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  • Writer's pictureGeorge Seminara

Seymour Cassel

Seymour Joseph Cassel, actor, born 22 January 1935; died 7 April 2019

Hilarious Fellow, Notorious Flirt, the luckiest, unlucky bastard, is no longer on the planet.

I always had fun with Seymour. Whether, it was taking his picture or hanging around the set, and once even picketing for the guild, we’d be talking shit and laughing our asses off. That said, I didn’t know him that well. I’m not sure if he wanted me to know him more than casually. I have seen him act, in ways both luminously transcendent and a little hammy. His mom was a burlesque queen, well, a lady in waiting, maybe. She dragged him along on road. Through a series of hookups and bad marriages. Eventually, he returned to Detroit, the city of his birth, to live with his godmother and attend High School. That didn’t go so well and he ended in the US Navy for three years.

Fresh out of the Navy he headed to New York City and decided to become an actor. He bought a book, learned one of the monologues and auditioned for Lee Strasburg at the Actor’s Studio. He failed. Looking further he joined a class that John Cassavetes was forming that he learned about in Back Stage. He didn’t wow Cassavetes, but the two became friends. Cassavetes was creating a new kind of theater. He focused on characters, not lines, emotions over stories, actors over stars. The way I think about it, The Cassavetes, scheme, is Be Bop as Cinema. Dancing out on the melody to evoke a more meaningful and resonate response. The story was secondary to realistic emotional honesty.

Starting out as an all-around helper and camera operator on the director’s first film, Shadows. In a little uncredited scene, Cassavetes saw in Cassel that ineffable thing, that “It” the thing that makes a movie actor... The two stayed friends for forever. Though he was nominated for an Academy Award for, Cassavetes’ Faces, to me his performance in Minnie and Moskowitz, is the one that sticks. As Moskowitz, a romantic who woos the embittered, Minnie, in Cassavetes, only comedy, Cassel presents what I feel is his true core. The mischievous kid, the believer in the countless possibilities of life, The relationship between him and Gena Rowland’s Minnie sparks with frisson. They keep the audience guessing throughout. Wow!

In the 1970s there was a real chance that Seymour could do more. You didn’t have to Clark Gable to be a movie star anymore. Unfortunately, the demon rum and drugs started to derail him. He worked in small parts steadily throughout the decade. By the early 1980s, the drugs and booze took away his judgment. They ruined his marriage and led to his incarceration for conspiracy to sell cocaine. 

Straightened out, for him anyway, he returned to the work. He had the privilege to work for many of the best directors of the last 60 years. He loved working for young directors and actors especially. He would do a student short if he had a few days.

Seymour was never going to be a leading man. He was a real-life character. He had a life story that forged him into this performer that could be molded into different variations on his personal theme. His characters always seemed to have seen more than anyone else. Like nothing could surprise them. That truth allowed him to hold his own and give himself emotional gravity even when sharing the scene with big stars. Seymour wasn’t world-weary, he acknowledged that we are only here for a moment and we may as well enjoy it.

That devil-may-care spark always seemed to announce that he was happy to be there. Whether he was phoning it in or laying it down he was always interesting to watch. He kept you on your toes.

Seymour Cassel died of complications of Alzheimer’s disease. A tragic event for someone so steeped in his past and hopeful for his future.

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