Remembering Oscar-Nominated Character Actor Seymour Cassel

17 hours ago
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Actor Seymour Cassel, a character actor familiar to fans of the movies of John Cassavetes and Wes Anderson, died last Sunday at age 84. His first screen appearance was a small, uncredited role in the first film Cassavetes ever directed, in "Shadows," in 1958. More than 50 years later, Cassel appeared in an episode of the HBO musical comedy series, "Flight Of The Conchords," and kept working until very recently.

Terry Gross spoke with him in 2006. Overall, Cassel amassed more than 200 acting credits. His later work involved independent films, including Wes Anderson's "Rushmore" and "The Royal Tenenbaums." In the 1992 film "In The Soup," he starred opposite Steve Buscemi. Buscemi played an aspiring writer with a massively clunky screenplay, and Cassel played the shady character willing to act as the film's finance guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IN THE SOUP")

SEYMOUR CASSEL: (As Joe) Hello.

STANLEY TUCCI: (As Gregoire) Hello.

CASSEL: (As Joe) Gregoire.

TUCCI: (As Gregoire) Yes, Gregoire.

CASSEL: (As Joe) Bobby Azaro from Queens.

TUCCI: (As Gregoire) Bobby Azaro.

CASSEL: (As Joe, laughter) Guess what?

TUCCI: (As Gregoire) What?

CASSEL: (As Joe) We just developed a mutual friend, Angelica Peena (ph).

JENNIFER BEALS: (As Angelica Pena) Pena.

CASSEL: (As Joe) Pena - what's the difference?

TUCCI: (As Gregoire) My wife?

CASSEL: (As Joe) Point is, you owe her 3,500.

TUCCI: (As Gregoire) Supposed to be 3,000 - 3,000.

BEALS: (As Angelica Pena) Three thousand.

CASSEL: (As Joe) It's 3,500 now. I just bought the debt.

TUCCI: (As Gregoire) You bought...

CASSEL: (As Joe) That's right.

TUCCI: (As Gregoire) Explain yourself.

CASSEL: (As Joe) What the f*** is there to explain?

TUCCI: (As Gregoire) OK. OK. Look. Look.

CASSEL: (As Joe) I thought you'd like that tone.

TUCCI: (As Gregoire) OK. OK. OK. Good. OK. Fine. Fine. Fine.

CASSEL: (As Joe) Sounds good.

TUCCI: (As Gregoire) We can work something out.

CASSEL: (As Joe) I'll send someone by. (Laughter) Happy New Year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Seymour Cassel, welcome to FRESH AIR. This was kind of like your - your comeback film. Did you and Buscemi hit it off right away?

CASSEL: Yes, we did. I mean, I started in this business a long time ago. And in New York, I used to follow people down the street and imitate their walks. And so I can do Steve's walk, you know...

GROSS: (Laughter).

CASSEL: And I - and it sometimes drives people crazy, and sometimes they say, that's not the way I walk. And believe me. I'm pretty good at it. But we hit it off well. I didn't really know him or know his work. But Steve, I think I'd seen him in one or two films in some small parts. And it was a great discovery for me. He's an actor that reacts. And by that, I mean he listens, and you see him enjoying you.

GROSS: I assume that Steve Buscemi was a fan of yours before casting you. Did he already know you before meeting you? Did he already know your work...

CASSEL: He knew my work.

GROSS: ...Before meeting you in "In The Soup."

CASSEL: He's a big John Cassavetes fan.

GROSS: Yeah, I figured. So before we talk about your work with Cassavetes, I want to talk about your your early - and I mean very early show business career. Although, career is probably not exactly the right word. Your mother was in burlesque on the Minsky circuit when you were...

CASSEL: Yes.

GROSS: ...A child. And it sounds like you toured with her when you were...

CASSEL: I toured with her, yeah.

GROSS: ...When you were very young. What was her act like?

CASSEL: Well, she was a chorus girl. Then she became a specialty act. And if you know burlesque, Minsky had the main theater here. And he had roadshows. And you'd go from New York to Baltimore to D.C., Kansas City, Mo., St. Louis, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Buffalo, Boston. But I got to get on stage when I was about 3 1/2. And I'd do the matinees in a little checkered suit and - with the baggy pants comics. And I could only work a matinee.

