Obituary: Frank Mazzola, actor and film editor.

Hollywood editor who formed creative partnership with cult director Donald Cammell

Frank Mazzola, actor and film editor. Picture: Getty
Frank Mazzola, actor and film editor. Picture: Getty

Frank Mazzola, actor and film editor. 
Born: 7 March, 1935, in Los Angeles.

Died: 13 January, 2015, in Los Angeles, aged 79.

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Frank Mazzola was born into the film business – his father was in movies in the silent era. He went to Hollywood High, but he fell in with a rough crowd, hung out with a street gang and got himself into a few scrapes.

However, it was his experience and knowledge of gang culture that got him his big break in the iconic James Dean movie Rebel Without a Cause in 1955. He played one of the gang members.

But he also effectively became a specialist consultant, advising Dean and director Nicholas Ray on teen attitudes, language and dress. And he more or less choreographed the knife fight between Dean and co-star Corey Allen.

Mazzola moved from acting to editing, cutting several films that reflected the changing social attitudes of the late 1960s and early 1970s and typically contained some surreal, trippy visuals.

He formed a lasting association with Donald Cammell, the Edinburgh-born director of the controversial cult movie Performance, with Mick Jagger as a rock star, Anita Pallenberg and Michele Breton as his girlfriends and James Fox as the gangster who turns up on their doorstep and joins the household.

Warner Bros had backed the movie in the belief that they would be getting something a bit like A Hard Day’s Night and could tap into the huge market for British pop, but with the Stones instead of the Beatles.

They were outraged by the violence, nudity and kinky sex and were talking about destroying the negative and suing the film-makers. Then Easy Rider came out and they decided that maybe they could tap into that market instead.

Donald Cammell was the black sheep of the Cammell Laird shipbuilding empire, born in the Outlook Tower, beside Edinburgh Castle. He pushed the boundaries of mainstream cinema with his visuals and his treatment of story. His work, with Mazzola as editor, continually jumped between disparate characters and dislocated scenes.

Despite its uneasy birth, Performance, which Cammell co-directed with Nicolas Roeg, is now regarded as one of the greatest British films ever made. But while Roeg went on to a long and distinguished film career, Cammell continually clashed with production companies and struggled to get films made.

His final film Wild Side was taken away from him and shown on cable television in the US in 1995 in a “dumbed down” version that concentrated on lesbian sex and drove him to despair. He committed suicide in 1996.

But Mazzola eventually got the film back, recut it in line with Cammell’s vision and brought a posthumous “director’s cut” to the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 1999.

A thriller, starring Christopher Walken as a gangster and Anne Heche as a banker-turned-call girl, it addressed the subjects of sex and power.

This version also had a strong streak of black comedy running through it. It aroused considerable interest and attracted critical praise.

But Mazzola’s story begins way back in the early days of Hollywood. His father had been one of the Keystone Cops comedy troupe in the silent era. The son was born Francisco Mazzola and as an infant made his screen debut as an extra in the 1939 film of The Hunchback of Notre Dame with Charles Laughton.

As a teenager Mazzola hung out with a gang called the Athenians. He told me he used to get into a lot of fights. But this was Hollywood, and he also picked up a few small roles in movies, including James Dean’s debut film East of Eden (1955).

He played the character Crunch in Dean’s next film Rebel Without a Cause. He also took him to meet some of his buddies in the gang and persuaded director Nicholas Ray to let him arrange the big knife fight, drawing on his own experience.

“This guy pulled a knife on me,” he told me. “I was a boxer and I pulled a leather jacket over my hand, so it wouldn’t get cut, and I started feinting the guy and then I hooked him a beautiful shot and just basically beat the crap out of the guy.

“When I told Nick and Jimmy about that, they said, ‘Would you like to stage the knife fight and do it just the way you told us?’”

Mazzola’s acting career never really took off and he moved into editing. Performance was one of his first movies as editor. Filming had been completed by the time he got involved, but he felt inspired by the footage he saw, latterly speaking of “magic” and “electricity”, as he cut it together.

His other films as editor include the Harold Robbins adaptation Stiletto, the offbeat western The Hired Hand, written by the Scot Alan Sharp and directed by and starring Easy Rider’s Peter Fonda, and Cammell’s science-fiction drama Demon Seed. Television credits include the mini-series Amerika, in which the US has become a Soviet state.

Mazzola suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and went missing for several days last year. He is survived by his wife and four daughters.