Thursday 18 April 2019

In memoriam: Seymour Cassel (Telegraph 11/04/19)

Seymour Cassel, who has died aged 84, was a talismanic character actor who provided a bridge between successive generations of American independent filmmakers. He emerged from the ensemble of the writer-director-performer John Cassavetes, who handed Cassel an uncredited cameo in jazz-scene melodrama Shadows (1958), before coaching him to an Oscar nomination as Chet, the blond hippie sundering a married couple in Faces (1968). Born of the countercultural turbulence, the Cassavetes films were a new way of doing cinema, self-funded and shot on the fly. “We had a crew of seven,” Cassel later reflected. “I did it all. I shot, I loaded magazines, moved lights... That way of making a film was so much fun. No unions to deal with, no time schedule.”

Such ready flexibility made him a boon for those cash-strapped creatives attempting to rebuild the independent sector as the blockbuster-heavy 1980s closed out, and Cassel enjoyed a renaissance in the 1990s as both an on- and offscreen mentor. His voice remained recognisably raspy, yet he assumed a newly avuncular air, his puckish features reframed by a shock of white hair and matching moustache, in a run of leftfield films overseen by Alexandre Rockwell (In the Soup, 1992), Steve Buscemi (Trees Lounge, 1996) and Wes Anderson (Rushmore, 1998). He delighted in the company of emergent talent – giving his son’s guitarist friend Saul Hudson the nickname Slash after observing his dashing around – and once vowed he’d do any indie film for the price of airfare if he liked the script.

He was born Seymour Joseph Cassel in Detroit on January 22, 1935, and thrust instantly into the business’s lower ranks: his mother Pancretia Ann Cassel (née Kearney) danced on the burlesque circuit, while his stepfather, also named Seymour, owned a New York nightclub that he claimed to have won playing craps. (His biological father, whom Cassel never met, was a beer salesman.) He adapted well to the itinerant life: “I got to get on stage when I was about three-and-a-half, and I’d do the matinees in the little chequered suit with the baggy-pants comics… When I had to go to school, I was not very happy.” After a stint in the Navy, he moved to New York to resume his first passion, studying at the Actors Studio, before meeting Cassavetes (“the best friend I ever had”) at the latter’s workshop on 46th Street.

With Method acting inspiring a flood of Brando wannabes, the laidback Cassel struggled to make an impression: he followed Shadows with uncredited work in Mob drama Murder, Inc. (1960) and The Nutty Professor (1963). Though there were minor roles in Cassavetes’s Too Late Blues (1961) and Don Siegel’s remake of The Killers (1964), Cassel spent his early years in L.A. doing TV fare: a Cassavetes-directed episode of The Lloyd Bridges Show (1962), The Twilight Zone (uncredited, 1964), one henchman among many on Batman (1967). Faces was a breakthrough in that it was the first time anybody had paid sustained attention to Cassel’s blithe presence – yet his first appearance after the Oscar nomination, in Fox’s modish melodrama The Sweet Ride, again went unbilled.

More prominent work followed: among the hoods plaguing Clint Eastwood in Siegel’s Coogan’s Bluff (1968), as another hippie in campus curio The Revolutionary (1970), as a seal trainer in the Fitzgerald adaptation The Last Tycoon (1976), and as the Governor in Sam Peckinpah’s Convoy (1978). Yet only Cassavetes seemed to know what to do with Cassel, and the four films they subsequently completed together – Minnie and Moskowitz (1971), The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), Opening Night (1977) and Love Streams (1984) – represented a quantum-leap forwards for American acting. It was within the Cassavetes circle that Cassel met the actress Elizabeth Deering, who had made her screen debut in Faces. The couple married in 1964, and remained together until their divorce in 1983.

That separation came as Cassel entered a midlife slump. No stranger to revelry – he boasted of growing the best cannabis in Hollywood – he was sentenced to six months’ jailtime in 1981 for possession and intent to distribute cocaine. Upon release, however, he entered rehab, and after Cassavetes’ death in 1989, he could even be seen on studio backlots, lending his now-weathered presence to the roles of old friend Warren Beatty’s partner in Dick Tracy (1990), mobster Tony Cataracts in Nic Cage romcom Honeymoon in Vegas (1992), and Robert Redford’s chauffeur in Indecent Proposal (1993). Yet he retained an independent spirit, winning the Sundance Festival’s Special Jury Prize for Acting in 1992 for his role as Joe, the kindly, dickie-bowed shyster of Rockwell’s In the Soup.

That film became a touchstone for the resurgent indie movement, not least for its fond, funny account of the struggles endured by Steve Buscemi’s filmmaker-surrogate Aldolpho Rollo. Cassel later appeared in Buscemi’s own directorial projects, and became something of a mascot for Wes Anderson, proving poignant as the father of Rushmore’s prodigal hero Max Fischer, Gene Hackman’s pal Dusty in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) and doomed diver Esteban du Plantier in The Life Aquatic (2004). He racked up multiple credits per year, sometimes in multiplex fare – he was the hilariously disreputable agent shopping the conjoined twins of the Farrellys’ Stuck on You (2003) – but more generally in lowish-budget works, few of which travelled beyond the festival circuit.

In his final years, Cassel was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, yet adventurous cinemagoers were reminded of his glory days in 2011, when the experimental filmmaker James Benning, in a typically thoughtful act of homage, recut Faces to shift its emphasis back onto Cassavetes’s searching close-ups. Asked why he had been drawn repeatedly to independent directors, Cassel replied: “Simply because they don’t have the money to make a big-budget film, they’re forced to make a story that’s important to them, that they would like to see on screen… a personal story that people can relate to, about people, where you can see the love of the characters.”

He is survived by his son Matthew Cassel and daughters Lisa Papciak and Dilyn Cassel Murphy.

Seymour Cassel, born January 22, 1935, died April 7, 2019.

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