Seymour Cassel obituary: a winning American loser

John Cassavetes’ find and friend was too carefree to seek stardom, but in his one lead as Gena Rowlands’ schmo-suitor Moskowitz, he will abide.

22 January 1935–7 April 2019.

Tom Charity

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Seymour Cassel in Minnie and Moskowitz (1971)

Seymour Cassel in Minnie and Moskowitz (1971)

“The new symbol of hope in America.” That’s how John Cassavetes described Seymour… Granted he was writing about Seymour Moskowitz, not Seymour Cassel, but, truly, same difference. “He’s a footloose, practical, uncomplicated American dreamer who sees romance in a cup of coffee and pretty eyes… He’s a guy that knows romance is better than loneliness,” Cassavetes rhapsodised.

Seymour is (was) a serial romantic, an unquenchable lothario, a romancer. He’s also, in Cassavetes’ oddball and perennially underrated screwball Minnie and Moskowitz, a loser by almost any objective measure: socially maladroit, incapable of holding a steady job, uninterested in anything you might call a career, a misfit sporting a ponytail and a handlebar moustache who seems a highly unlikely match for sophisticated, classy and controlled Minnie Moore – not least in her eyes. (Did Cassavetes see something of himself in this schmo? How could he not, with his wife Gena Rowlands playing Minnie?)

How does Moskowitz win her hand in four days? With his open heart, his ardor, his handstand on the street, his bravado and gallantry… he stacks up well, actually, next to the aggressive, neurotic, narcissistic men who belong in Minnie’s circle. Seymour is spontaneous, unpredictable, and he loves her. Game over.

Minnie and Moskowitz (1971)

Minnie and Moskowitz (1971)

Made during the brief studio eclipse of 1971, M&M was Cassavetes’ sixth film as director. His friend Seymour Cassel had been directly involved in all bar one of them (Husbands) in various capacities. They met in 1957 when Seymour came across an advertisement for a free acting workshop. He told John how he had just come out of the army and taken some acting classes at the American Theatre Wing (Dustin Hoffman and Faye Dunaway were classmates)… How he had grown up in showbiz: his father owned a nightclub, his mom was a burlesque dancer at Minsky’s. At four he was performing with the baggy pants comics: “I used to run on stage, pull the clown’s pants down and steal his wallet.” Backstage, everywhere, there were girls, girls, girls.

Cassel came too late to join the workshop, but just in time to help out behind the scenes on Cassavetes’ groundbreaking directorial debut, Shadows. This was a genuine DIY independent film, and Cassel lent his hand to everything (you can spot him on camera for a few seconds too). His game attitude, lack of interest in money and joie de vivre were qualities Cassavetes looked for in a collaborator, and they became fast friends.

When the New York actor-director went West, Cassel soon followed. He has a supporting role in Too Late Blues, Cassavetes’ first studio film, and on A Child Is Waiting he helped out behind the scenes with the developmentally challenged kids who appeared in the movie. And then, when Cassavetes fell out of favour in Hollywood and returned to his own brand of home movie-making with Faces, shot during six long months of nights in 1965, Cassel was there beside him, in the pivotal role of Chet, who flirts with a group of middle-aged married women and takes one of them (Maria – played by Lynn Carlin) to bed.

Faces (1968)

Faces (1968)

Released in 1968, Faces is a tough, grueling film, a portrait of unhappy, supposedly successful people floundering to reconnect with their feelings. Chet comes into the movie late and turns it upside down with his natural charisma, his sexual confidence and kindness. He’s the life force, a hippie before the fact, and an inkling of escape from the mechanical, mercenary drudgery of the material world. Cassel was recognised with an Academy Award Nomination for Best Supporting Actor; not that it led to bigger or better parts until his friend Cassavetes wrote Moskowitz for him – his first and only lead.

When Hollywood powerbroker Lew Wasserman saw Minnie and Moskowitz his verdict was cutting: “Terrific picture. Too bad you didn’t make it with stars.” Of course that was the point of the picture: that the movies lie and stars don’t exist in real life. Cassel was probably too easy-going to have that kind of a career in any case; he’d rather have fun.

There were more pictures to make with John: he’s in Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Opening Night and Love Streams. He popped up in Ken Russell’s Valentino, got coked up with Peckinpah on Convoy, and has small parts in a couple of Nic Roeg movies (Track 29; Cold Heaven).

In the Soup (1992)

In the Soup (1992)

When Cassavetes came into posthumous fashion amidst the resurgent US independent scene of the late 1980s and 90s, Cassel found himself more popular than ever, cast in juicy, talismanic character parts in cool movies by directors like Steve Buscemi (Trees Lounge, Animal Factory, Lonesome Jim), Dennis Hopper (Colors, Chasers), Alexandre Rockwell (In the Soup), Christopher Munch, Jonathan Parker…

And of course there was Wes Anderson, who took a special shine to him. He was Max Fischer’s barber dad in Rushmore, a study in quiet dignity; in the outer circle of The Royal Tenenbaums; and Esteban, Steve Zissou’s ill-fated diving buddy, eaten, “chewed!”, by a Jaguar Shark at the beginning of The Life Aquatic. We will remember him.

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