Seymour Cassel: From Cassavettes To Wes Anderson

In a career that spanned an astonishing seven decades, Seymour Cassel accumulated over two hundred credits on television and film screens, running the gamut from comedy to drama, prestige to utterly dismissable. Seymour Cassel was never dismissable, though.

He brought an unusual energy to every role. He could be highly strung or tender and sweet. No matter what kind of character he was playing, there was always something quintessentially him in all of them. He had that great face that for some reason always reminded me of a baked potato. That distinctive voice that originated in the blue collar hardscrabble of Detroit, Michigan.

While Cassel could be found practically anywhere from his debut in 1958 to his last screen credit in 2015, it’s fair to say he will mostly be known for his work with two filmmakers in particular.

John Cassavettes and Wes Anderson. That’s not to say he wasn’t wonderful in other things by other directors, but there’s a reason every eulogy you will read about him will lean heavily on his work with these two iconoclasts. Because that’s where he was at his best.

Cassel made his uncredited debut in Cassavettes’ Shadows over sixty years ago. The epitome of a working actor, he then toiled for a decade doing the occasional television episode and taking on roles like “bored man” in The Nutty Professor and “postal clerk” in The Killers. It wasn’t until Cassavettes’ fourth film, the landmark Faces in 1968 that Cassel was given the full opportunity to make his mark.

And so he did.

Made for a little more than nothing, Faces became, if not the quintessential independent film, certainly one of four posters on the indie movie Mount Rushmore. As Chet, a wavy-haired counter-culture type who has a brief affair with an unsatisfied married woman played by Lynn Carlin, Cassel’s coming out party resulted in one of three Oscar nominations (his for best supporting actor) that turned the film world on its head.

Cassel appeared in four more movies directed by Cassavettes: 1971’s Minnie and Moskowitz (a rare lead), The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), Opening Night (1977), and Love Streams in 1984. After Cassavettes’ death in 1986, the quality of Cassel’s output slipped. No longer was he a part of Cassavettes’ repertory company that included the likes of Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, and of course, his muse, the great Gena Rowlands. There were small parts in solid films like Tin Men, Colors, and Dick Tracy, but it was another indie film, Alexandre Rockwell’s 1992 Sundance favorite, In The Soup – which won him a special Sundance Jury Prize for his performance – that got him on the radar of Wes Anderson.

It would be another six years before Anderson would be in the position to cast Cassel in one of his movies. But boy, did he make it count. As Bert Fischer, the father of Jason Schwartzman’s eccentric high school student, Max, Cassel was never more lovely. In scene after scene, he radiated kindness and decency. It’s not so hard to imagine Bert as Chet, all grown up – his wild days behind him. A man settled into a bittersweet existence whose love for his son is at the forefront of his every waking moment. It’s the kind of “good dad” performance that often gets overlooked during awards season – see Donald Sutherland in Pride & Prejudice as another example. The actor playing the uncommonly decent parent doesn’t come with many bells and whistles. In the hands of Seymour Cassel, it does come with a great and gentle spirit. It is simply wonderful work.

Anderson cast Cassel two more time after Rushmore. As Dusty in The Royal Tenenbaums and Esteban in The Life Aquatic. He was just as at home in Anderson’s droll whimsy as he was in Cassavettes’ intense realism. The remainder of Cassel’s career was made up largely of small parts in less than memorable fare (although I loved his one-off in an episode of Flight of the Conchords).

He kept going though. Always working. Always distinctive in his every word and breath. That is until a battle with Alzheimer’s slowed, then ended his career, and eventually took his life.

Seymour Cassel died today. He was 84 years old.

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