The Irrepressible Seymour Cassel

On Film / The Daily — Apr 12, 2019
Seymour Cassel in Alexandre Rockwell’s In the Soup (1992)

Though he appeared in over two hundred film and television productions, Seymour Cassel, who died on Sunday at the age of eighty-four, will always be remembered first and foremost for his work with John Cassavetes. Cassel’s onscreen debut was in Shadows (1959), Cassavetes’s first foray into a trailblazing career as an independent filmmaker. Their partnership on this landmark project—Cassel was also an associate producer—set the course of Cassel’s trajectory as an actor. Over the following six decades, he’d occasionally take on a supporting role in a glossy studio production, playing a cop in Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy (1990), for example, or Robert Redford’s chauffeur in Adrian Lyne’s Indecent Proposal (1993), but he would be drawn over and again back to the challenge and intimacy of work on no- to low-budget productions. “I like the excitement of not having enough money, enough film, enough time to do it, and still trying to make it work,” Cassel told Michael Lee in a 1997 IndieWire interview.

Referring to David Spaner’s 2011 book, Shoot It!: Hollywood Inc. and the Rising of Independent Film, the Hollywood Reporter’s Duane Byrge and Mike Barnes note that Cassel, fresh out of the Navy, was studying under the renowned acting coach Stella Adler in the late 1950s when he came across an ad for a workshop Cassavetes was running. Cassavetes had just begun shooting Shadows, and when Cassel asked if he could watch, Cassavetes said, “Sure.” Cassel told Spaner that he “just started helping the cameraman. I worked all night. John took us to breakfast and said, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘It’s great. Can I come back?’ He said, ‘Sure.’ And I kept coming back. Not only did it enhance my knowledge, but I found the best friend I ever had.”

After Shadows, Cassel took a small role in Cassavetes’s Too Late Blues (1961) and acted alongside his friend and mentor in Don Chaffey’s The Webster Boy (1962) and Don Siegel’s The Killers (1964) before appearing in Cassavetes’s Faces, the 1968 film that, as Sheila O’Malley writes, “really ushered in the independent film movement in America.” Cassel’s supporting performance as Chet, a young hustler picked up at a club by a group of dissatisfied middle-class wives, earned him his first and only Oscar nomination. “Midsixties youth culture bursts for the first time into the middle-aged, Sinatra-style milieu of Faces, to good effect,” writes Stuart Klawans of Cassel’s entrance in the essay accompanying our release. Cassavetes then cast Cassel alongside Gena Rowlands in Minnie and Moskowitz (1971), the story of a scruffy, pony-tailed and moustachioed parking lot attendant’s relentless pursuit of Rowlands’s museum curator. As Kim Morgan points out, Minnie and Moskowitz “works as a subversion of the romantic movie and the screwball comedy in that the ‘opposites attract’ story is layered with pain, alienation, and often at times, violence.”

Cassel’s further collaborations with Cassavetes include The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), Opening Night (1978), and Love Streams (1984). During these years, he also worked with Elia Kazan on The Last Tycoon (1976) and Sam Peckinpah on Convoy (1978), and eventually with Barry Levinson on Tin Men (1987) and Nicolas Roeg on Track 29 (1988) and Cold Heaven (1991). Colors (1988) reunited Cassel with Dennis Hopper; their friendship dated back to the 1950s, and Cassel had assisted camera operator Barry Feinstein when the acclaimed photographer shot the New Orleans street scenes in Easy Rider (1969). While the 1980s found Cassel struggling with the addictions that landed him in jail, and ultimately, rehab, he bounced back in 1992 with a winning turn in Alexandre Rockwell’s In the Soup. His performance as a small-time, would-be gangster who offers to finance the independent debut of an aspiring filmmaker played by Steve Buscemi won him a special jury prize at Sundance. “Cassel’s Joe is a stupendous creation,” wrote the Austin Chronicle’s Marjorie Baumgarten in 1993. “His energy, vitality and curiosities expand to fill every scene, pleasurably captivating the audience much like the spell he casts over the young artiste.”

Buscemi was so taken with Cassel that he cast him in three of his own directorial efforts, Trees Lounge (1996), Animal Factory (2000), and Lonesome Jim (2005). Regarding Trees Lounge, the BFI’s David Parkinson notes that “Cassel was a shoe-in for a role in this sobering study of alcoholic excess.” It was Alexandre Rockwell again who hooked Cassel up with another key collaborator, Wes Anderson. Cassel is Bert Fischer, Max’s father, in Rushmore (1998); Dusty, the elevator operator in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001); and Bill Murray’s ill-fated partner, Esteban, in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004). “It was a tribute,” suggests Sheila O’Malley. “Not just to Cassel, but to those of us out there who knew him from Cassavetes’s films. When Seymour Cassel showed up in anything, it was like running into an old friend, an old friend you wished you saw more often. He brought with him that sense of familiarity. His distinct voice, his face, the way his mouth moved, the pathos and humor, the honesty.”

And an irrepressible sense of fun. “I always go in with the feeling that I’m gonna have a good time in what I’m doing,” Cassel told Michael Lee in that 1997 interview. “I entertain myself when I perform. If I do that, then I can see the other performers enjoying my character.” We’ll carry on enjoying Seymour Cassel and his wide range of characters for years to come.

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