By George Seminara
Seymour Joseph Cassel, an actor, was born on 22 January 1935; died on 7 April 2019. Three Years gone! The Hilarious Fellow, Notorious Flirt, the luckiest, unlucky bastard on earth, 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 both luminously transcendent and a little hammy. His mom was a Burlesque Queen, a Lady in Waiting to a burlesque queen, maybe. She dragged him along on the road through 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 up 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. He danced out on the melody to evoke a more meaningful and resonating response. The story was secondary to real emotional honesty.
He started 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 forever. Though nominated for an Academy Award for Cassavetes' Faces, 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 the film. Wow!
In the 1970s, there was a real chance that Seymour could do more. You didn't have to be 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 of an actor. He had the privilege to perform for many of the best directors of the last 60 years. He loved working for young directors and with young actors especially. He would do a student film 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, who morphed into different variations of his life's 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 announced that he was happy to be there. Whether he was phoning it or laying it down, he was always interesting to watch. He kept you on your toes.