John Cazale starred in five films, all nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, and three winners. As batting averages go, not even his fiancée before his early death, Meryl Streep, can boast of such a hot ratio (had they had the chance to procreate, one can but assume that their kids would have like 30 Academy Awards by the age of 20).
But I come not to praise Cazale in totality, I come to talk of Fredo, perhaps the most important character in the Corleone family, who sets all kinds of events in motion.
He sticks out like a sore thumb from the rest of his family, with none of the charm of Michael, the brains of Vito, the certainty of Connie, or even the brute force of Sonny. In pretty much every way possible, Fredo's pathetic.
His conviction that he's not such a loser, and his many attempts to mask that basic fact, are what make him such a compelling character. We know that his death is the ultimate result of his total weakness, and we still almost forgive him for it.
For as Fredo becomes more helpless, Michael becomes more brutal. Fredo's punished, ultimately, for putting himself first. But what does Michael do? He claims to act in defense of the family, but as time goes on, that justification rings more and more hollow. Michael, too, acts only in his own regard, in defense of his own pride.
In one moment, Fredo loses his life, but Michael loses everything else. Poor Fredo, despite being a complete waste of a human being, nonetheless precipitates Michael's total conversion to darkness.