Saturday 21 September 2019

Obituary: Seymour Cassel

Colourful character actor best known for his roles in movies by John Cassavetes

CHARISMATIC: Seymour Cassel
CHARISMATIC: Seymour Cassel

Seymour Cassel, who has died aged 84, was a 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 his jazz-scene melodrama Shadows in 1958 before coaching him to an Oscar nomination as Chet, the blond hippie sundering a married couple in Faces in 1968.

Born of counter-cultural 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 film-makers attempting to rebuild the independent sector as the blockbuster-heavy 1980s came to an end. Cassel enjoyed a renaissance in the next decade both off-screen as a mentor, and on-screen playing mentors. His voice remained recognisably raspy, yet he assumed a newly avuncular air, with his puckish features framed by a shock of white hair and matching moustache, in a run of left-field films made by directors such as Alexandre Rockwell (In the Soup, 1992), Steve Buscemi (Trees Lounge, 1996) and Wes Anderson (Rushmore, 1998).

He delighted in the company of emergent talent - it was Cassel who gave his son's guitarist friend, Saul Hudson, later famous as a member of Guns N' Roses, the nickname Slash after observing his dashing around. Cassel once vowed he would do any independent film for the price of the airfare if he liked the script.

He was born Seymour Joseph Cassel in Detroit on January 22, 1935, and thrust instantly into the lower ranks of the business. His mother Pancretia Ann Cassel (nee 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 director's workshop on 46th Street.

With Method acting inspiring performers in the intense style of Marlon Brando, the laid-back Cassel struggled to make an impression. He followed Shadows with uncredited work in the 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 Los Angeles doing television: a Cassavetes-directed episode of The Lloyd Bridges Show (1962), The Twilight Zone (uncredited, 1964) and one henchman among many in Batman (1967). Faces was a breakthrough in that it was the first time anybody had paid sustained attention to Cassel's relaxed 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 hoodlums plaguing Clint Eastwood in Siegel's Coogan's Bluff (1968), as another hippie in the campus curio The Revolutionary (1970), as a seal trainer in the Scott 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 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 1983, when the marriage ended in divorce.

That separation came as Cassel entered a mid-life slump. No stranger to revelry - he boasted of growing the finest cannabis in Hollywood - he was sentenced to six months in prison in 1981 for possession and intent to distribute cocaine.

Upon release, however, he entered rehab, and after the death of Cassavetes in 1989, he could be seen lending his now-weathered presence to the roles of his old friend Warren Beatty's partner in Dick Tracy (1990), the mobster Tony Cataracts in 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, dickey-bowed shyster of Rockwell's In the Soup.

That film became a touchstone for the resurgent indie film movement, not least for its fond, funny account of the struggles endured by Steve Buscemi's character of a film-maker. Cassel later appeared in Buscemi's own directorial projects, and became something of a mascot for Wes Anderson, proving poignant as the father of the quirky teenage hero of Anderson's Rushmore, Gene Hackman's pal Dusty in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), and as the doomed diver Esteban du Plantier in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou in 2004.

He notched up numerous credits in multiplex fare - he was the hilariously disreputable agent in Stuck on You (2003) and 'Dirt' the hapless softball pitcher in Beer League (2006) - as well as in lesser known low-budget works.

In his final years, Cassel suffered from Alzheimer's disease, but in 2011 dedicated cinemagoers were reminded of his glory days, when the experimental filmmaker James Benning recut Faces to shift its emphasis back on to Cassavetes's searching close-ups.

Cassel, who died on April 7, is survived by a son and two daughters.

© Telegraph

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