Lynn Stalmaster, Legendary Casting Director, Dies at 93

Lynn Stalmaster - Getty - H 2016
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Lynn Stalmaster

He impacted hundreds of films and jump-started the careers of unknowns including Dustin Hoffman, Christopher Reeve, LaVar Burton and Ned Beatty.

Lynn Stalmaster, the canny casting director who pushed relative unknowns Dustin Hoffman for The Graduate, Christopher Reeve for Superman and John Travolta for Welcome Back, Kotter, has died. He was 93.

Stalmaster, who at the Governors Awards in November 2016 became the first casting director in history to receive an Academy Award, died Friday morning at his home in Los Angeles, Laura Adler of the Casting Society of America told The Hollywood Reporter.

"A pioneer of our craft, Lynn was a trailblazer with over half a century of world-class film and television casting credits," CSA co-presidents Russell Boast and Rich Mento said in a statement. "He was a friend and mentor to many of us. … Thank you, Lynn, for showing us the way."

After he accepted his honorary Oscar, Stalmaster said that the key to his success was keeping an opening mind. "'Open' is one of my favorite words," he noted. "Because as I've said many times, you never know where or when you will find the answer [to casting a part]. And I've found the answer in some very strange places."

On Norman Jewison’s The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), the heist classic that starred Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway, Stalmaster became the first casting director to receive a single-card credit in the titles.

“There was my name in the main titles on a separate card: ‘Casting by Lynn Stalmaster’ … it was one of the most moving moments of my life,” the onetime actor recalled in Casting By …, the 2012 documentary directed by Tom Donahue.

For years, Hollywood refused to acknowledge the integral role played by casting directors like Stalmaster and his legendary East Coast counterpart, Marion Dougherty. Said director Taylor Hackford in the documentary: “The reality is, you’re not a director; you’re a casting, uh, person, you’re ‘casting by’ …

Nicknamed “The Master Caster,” Stalmaster has more than 400 casting credits listed on IMDb, with the too-many highlights to mention including I Want to Live! (1958), Inherit the Wind (1960), The Great Escape (1963), The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (1966), In the Heat of the Night (1967), They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), Harold and Maude (1971), Jeremiah Johnson (1972), The Onion Field (1979), Tootsie (1982), Nine 1/2 Weeks (1986), The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) and Battlefield Earth (2000).

During the course of his remarkable six-decade career, the amiable Stalmaster found new faces and consistently cast against type. "Never compromise," he said at the Governors Awards, "no matter what the size of a role, even if it's just a reaction."

For John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), Stalmaster set up a casting call at a Georgia elementary school and found Billy Redden to play the quirky youngster in the movie's famous banjo scene. And he suggested that Ned Beatty (making his film debut) play one of the businessmen who takes that fateful canoe trip down the river.

Stalmaster also was instrumental in the career of William Shatner (Judgment at Nuremberg); discovered LeVar Burton, then a sophomore at USC, for the landmark ABC miniseries Roots; cast country singer Mac Davis to play a pro quarterback in North Dallas Forty (1979); and insisted that eventual Oscar nominee Sam Shepard portray Chuck Yeager in 1983’s The Right Stuff (“It’s the only time I thought the film couldn’t be made without one specific actor,” he once said). He cast more than 100 roles for that movie alone.

Stalmaster saw “an innate sense of truth” in Jeff Bridges and cast the twentysomething actor (and youngest son of Lloyd Bridges) in his first movie, Halls of Anger (1970). He came back to him again for The Iceman Cometh (1973), and Bridges' experience on that film convinced him to make acting his career.

"I gotta thank you, man, for heading me down that road," Bridges said at the Governors Awards.

Stalmaster took notes on every actor he saw and saved them, knowing that someday, a more suitable part might come along. “I want to look into their eyes. That’s the key,” he told THR's Scott Feinberg in 2014. He would often visit the stages of New York in search of new talent; that’s where he first encountered a skinny Reeve.

“I’d seen him in a play in New York with Katharine Hepburn,” he told Back Stage magazine in 2013. “I brought him out [to Los Angeles] to do a small role in Gray Lady Down. Then, of course, he flashed into my mind when [director] Richard Donner said, ‘We can’t find Superman.’”

Stalmaster had Travolta try out for Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail (1973), but when Randy Quaid got the part of young Navy prisoner Meadows (on the way to an Oscar nom), he arranged for Travolta to audition for the ABC sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter, jump-starting his career.

“Lynn gave me the support that I could play anything,” Travolta has said.

Stalmaster brought little-known theater actor Hoffman to the attention of director Mike Nichols for The Graduate (1967), and he got Richard Dreyfuss a line (en route to the lead in 1974’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz) in the film as well.

“With some actors you sense an intangible quality. You can’t explain it. You just feel there’s something special, something magical here,” Stalmaster said.

The son of a lawyer, Stalmaster was born on Nov. 17, 1927, in Omaha, Nebraska. After he and his family moved to L.A., he attended Beverly Hills High School and UCLA, where he earned a master’s in theater arts. He started out as an actor, appearing in such films as The Steel Helmet (1951), written and directed by Samuel Fuller, and Flying Leathernecks (1951), starring John Wayne.

As a backup plan, Stalmaster worked as an assistant to a pair of producers and was asked to cast their shows after their casting director retired. He went independent a few years later and cast the detective series The Lone Wolf and the legendary CBS Western Gunsmoke; he would be listed as the casting director on more than 300 episodes of the latter through 1964.

Stalmaster also was casting director on such TV shows as My Living Doll, The Untouchables, Have Gun — Will Travel, Ben Casey, My Favorite Martian, Hogan’s Heroes, Three’s Company, Family and Hart to Hart.

Survivors include his children, Lincoln and Lara, and grandchildren, Nick and Kayla.

"Lynn gave me and my entire generation the opportunity to dare to dream that we could make a difference or matter," actor Bruce Dern said at the Governors Awards. "He saw some kind of light in our eyes or something. He dared us to go out on the edge, dared us to take parts that nobody else would take.

"I remember John Frankenheimer told me while we were making [1977's] Black Sunday, 'If you've got Lynn Stalmaster to cast your movie, you have a damn good chance of having a good movie.'"