And I loved that world - you know, to me, the life on a train and then coming back to New York City and - you know, and had some downtime here. And I wasn't in school yet. And when I had to go to school, I was not very happy about that.

GROSS: So your mother had a specialty act. Does that mean a specialty strip act?

CASSEL: That's right.

GROSS: So what was her specialty?

CASSEL: Oh, she - she tried dancing with the feathers for a while - you know, the big feather fans. And then she tried a balloon once. But it was just natural for me backstage, you know, chorus girls getting dressed, getting undressed. And hi, Seymour, how are you? And hi, Rosie, how are you? You know, you're just - I learned very early that this was my world. And I was going to learn how to live in it.

GROSS: Now, your mother got married when you were young to - and your stepfather won a casino in a crap game. This must have been...

CASSEL: That's not true. He said that.

GROSS: That's not - I keep reading this every place. So what...

CASSEL: Well, it's true...

GROSS: What happened?

CASSEL: ...That's what I was told. I was 9. And I was living in - on 42nd with his mother and sister. He was a master sergeant in the Air Force during World War II, I guess. He'd been in 17 1/2 years. And we lived down in Fort Myers, Fla. We lived in Miami Beach. I remember the end of the war riding in a car with him and him saying, remember this day. A great man died today. And that was Franklin Roosevelt. And then, you know, we lived in Birmingham, Ala. And then the next thing I know, they were going to Panama.

And that's what he told me, that he won it in a crap game. I later figured out, I got a feeling that he did a little business with some guys in Brooklyn and in the Bronx, you know. I mean, where else would - because we lived in a club - we had the whole corner on Ancon in Panama City. Ancon is the first little town in the Canal Zone. And he also had card games for the officers from the Canal Zone. So he was - he was a busy guy. And I'm not sure what he did, but I'm sure some of it was a little illegal. But he made it work.

GROSS: So you were - you were - you were a pretty streetwise kid.

CASSEL: Oh, totally. And I'm still a streetwise guy. I mean, when people start to talk trash with me, I say, you don't know I've been there. Snoop Dogg, I did a movie with him. And he started with me. And he said, where'd you learn that? And I said, well, between 42nd Street and New York, Snoop, I was doing no good and rapping before you ever started.

GROSS: Cassavetes has been such an influence on independent filmmaking. I mean, he's probably one of the most influential filmmakers in the world of independent film. And he was improvising in movies before that became a popular thing to do. What was his approach to getting the actors to improvise a scene? What were you given before the scene, and how would you work it?

CASSEL: Well, John, with "Shadows" we would do an improvisation. And John would see where the actors' tendencies and their instincts would take them. Then he would write, you know. But with "Shadows," we would just rehearse it again and again and improvise it again and do it.

Once he started writing and wrote "Too Late Blues" and wrote "Faces," you know, there was very - actually, the only improvisation in "Faces" is the songs I make up with the girls in - that I pick up at the Whiskey A Go Go, you know, where I say, put on the red meat, mama, don't want no taters, no onions - because we had no money for music. So John knew that I could kind of make up songs. I'd been doing it, you know, in the late '50s.

But when you get to know an actor and, you know, their instincts as well as John knew mine and Gazzara and, you know, and Gena, he could lead you. You can always add something to a scene because your instincts are to embellish it somewhat to contribute to the text. And ideas come to you, and you try them. And if they're good, you keep them. If they're not, you just eliminate them.

GROSS: You had a pretty major part in "Faces." You don't come into the film until around two-thirds of the way in. But then it's a pretty important part. "Faces" is about - it's basically about a middle-aged, middle-class, very unhappy couple.

So the husband in the couple goes off with Gena Rowlands, who plays a prostitute in it. And his wife goes to the Whiskey A Go Go with her girlfriends. They pick you you up or you pick them up. And you end up going to bed with the wife of this unhappy couple. And she's so miserable by the time, you know, later on about, like, what her life has become that she tries to overdose on sleeping pills.

CASSEL: Yes.

GROSS: And then you try to revive her.

CASSEL: I do revive her.

GROSS: Successfully.

CASSEL: Yes.

