One of New Hollywood’s most colourful characters, Seymour Cassel has died at the age of 84. The son of a Minsky’s burlesque dancer, he befriended John Cassavetes and Dennis Hopper in 1950s New York and played key roles in the making of their respective directorial debuts, Shadows (1958) and Easy Rider (1969).
On relocating to Hollywood, Cassel became the life and soul of many a party, as he threw himself into 60s counterculture. In addition to being on Jack Nicholson’s softball team, he also read poetry at weekends with Jim Morrison of The Doors, while Jimi Hendrix often dropped by to babysit. Moreover, Cassel bestowed the nickname ‘Slash’ on son Matthew’s childhood friend Saul Hudson, who became the guitarist of Guns N’ Roses.
But Cassel was also a fine character actor, with more than 200 film and television credits to his name. He became an indie icon through his seven collaborations with Cassavetes, as well as three later outings each with Steve Buscemi and Wes Anderson. He also had his mainstream moments, as sidekick Cancelled in a two-part episode of Batman (1967), manager George Ullman in Ken Russell’s Valentino (1977), New Mexico governor Jerry Haskins in Sam Peckinpah’s Convoy (1978), cop Sam Catchem in Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy (1990), Robert Redford’s chauffeur in Adrian Lyne’s Indecent Proposal (1993), and talent agent Morty O’Reilly in the Farrellys’ conjoined twin farce, Stuck on You (2003).
Here are five of the best places to watch him.
Director John Cassavetes
Following bit parts in Shadows and Too Late Blues (1961), Cassel found himself playing a variation on his own party animal persona in John Cassavetes’ third feature. Irrepressible free-spirit Chet catches the eye of Maria (Lynn Carlin) after her friends drag her to a disco to teach husband Richard (John Marley) a lesson for hooking up with prostitute Jeannie (Gena Rowlands). Carlin and Cassel (who also wrote the songs for the clubbing sequences) earned best supporting Oscar nominations for their drolly poignant byplay, although the latter almost stole the show with his morning after leap out of Carlin’s bedroom window.
Minnie and Moskowitz (1971)
Director John Cassavetes
Asked by Gena Rowlands to write her a screwball comedy, Cassavetes decided to invert the classical formula by having his wife play the milquetoast whose ordered existence is disrupted by a madcap interloper. Sporting a ponytail and a Yosemite Sam moustache, Cassel again drew on his own personality to play Seymour Moskowitz, the footloose, Bogart-loving parking-lot attendant who helps bring Los Angeles museum curator Minnie Moore out of her shell. Cassel’s diner exchange with drifter Morgan Morgan (Timothy Carey) is priceless. But his burgeoning romance with Rowlands becomes irresistible, after he delivers the sweet-talking gem: “I think about you so much I forget to go to the bathroom.”
In the Soup (1992)
Director Alexandre Rockwell
Bouncing back from a six-month stretch for drug offences in the early 80s, Cassel continued to party hard before winding up in rehab. Alexandre Rockwell’s fourth feature marked his comeback and saw Cassel win a prize at Sundance for his scene-stealing turn as Joe, the small-time hood who helps aspiring filmmaker Adolpho Rollo (Steve Buscemi) make his screen bow in return for the odd favour. Cassel once claimed that the fun part of acting was “filling out a part and making it a little crazy”, and this is the key to his byplay with Buscemi, as well as Pat Moya as his intimidating moll and Will Patton as his haemophiliac brother.
Trees Lounge (1996)
Director Steve Buscemi
Given the influence of Cassavetes on Steve Buscemi’s directorial debut and their rapport in In the Soup, Cassel was a shoe-in for a role in this sobering study of alcoholic excess, which was promoted as a sort of speculative autobiography. While Buscemi made it out of Valley Stream, Long Island to pursue an acting career, he never inherited an ice cream van from a rascally relative. Although Uncle Al dies at the wheel early in proceedings, he remains a pivotal presence, as loser mechanic Tommy Basilio (Buscemi) keeps recalling happier times to arrest his downward spiral. Buscemi would also recruit Cassel for Animal Factory (2000) and Lonesome Jim (2005).
Director Wes Anderson
Alexandre Rockwell introduced Cassel to Wes Anderson, who would go on to cast him in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004). But their first collaboration remains the most memorable, as Cassel quietly excels as Bert Fischer, the barber who has been left to raise his son, Max (Jason Schwartzman), after the death of his mother. Indulging the teenager’s eccentricities with unconditional love and acceptance, Bert stumps up the fees for him to attend the exclusive Rushmore Academy. It’s here that Max develops a relationship with surrogate father Herman Blume (Bill Murray), only for it to deteriorate after they both fall for new teacher Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams).