Checking in with actor Seymour Cassel

March 22, 2013

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Actor Seymour Cassel is on the phone and, when asked what he’s been doing, says, “Well, I’m looking for work.”

We’re supposed to be talking about his latest film, a little indie that’s going out in limited release today (3/22/13) called “Silver Case.” But with a movie resume that includes more than 150 titles (15 since the start of 2010, alone), the veteran character actor has a lot to talk about. We barely get the chance to talk “Silver Case,” in which he plays a sly dealer, when he’s asked what else he’s been up to.

“I did Sidney Furie’s latest (“Pride of Lions”),” he says. “We shot that in Sault Ste. Marie. It was summer but it started to get cold. Canada was not a pleasant choice; they didn’t even have good chicken there.”

At 78, Cassel has been acting in movies for 50 years, ever since he wandered into an acting workshop in New York run by a restless actor named John Cassavetes. The workshop ultimately turned into “Shadows,” Cassavetes’ first film, on which Cassel served as part of the crew and appeared in briefly. It created a long-time friendship between Cassel and Cassavetes that lasted until the director’s death in 1989.

I met Cassel in 1990, while doing interviews for my biography of Sam Peckinpah. I spent a wild day riding around Santa Monica with him while talking to him for my book on Cassavetes in 2003, spending another afternoon with him in New York the next year for a follow-up. He’s voluble, funny, occasionally irascible, full of stories and opinions, and was always ready to chat about Cassavetes when I needed to check a fact or a story.

When I note that his IMDB page makes it sound as though he keeps busy, he says, “Everybody offers me everything. I read these things and go, ‘My God, where do they get the money?’ I wait for something good or something that will be fun. But they’ve got to pay me if they want me to work.”

I mention a film of his I’d seen on DVD, offered to me for the film clubs I host by one of its producers. The 2008 drama, about geriatric romance in a hospice, was called “Reach for Me” and was directed by LeVar Burton; Cassel costarred with Adrienne Barbeau. It was bittersweet and funny, though it was never released theatrically.

“Yeah, we barely got paid for that,” he recalls. “I think they were selling it at video stores in Hawaii. Hey, you’ve got to pay me when I work. If they’ve got the money, I’ll do it, although it’s mainly about the story and whether I’ll have fun with the actors.”

As much as Cassavetes blazed his own trail at a time when the words “independent film” were a rarity instead of the norm, he never stiffed his actors, Cassel recalled.

“With John it was different. He had a system he worked. He’d get somebody to put up the money and we’d go shoot. John was amazing. He had the freedom to do all the wonderful things he did. It was a whole different way of working. John was the smartest guy I ever met.”

Cassel has had big roles and small ones; he received an Oscar nomination for Cassavetes’ “Faces” in 1968, a coup for a virtual unknown. Over the years, he’s worked with and befriended everyone from Warren Beatty to Dennis Hopper: “I was there at the end with Dennis,” he says. “It’s what happens. You get old and then you take a walk in the woods.”

He’s served as muse to Cassavetes (who wrote 1971’s “Minnie and Moskowitz” for Cassel and Gena Rowlands) and to filmmaker Alexandre Rockwell, who wrote the marvelous 1992 film, “In the Soup,” for Cassel (which teamed him with Steve Buscemi). And he has appeared in a handful of Wes Anderson’s films: “Rushmore,” “The Royal Tenenbaums,” “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.”

When asked if he enjoyed working with Anderson, however, he says, “Up to a point.” He recalls working on “Tenenbaums,” in which he and Kumar Pallana played doormen, doing a scene with Gene Hackman: “Gene was a great actor, but Kumar was not an actor,” he says. “So you’re asking Gene to work with someone who doesn’t know how to do it. It wasn’t right. Wes would insist on these minute little things. But everyone thinks he’s a genius. And the Farrelly brothers – everybody thinks they’re geniuses, too. I don’t think there are many geniuses around.”

Cassel has an apartment in a tower above the beach at Santa Monica and says, simply, “I’m getting older. We all do. The toughest part is that I don’t drive anymore. I gave that up. Taking the bus is a pain in the ass, but people give me rides. The most fun I have is seeing my grandkids. My son has two girls and my daughter has twin girls and a boy.”

And, of course, there’s the question of mortality. Hopper, a long-time friend, lived in nearby Venice until his death in 2010. Mention of his name reminds Cassel of working with him on “Easy Rider.”

“I was his assistant director on that,” Cassel says, though IMDB makes no mention of that credit. “We had a lot of great times doing that movie. We thought it was just a movie about guys on motorcycles.”

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