GROSS: And then I want to play the scene that happens right after that, after you've stuck your fingers down her throat to revive her...

CASSEL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...And kind of slapped...

CASSEL: To make her throw up, yeah.

GROSS: ...Her awake. You're talking with her, and here's part of that scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FACES")

CASSEL: (As Chet) I like you. I caused you a lot of pain and a lot of grief, and I almost killed you. And I prayed, man, oh, I prayed to God. God, please, dear God, don't let anything happen to her 'cause I love her so much, and I'll do anything you say, God. And, man, I don't even believe in him, you know? But, I mean, it doesn't matter. We protect ourselves. So when you're taught ethics and values and honesty and I'm a nice guy and you're a nice guy and this and that, you know, I mean, it just doesn't matter. Nobody cares. Nobody has the time to be vulnerable to each other, so we just go on. You know, I mean, right away our armor comes out like a shield and goes around us, and we become like mechanical men. (Laughing) And I called you a mechanical woman. All you got to do is, I'm so mechanical. Honey, it's absolutely ludicrous how mechanical a person can be. (Imitating robot) I am the sexiest guy in the world. (Imitating robot) I have blond hair. (Imitating robot) I can get all the women I want. (Laughing) You're waking up, aren't you?

LYNN CARLIN: (As Maria, laughing) Uh-huh.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: That's Seymour Cassel in a scene from John Cassavetes' movie "Faces." Seymour Cassel, tell us a little bit about making that scene.

CASSEL: We were shooting it, and John - as I say to her the dialogue, you know, you think you're mechanical, honey. I'm so mechanical. Look, and I smoke a cigarette mechanically. And John said to me off camera, do the - do a mechanical man. So I did that (imitating robot) you know, kind of a - look at this, honey. And but that's the relationship you have with a director that knows you, that trusts you, that you respect. And you will try anything for him because you know he won't let you look foolish.

BIANCULLI: Seymour Cassel speaking to Terry Gross in 2006. He died last Sunday at age 84. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2006 interview with character actor Seymour Cassel. He first became noticed for his roles in films by John Cassavetes. He died last Sunday at age 84.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: There's so many, like, myths and legends about, you know, the Cassavetes movies and the people who made them and their adventures together making movies and their adventures together off the set. The impression I always get is that there's a lot of, like, partying and drinking that everybody making the movies did together.

CASSEL: Well, in the '50s, that's what people did. Dope wasn't around. Only up in Harlem could you get a nickel - a matchbox of marijuana. But - so we drank, and it was a social - socially accepted. And people drank highballs and cocktails, and every bar had a piano bar with a pianist who sang and, you know, and entertained.

And then there were joints like Jilly's that Sinatra hung out at and made famous. But there was the Five Spot and Basin Street and, you know, Birdland. And then, you know, 52nd street, I mean, you could stand outside at 16 years old and hear Billie Holiday sing because they always had the door open in the summer. And then, you know - all those clubs.

GROSS: Did any of the partying and drinking interfere with the moviemaking?

CASSEL: No. No. If you got too drunk, we - you know, we would wrap. But, I mean, we didn't drink that much when we worked. We would wait till afterward. John had a basketball court built on his house on Woodrow Wilson. And we'd finished shooting the older actors - Marley, you know, and Dorothy Gulliver.

And some would tire maybe around 3:30 in the morning, at 3. And we'd go out there, put the lights on, you know, take a couple of six-packs of beer and play basketball and beat the hell out of each other. It didn't bother anybody because Frank Zappa lived right next door, and he had a recording studio there. So who the hell were we bothering?

GROSS: John Cassavetes died in '89 of cirrhosis of the liver. What impact did that have on you? Were you still close then?

CASSEL: That - it still has an impact on me. I think of him almost every day. I mean, it was the older brother I never had, and it was the closest male friend that I ever had. And he was extremely influential in how - in creating my career and guiding it and - by loving me as much as he does or did. Yeah, that was the closest person in my life ever 'cause I never knew my father. And my mother, I only knew until I was about 12, and I went back to live with my godmother.

So John became a really - very close person in my life. And we were like - he had lost a brother - excuse me - very young before I met him of a heart attack and misdiagnosed and - so to me, it was the older brother I never had. And I don't know what I was to him, but I know that he loved me. And I love him very much. I mean...

