to have anything to do with him after that. Maybe I would have liked him. Maybe I am a prude. But it just shocked me. I want more out of life - more than the knowledge that I can peform.
A second project Cassavetes mediated filming was a script called Begin the Beguine.... [It] takes place entirely on one set, a bedroom. An optimist and a pessimist, Morris and his friend, Gito, rent motel room for a weekend and spend the whole time calling hookers. Rather than making love to them, they get into long philosophical talks with them about the meaning of life... Cassavetes wrote the work for Gazzara and Falk to play, and conducted several readings at his house. He wanted to turn it into a movie, but Falk and Gazzara felt that a film production would have ben too much for him at that point in his life and declined involvement. Cassavetes then asked a number of other actor friends to read it, including Rob Reiner and Richard Dreyfus, who by all accounts did a delightfully 'Jewish' interpretation of the roles.Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes, page 510:
In October 1988, with his health failing, Cassavetes proposed turning the rights to the script [Casualties of War] over to [Sean] Penn and Seymour Cassel for a production to be directed by [acclaimed Mormon film director] Hal Ashby. The deal was never completed.Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes, page 512:
[Nick Cassavetes said during his final years:] I love my films! They are everything that is in my children, they're everything that is in my family, they're everything that is in me, they're everything that is in my wife, everything that is in my friends. Yes, I love my movies. And they're honest movies. Whether they're good or bad is another story. But at least they're movies that tell what I know. And if I don't know anything, then you're in trouble! Then you might not like the movies! But they're expressions. Now, I can't compare them with the slickness of a political movie, because I hate political movies; and I can't compare them with the pretensions of an art movie, because I hate art movies. These are just straight on, straightforward movies about things we don't know about. But they're questions that I think people ask themselves all the time.
Gene [i.e., Gena Rowland, Cassavetes' wife] and I are freaks. We are. We're absolutely freakishly obsessed with wanting to convey something that is very hard for us to express in our life. To dig deeply into the way things are, through people, is what I like and what the people who work with me like also. To find out the delicate balance between living and dying. I mean, I think that's the only subject there is.