Wally Cassell, Gangster in 'White Heat,' Dies at 103

Courtesy of Everett Collection
Cassell (left) with Steve Cochran in the 1950 film-noir drama 'Highway 301.'

Believed to have been one of the oldest living actors, he also starred in several other film noirs, including ‘Quicksand,’ ‘Breakdown’ and ‘City That Never Sleeps.’

Wally Cassell, a film-noir favorite who played Cotton Valletti, one of Jimmy Cagney’s gang, in the electric 1949 crime thriller White Heat, has died. He was 103.

Cassell died peacefully April 2 at his home in Palm Desert, Calif., his wife, actress, singer and songwriter Marcy McGuire, told The Hollywood Reporter. He was in good health until recently, she noted.

“He was the most wonderful man,” McGuire said. “We never had an argument.”

Mickey Rooney served as the best man at their 1947 wedding, and he gave Cassell — who was born Oswaldo Silvestri Trippilini Rolando Vicenza Castellano in Sicily — his more marquee-friendly moniker.

Cassell stood out in such film-noir movies as Cornell Woolrich’s The Guilty (1947); Quicksand (1950), which starred Rooney and Peter Lorre; the crime-doesn’t-pay drama Highway 301 (1950), opposite Steve Cochran; Breakdown (1952), a boxing saga with Ann Richards and Sheldon Leonard; and City That Never Sleeps (1953), starring Gig Young.

Cassell also played a jockey opposite Rooney in National Velvet (1944) and held the rank of private in the war tales Story of G.I. Joe (1945) and John Wayne’s Sands of Iwo Jima (1949).

In his final onscreen appearance, Cassell played LA Dodgers front-office executive Buzzie Bavasi (also featuring Leo Durocher, then a coach for the team) in a 1963 episode of The Beverly Hillbillies.

In the Warner Bros. classic White Heat, Cagney’s ruthless killer Cody Jarrett orders Cotton, Cassell’s character, to polish off fellow gangster Zuckie Hommell (Ford Rainey), who is badly scalded during a train robbery and left behind. Cotton, though, can’t bring himself to do it, and evidence left at the scene links the bad guys to the crime.

In addition to National Velvet, Cassell worked with his pal Rooney in such films as Thousands Cheer (1943) and Killer McCoy (1947).

Cassell started his movie career with a contract with MGM and made his debut in Fingers at the Window (1942), starring Basil Rathbone.

He was rather busy after that, seen in small roles in Presenting Lily Mars (1943), Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), Anchors Aweigh (1945), The Thin Man Goes Home (1945), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) and Homecoming (1948).

McGuire, a perky RKO contract player from Iowa, starred in such films as Higher and Higher (1943), Frank Sinatra’s first acting effort, and Sing Your Way Home (1945).

She and Cassell returned the favor as Rooney’s maid of honor and best man at his 1949 wedding to actress Martha Vickers, the third of Rooney’s eight wives.

“Mickey couldn’t understand how we were married so long,” the red-haired McGuire recalled. “He said, ‘It must be the red hair!’ ”

In addition to his wife, Cassell’s survivors include children, Michael and Cindy, grandsons Ian, Chris and Austin and great-granddaughter, Annabella.

Twitter: @mikebarnes4

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