Actor Ben Gazzara Dies at Age 81 (Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

Actor Ben Gazzara, whose long and varied career spanned lead roles in the original 1955 Broadway productions of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “A Hatful of Rain,” television, and innumerable film roles including the 1959’s “Anatomy of a Murder” and 1998’s “The Big Lebowski,” has died, according to reports.

Gazzara died in Manhattan of pancreatic cancer, The New York Times reported.

He was 81, according to IMDB.com.

Gazzara told Charlie Rose in 1998 that he went from being mainly a stage actor who often would turn up his nose at film roles in the mid-1950s to, much later, a ubiquitous character actor who “turned very little down, almost nothing.”

U.S. actor Ben Gazzara holds his Donostia prize which was awarded in recognition of his lifetime achievement at the San Sebastian Film Festival in northern Spain in this file photo taken September 22, 2005. Gazzara died February 3, 2012 of pancreatic cancer in New York City at the age of 81 according to news reports. REUTERS/Pablo Sanchez/Files (SPAIN – Tags: ENTERTAINMENT OBITUARY)

“When I became a 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.”

After early film success in major roles, Gazzara’s career cooled, though he starred in the TV series “Run for Your Life,” from 1965 to 1968.

The New York-born Gazzara worked with a number of top directors, including a series of films in the 1970s with the cult icon John Cassavetes, who Gazzara later told an interviewer he considered “a poet of film.”

Gazzara said in an interview posted on YouTube that he met Cassavetes on the Universal Studios lot in the late 1960s when he making “Run for Your Life,” and soon found himself rehearsing, refining and improvising a script with Cassavetes and the actor Peter Falk that would eventually be released as the 1970 film “Husbands.”

“By the time we got on the set we knew each other so well and had worked so intimately with each other creating the film that this creation … led to a friendship,” Gazzara told the interviewer at a Cassavetes festival. “John would say, ‘I don’t want you to be better than you are. I want you to be as good as you are.’ So he set the climate for an actor to feel free, to give whatever. And if it didn’t work, it didn’t work.”

“It’s the first time I experienced a piece of work that I wanted to go on and on and on,” he said. “Because it got to the point where the relationships had become like blood. I couldn’t leave that.”

Gazzara continued to work with Cassavetes, including the films “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” and “Opening Night.”

Gazzara’s later-day work included the films “Happiness,” “The Spanish Prisoner,” “Summer of Sam,” and “Buffalo 66.”

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