Sey­mour Cas­sel, independent ac­tor, fea­tured in Cas­savetes’ films

The Buffalo News - - OBITUARIES - By Nardine Saad

LOS AN­GE­LES – Sey­mour Cas­sel, the pro­lific independent film ac­tor who starred in “Faces” and sev­eral other John Cas­savetes films, has died. He was 84.

The Os­car-nom­i­nated ac­tor died Sun­day in Los An­ge­les fol­low­ing com­pli­ca­tions from Alzheimer’s disease, his son, ac­tor Matthew Cas­sel, said in a state­ment to the Los An­ge­les Times on Mon­day. Mr. Cas­sel was sur­rounded by fam­ily at the time of his death, his son said.

Re­garded as a vet­eran jour­ney­man ac­tor and independent-film pi­o­neer, Mr. Cas­sel built a ca­reer that spanned six decades and was filled with char­ac­ters whose un­pre­dictable, live-wire en­ergy were much like his own.

He made his act­ing de­but in the 1958 ro­man­tic drama “Shad­ows,” the first film by his friend and di­rec­tor Cas­savetes, and later ap­peared in a trio of Wes An­der­son films, in­clud­ing an against-type role in “Rush­more,” as well as “The Royal Te­nen­baums” and “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zis­sou.”

He be­gan study­ing act­ing in the 1950s in New York, where he met Cas­savetes, then in 1961 came to Hol­ly­wood, where he planted his act­ing roots at the dawn of the Amer­i­can independent film move­ment, rack­ing up dozens of film and tele­vi­sion roles in the 1960s and ’70s.

“I am a per­former, that’s what I like to do,” he told the Times in 2009. “I’m per­form­ing here with you, telling you truth­ful things. It’s all per­form­ing, that’s what we do in life. We talk, we look and we hear and we lis­ten. Your life is a per­for­mance.”

Mr. Cas­sel, the son of a Mil­wau­kee beer sales­man and an un­wed bur­lesque dancer, was born on Jan. 22, 1935, in Detroit. He never met his fa­ther and grew up trav­el­ing with his mother, get­ting on­stage for the first time at age 3.

“I started per­form­ing when I was 3; I’d come out in a lit­tle check­ered suit and pull down the clown’s pants – I loved that!

“I was a lit­tle ham and was a very open kid, prob­a­bly be­cause I was around adults all the time,” he added. “That also forced me to grow up fast, and I learned at an early age about how peo­ple lie and de­ceive each other. I learned th­ese things be­cause I was alone in life from the be­gin­ning.”

His mother mar­ried an Air Force sergeant when he was about 6, and they moved from Manhattan to var­i­ous places in the South. At one point, they lived in a night­club in Panama City that his step­dad won in a craps game, Mr. Cas­sel said. His mother got di­vorced in 1949 and he went to live with his god­mother in Detroit, where he stayed un­til he was 18. He be­gan drink­ing at age 13.

“I was a tough guy and was into gangs when I was a teenager,” he said. “I got into a lot of trou­ble and had a deep dis­trust of women and was a real an­gry kid. When I was 17, I was told I had the choice of en­list­ing in the Navy or go­ing to jail, so I spent the next three years in the Navy.”

Af­ter that, he be­came an ap­pren­tice at a lo­cal theater com­pany, build­ing props and work­ing his way up to act­ing in small parts. He au­di­tioned for the Ac­tors Stu­dio in New York to no avail, then took a job as a waiter and en­rolled in a theater school on the GI Bill.

“At this point, my life was about to be saved by John Cas­savetes. At the time, John was the hottest young ac­tor on TV, so when I saw an ad in the pa­per that said, ‘John Cas­savetes Ac­tors’ Work­shop – free schol­ar­ships,’ I went down to check it out,” he said.

“John was there and we talked for a while, and I im­me­di­ately loved him be­cause there was no bull about him. Af­ter we talked, he said he had to go be­cause he was shoot­ing a film, and I asked if I could watch, so we went over to the set he’d built for ‘Shad­ows,’ ” Mr. Cas­sel con­tin­ued. “The crew for the film was just four guys, so I started help­ing out and wound up stay­ing all night, and af­ter that I just kept com­ing back. John put me in the pic­ture, I be­came as­so­ciate pro­ducer, and I learned about film­mak­ing from the ground up.”

In 1959, Cas­savetes and his wife, Gena Row­lands, moved to LA and Mr. Cas­sel soon fol­lowed, tak­ing up res­i­dence in their guest­house.

“John was a huge in­flu­ence on both my cre­ative and my per­sonal life. He gave me the con­fi­dence to be more in touch with my­self, and he brought out the best in me – and in ev­ery­one – be­cause he cared about his ac­tors and he loved peo­ple.”

Mr. Cas­sel was later nom­i­nated for an Os­car for his role as a hip­pie swinger in Cas­savetes’ 1968 drama “Faces” and turned in crit­i­cally ac­claimed per­for­mances in six other Cas­savetes films, in­clud­ing “Min­nie and Moskowitz,” “The Killing of a Chi­nese Bookie” and “Love Streams.” Those led to parts in movies by such in­dus­try greats as Sam Peck­in­pah, Elia Kazan and Ni­co­las Roeg.

Mr. Cas­sel spent some time in jail in the 1980s af­ter be­ing con­victed of con­spir­acy to sell co­caine. Then his ca­reer peaked again in the 1990s when he won the first act­ing prize given at the Sun­dance Film Festival for his role in 1992’s “In the Soup,” di­rected by Alexan­dre Rock­well, which also won that year’s grand jury prize. It was Rock­well who put Mr. Cas­sel in touch with An­der­son.

The fol­low­ing year he starred in “In­de­cent Pro­posal” with Robert Red­ford, Demi Moore and Woody Har­rel­son and worked con­sis­tently un­til 2015.

Mr. Cas­sel is sur­vived by two sons, Matthew and Di­lyn; a daugh­ter, Lisa Pap­ciak; seven grand­chil­dren; and three great-grand­chil­dren.

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