GROSS: Now, I understand that you gave up drinking after he died.

CASSEL: I did. Well, I did it just - when I saw how bad he was, I quit. I quit everything. It was 20 something years ago. But...

GROSS: Your comeback wasn't long after that. Were the two connected?

CASSEL: Well, probably - people were less fearful of me because I was crazy. I mean, people would have one foot in Dan Tana's in LA and one foot inside the door and one out. What's Seymour going to do now? I got to see it, but I don't want to be here when he does it. I mean, I...

GROSS: What were you doing? What were you doing...

CASSEL: Anything I wanted. I was - you know, when I would get a little drunk, I would just be funny and stupid. And that's what people do when they - they either get stupid and mean, or they get funny and stupid. I chose to be funny. Mean was not something I liked to be.

GROSS: So you gave up drinking, and...

CASSEL: Yes.

GROSS: ...That's when you started to make your comeback. You said people were afraid to work with you before that.

CASSEL: I was unpredictable.

GROSS: And I think it was largely, like, independent filmmakers that you made your comeback with. You know, your first film was "In The Soup" that co-starred Steve Buscemi. Wes Anderson, for example, has cast you in three movies - "Rushmore"...

CASSEL: "Rushmore."

GROSS: ..."The Royal Tenenbaums" and "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou." How did he first approach you?

CASSEL: He was at Sundance when we won - he had a short called "Bottle Rocket." And what impressed me most was his knowledge of film. And I liked the script, and I liked the part. And so after that, he insisted I be in "The Royal Tenenbaums."

I didn't want to do "Life Aquatic." I was doing another movie. He said, you got to be in this movie. You got to be. And I had to fly to Rome. And then he looks at me, and he said, can we shave your head? I said, Wes, who the hell do you think you are? I'm shooting another movie.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CASSEL: I have already established my hair. He says, well, you could wear a wig. I said, for Christ sake, Wes, you're not the only filmmaker in the world, you know? I'm - why don't I wear a wig here? He said, well, no, the character has to be bald. I said, then do the skullcap. And that was miserable. It's 2 1/2 to 3 hours to put that on.

GROSS: Your new movie "Lonesome Jim" - you play the father in a nuclear family - husband, wife, two sons. And I'm thinking that must be very exotic to you, in a way, because you never really had that kind of nuclear family. Well, I guess maybe you had it as an adult, but you certainly didn't have it as a boy. Does the idea of, like, a real nuclear family seem somewhat exotic to you?

CASSEL: Well, it - I thought being as crazy as I was and knowing that very early - I was my own source of entertainment. When I had my own family - and I still do it with my grandchildren - I created the craziness that my kids grew up around in LA - The Rolling Stones, you know, and Jimi Hendrix and Cassavetes and all this. And their father was a bit crazy, but he loved them very much because it was what I never had. And I was grateful to have it.

Playing a straight family and a guy like that - people suppress themselves, and they get comfortable with a specific way of life. And they don't take chances anymore. And I've - I just knew from 3, 4, 5, 6 years old that life is a chance, and everything you do in it is. And, you know, I wasn't going to climb up the side of a tenement until I was sure I could make it.

You know, and then we'd go up that brick that sticks out on the edge of a - on 42nd Street - on those buildings. We'd go up to the roof. There were only about three of us that could do that when I was, you know, 8. And a new kid would move in, and we'd, you know, say, hey, can you climb? Yes. Come on. Try - he'd get stuck a floor and a half up, and we got to call the firetrucks to come and rescue him, you know? But, I mean, that's - that was kids here. So I was always an adventurer, you know?

And to play this character that I played in "Lonesome Jim" - to play Don - I met the guy, and I met his wife. And to play someone like that - it was tough for me to be that quiet, you know? And I understood who he was. And it's just the safe way, and I've never done anything safe.

GROSS: Well, Seymour Cassel, thank you so much.

CASSEL: Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Character actor Seymour Cassel speaking to Terry Gross in 2006. He appeared in such films as "Faces," "Rushmore" and "The Royal Tenenbaums." He died last Sunday at age 84. After a break, actor and comedian Ray Romano, who recently unveiled a stand-up comedy special on Netflix. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.