The venerable character actor Seymour Cassel, who as part of director John Cassavetes’ stock company won an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role as the hippie swinger Chet in Faces (1968), was born on January 22, 1935 in Detroit, Michigan. He studied acting at the American Theatre Wing and at the Actors Studio. He made his movie debut in Cassavetes’ first film, Shadows (1959), on which he also served as associate producer.
Seymour Cassel’s early career was tied to John Cassavetes, who himself had a flourishing career as an actor on television and in major Hollywood productions in addition to becoming, arguably, the first great independent movie director after the collapse of the studio system in the late 1950s/early 1960s. As for Cassel, after his uncredited role in Shadows, he co-starred with Cassavetes in The Webster Boy (1962) and Too Late Blues (1961) before being cast in support of his friend in the remake of Ernest Hemingway’s short story The Killers (1964) , a TV movie helmed by cult director Don Siegel. Although shot for TV, The Killers had to be released theatrically due to its heightened violence. (The Killers also is notable as it was Ronald Reagan’s last movie).
Cassel primarily made his living on TV in the 1960s, frequently typecast as beatniks and hippies. In 1962. he had a supporting role in the Cassavetes-directed episode “A Pair of Boots” (1962) for The Lloyd Bridges Show. He also appeared on such popular programs as 12 O’Clock High, Combat! and The F.B.I.” (1965) before scoring with his aging hippie in Faces. Cassavetes’ movie was released at the end of a tumultuous decade in which the rather benign beatniks of Jack Kerouac’s “Beat” fiction morphed into the counter-cultural movement that was far more potent, in terms of societal influence, than The Beats ever were.
Along with Shadows, Cassel cites Faces remains his favorite Cassavetes film. In addition to acting, Cassel was also a crew member on the film, as the technical staff numbered all of seven. He helped shoot the film as a
second cameraman, as well as adjusting the lighting. As the film was financed by Cassavetes himself, there were no union regulations to deal with, nor a studio schedule to keep.
Several of Cassavettes’ films were shot in continuity, so the actors could develop a character in sequence–similar to stage acting–rather than the traditional method of film making, which is shot out of sequence. Cassel has stated that this technique enhanced the success of his works by eliminating the “fourth wall” between the audience and the actors. He believes that acting tells the film’s story, not the images and that what is important is how the audience relates to the characters on screen.
As their careers matured, Cassel also co-starred with Cassavetes in two TV movies, Nightside (1973) and appeared in supporting roles in three more Cassavetes-directed films: The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), Opening Night (1977) and Love Streams (1984).
In addition to appearing in studio films, Seymour Cassel has remained prominent in the American independent film community since the death of his friend and collaborator. He contributed a cameo appearance in the directorial debut of Steve Buscemi (with whom he co-starred with in the black comedy In the Soup (1992)),
Trees Lounge (1996), and has appeared in three films by Wes Anderson: Rushmore (1998), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004).
Cassel is prized by independent directors for two things: his positive nature, and his (perhaps) facetious declaration that he’d be in any independent film for the price of a plane ticket if he liked the script.
He continues to be busy, appearing in a total of eight films in 2010.
NOTE: An earlier version of this biography appeared on the Internet Movie Database