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Louis DiGiaimo, casting director of 'The Godfather,' dies at 77

Louis DiGiaimo, casting director of 'The Godfather,' dies at 77
Casting director Louis DiGiaimo specialized in discovering unknown actors who would inject a jolt of authenticity into character roles. (DiGiaimo family)

Louis DiGiaimo, an Emmy-winning casting director who made his name with "The Godfather" — and whose New York sensibilities flavored a string of successful Hollywood films and TV shows — has died.

DiGiaimo, a son of Italian immigrants who lived all his life in his native New Jersey, died in Oakland in that state Dec. 19. He suffered complications from a stroke in May, said Lee DiGiaimo, his wife of 53 years. He was 77.

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He specialized in discovering unknown actors who would inject a jolt of authenticity into character roles.

He consciously sought types who wouldn't seem California-ish, he once said. New York's street scene was his natural habitat; he knew how to draw out its talent — to select performers who evoked its distinct ethnic mix and attitudes.

Later in his career, he made an especially famous casting choice for the 1991 film "Thelma and Louise": He suggested Brad Pitt for the role of J.D., a thieving drifter who charms star Geena Davis.

At the time, young Pitt's credits included a soap opera. But "Thelma and Louise" proved his breakout role. DiGiaimo said he reviewed a hundred actors for the part. Pitt, he said, "had what we needed."

More could not be got out of him.

It was a typical enigmatic remark from a casting director who said "gut feeling" was the root of his craft. "It's not just knowing actors but sensing what they can do," he told the New York Times in 1991.

DiGiaimo was on a team that won an Emmy in 1998 for work on the NBC TV show "Homicide: Life on the Street." He also cast actors for films "Tin Men," "Good Morning, Vietnam," "Rain Man" and dozens of others over a four-decade career.

For the 1973 film "The Exorcist," an actor was needed to play a drunk man at a New York subway station. "Lou went to a bar on 14th Street and found a lifelong drunk," director William Friedkin later told the New York Times. "He was perfect."

DiGiaimo was born Oct. 20, 1938, in Paterson, N.J., to Angelina and Giuseppe DiGiaimo, both from Italy. His mother was a seamstress, his father a laborer. DiGiaimo studied accounting but decided it was not for him. He became a casting director after answering a job ad, his wife said.

Once launched, he told his wife that the family would do better moving to L.A. But his mother lived in New Jersey and he wouldn't leave her.

So he kept a messy office on 54th Street in New York and constantly flew between New York and L.A.

The job was taxing in the pre-digital age, his wife said. He would read the same script repeatedly before casting it. "Back then you brought people in, you let them read, you put them on video camera, and then you'd review them," she said. "To him it was never glamorous work. I'd say to him, 'You are out in L.A., having a great time!' And he'd say, 'It's work.'"

After "The Godfather," he became something of a casting sensation. The film featured Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Abe Vigoda, Richard Castellano and Diane Keaton, among others. Some were established, others unknown.

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Speaking to the New York Times, "Thelma and Louise" director Ridley Scott once explained that, when working with DiGiaimo, one instruction sufficed:

"Surprise me."

Besides his wife, DiGiaimo is survived by son Louis J. DiGiaimo, daughter Luanne McGonigle and six grandchildren.

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