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Seymour Cassel, beloved actor in John Cassavetes’ films, dies at 84

Seymour Cassel, beloved actor in John Cassavetes’ films, dies at 84
Veteran character actor Seymour Cassel, photographed in 2009, has died. (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)

Seymour Cassel, the prolific independent film actor who starred in “Faces” and several other John Cassavetes films, has died. He was 84.

The Oscar-nominated actor died Sunday in Los Angeles following complications from Alzheimer’s disease, his son, film editor Matthew Cassel, said in a statement to The Times on Monday.

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Cassel was surrounded by family at the time of his death, his son said.

Regarded as a veteran journeyman actor and independent-film pioneer, Cassel built a career that spanned six decades and was filled with characters whose unpredictable, live-wire energy were much like his own.

Cassel made his acting debut in the 1958 romantic drama “Shadows,” the first film by his friend and director Cassavetes, and later appeared in a trio of Wes Anderson films, including an against-type role in “Rushmore,” as well as “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.”

He began studying acting in the 1950s in New York, where he met Cassavetes, then in 1961 came to Hollywood, where he planted his acting roots at the dawn of the American independent film movement, racking up dozens of film and television roles in the 1960s and ’70s.

“I am a performer, that’s what I like to do,” he told The Times in 2009. “I’m performing here with you, telling you truthful things. It’s all performing, that’s what we do in life. We talk, we look and we hear and we listen. Your life is a performance.”

Director Wes Anderson. left, and actor Seymour Cassel at the afterparty for the AFI Fest in 2009.
Director Wes Anderson. left, and actor Seymour Cassel at the afterparty for the AFI Fest in 2009. (Kevin Winter / Getty Images for AFI)

Cassel, the son of a Milwaukee beer salesman and an unwed burlesque dancer, was born in Detroit. He never met his father and grew up traveling with his mother, getting onstage for the first time at age 3.

“I’d seen more breasts by the time I was 6 than most people see in a lifetime!” he told The Times in 1992. “I started performing when I was 3; I’d come out in a little checkered suit and pull down the clown's pants — I loved that!

“I was a little ham and was a very open kid, probably because I was around adults all the time,” he added. “That also forced me to grow up fast, and I learned at an early age about how people lie and deceive each other. I learned these things because I was alone in life from the beginning.”

His mother married an Air Force sergeant when he was about 6, and they moved from Manhattan to various places in the South. At one point, they lived in a nightclub in Panama City that his stepdad won in a craps game, Cassel said. His mother got divorced in 1949 and Cassel went to live with his godmother in Detroit, where he stayed until he was 18. He began drinking at age 13.

“I was a tough guy and was into gangs when I was a teenager,” he said. “I got into a lot of trouble and had a deep distrust of women and was a real angry kid. When I was 17, I was told I had the choice of enlisting in the Navy or going to jail, so I spent the next three years in the Navy.”

After that, he became an apprentice at a local theater company, building props and working his way up to acting in small parts. He auditioned for the Actors Studio in New York to no avail, then took a job as a waiter and enrolled in a theater school on the GI Bill.

“At this point, my life was about to be saved by John Cassavetes. At the time, John was the hottest young actor on TV, so when I saw an ad in the paper that said, ‘John Cassavetes Actors’ Workshop — free scholarships,’ I went down to check it out,” he said.

“John was there and we talked for a while, and I immediately loved him because there was no bull about him. After we talked, he said he had to go because he was shooting a film, and I asked if I could watch, so we went over to the set he’d built for ‘Shadows,’ ” Cassel continued. “The crew for the film was just four guys, so I started helping out and wound up staying all night, and after that I just kept coming back. John put me in the picture, I became associate producer, and I learned about filmmaking from the ground up.”

Seymour Cassel starred as Moskowitz in 1971's "Minnie and Moskowitz."
Seymour Cassel starred as Moskowitz in 1971's "Minnie and Moskowitz." (UCLA)

In 1959, Cassavetes and his wife, Gena Rowlands, moved to L.A. and Cassel soon followed, taking up residence in their guest house.

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"John was a huge influence on both my creative and my personal life. He gave me the confidence to be more in touch with myself, and he brought out the best in me — and in everyone — because he cared about his actors and he loved people.”

Cassel was later nominated for an Oscar for his role as a hippie swinger in Cassavetes’ 1968 drama “Faces” and turned in critically acclaimed performances in six other Cassavetes films, including “Minnie and Moskowitz,” “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” and “Love Streams.” Those led to parts in movies by such industry greats as Sam Peckinpah, Elia Kazan and Nicolas Roeg.

He spent some time in jail in the 1980s after being convicted of conspiracy to sell cocaine. Then his career peaked again in the 1990s when he won the first acting prize given at the Sundance Film Festival for his role in 1992’s “In the Soup,” directed by Alexandre Rockwell, which also won that year’s grand jury prize. It was Rockwell who put Cassel in touch with Wes Anderson.

The following year he starred in “Indecent Proposal” with Robert Redford, Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson and worked consistently until 2015.

Cassel is survived by his three children, Lisa Papciak, Matthew Cassel and Dilyn Cassel Murphy; seven grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

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