With the Oscars only 48 hours away, I’m reminded that my neighbor of 25 years, Seymour Cassel, once received an Academy nomination. In 1969, in only his third movie, “Faces,” Seymour was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for playing the hippie swinger, Chet (which some speculated was type casting).
At 78, Seymour’s hippy swinger days are long gone. But he still works and is as irascible as ever. The first time I chatted with him about old Hollywood was a decade ago and took place in our building jacuzzi. His colorful stories were charming until he lit up a cigar, oblivious as he emptied the hot tub. If they ever invented a waterproof cigar I’m convinced Seymour would smoke in the shower.
A month later I ran into Seymour in our building’s gym. He was on the treadmill and, as he perspired, the smell of cigar smoke literally oozed through his pores. Yikes!
He also had a bag of potato chips. Seymour would walk a distance and eat a single chip, over and over. It was as though he was burning up the exact number of calories to justify eating the chip. I’ve never seen that before or since.
In 1935, Seymour was born into “show business” as his single mother, Pancretia Ann, was a Minsky dancer, young women who pioneered the risqué art of burlesque. Sadly, Seymour never met his father. “When I got nominated for an Oscar I figured he’d show up but he didn’t, so I forgot that,” he said somberly.
As his mother took him from city to city, Seymour learned about life from a very unique perspective.
“I saw more naked breasts before the age of 4 than most men see in their lifetime!”
Actually, at 4, Seymour began onstage antics with baggy-pants comics and his showbiz life began.
As a teenager Seymour got into minor scrapes with the law, which led to a tour in the Navy where he became an accomplished boxer. When he was discharged he headed for New York to audition for the prestigious Actor’s Studio. On that fateful trip he illegally wore his Navy uniform because travel for military personnel was heavily discounted. So, at every stop, he nervously dodged Shore Patrol.
Seymour studied briefly with Stella Adler, but his life was to change forever when he crossed paths with John Cassavetes, the father of American independent film. In Cassavetes, six years his senior, he found a lifelong collaborator and best friend. “John was the brother I never had.”
In 50 years, Seymour has been in over 100 films. He’s worked with such giants as Nicholson, Hopper, Redford, Beatty and Hackman. In 1964, Seymour also appeared in “The Killers,” Ronald Reagan’s last acting job. (Unless you count his two terms as president.)
Among the talented actresses Seymour has worked with are Gena Rowlands, Vera Miles and Alfre Woodard, to name but a few. Speaking of the Screen Actors Guild, in 2007 Seymour ran as an underdog for national president in “a bare knuckle brawl.” Narrowly beaten, pugnacious Seymour loved the battle.
Under Cassavetes direction, Seymour appeared in: “Shadows,” “Faces,” “Minnie and Moskowitz,” “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” and “Love Streams.” But he has worked with dozens of other filmmakers, including Wes Anderson in “Rushmore,” “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “The Life Aquatic.” Many TV viewers recognize Cassel from his four seasons on Tracey Ullman’s hit series, “Tracey Takes On.”
Seymour has worked or partied with so many cultural icons such as The Rolling Stones, Brando and DeNiro, etc., that he seems ubiquitous. An example is former Guns N’ Roses guitarist Saul Hudson, and friend of Cassel’s son, Matt, crediting Seymour with giving him the nickname “Slash.” This was because he was always zipping from one place to another and never sitting still. (Seymour should talk.)
On Main Street, Seymour is a living legend. He starts each morning at Starbucks to read the newspaper, or a script, have a cup of coffee and smoke a cigar. Often at his feet is Chanel, a golden retriever, who belongs to a devoted friend. Congenitally outspoken, occasionally Seymour gets into arguments or voices an unsolicited opinion, but most view it as just part of his charm.
Seymour’s life, while not as exciting as it once was, is still awfully good. His two children, Matt and Dilyn, with respective spouses, Cynde and Jordan, have given him five grandchildren who, beneath his crusty exterior, he absolutely adores. There’s even talk of a ghost writer penning his memoir.
Seymour’s memoir (“Hollywood’s Charming Bastard,” perhaps) could be a best-seller. From the precocious 4-year old on a Minsky’s stage to the nervous Oscar nominee (though Seymour actually arrived late!), lays Seymour’s compelling tale. His has been a life filled with peaks and valleys, including a short stint in prison, embracing sobriety and, ultimately, redemption. Let’s just hope the ghost writer doesn’t mind cigar smoke.
Jack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.