Mike Fenton, Casting Director on 'Cuckoo's Nest,' 'Godfather: Part II' and the 'Back to the Future' Films, Dies at 85

Mike Fenton
VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images

Mike Fenton

He also collaborated with Sheldon Leonard on 'The Andy Griffith Show' and 'I Spy' and with Steven Spielberg on Indiana Jones movies during his long career.

Mike Fenton, the influential casting director who found actors for such landmark films as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The Godfather: Part II, E.T. — The Extraterrestrial and the three Back to the Future movies, has died. He was 85.

Fenton, who spent more than a half-century in show business, died Wednesday of natural causes at his home in Los Angeles, his son, Mick, told The Hollywood Reporter.

After starting out in the mailroom at Music Corporation of America and becoming an agent at the Lew Wasserman firm, Fenton served as casting director for Paramount and then for Danny Thomas and Sheldon Leonard's T&L Productions, where he worked on The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Andy Griffith Show, That Girl, Gomer Pyle: USMC and I Spy.

Fenton co-founded the Casting Society of America (then known as American Society of Casting Directors) in 1982. He was presented with the CSA's Hoyt Bowers Award for career achievement in 1989 and was a champion of casting directors everywhere.

In a statement, CSA co-presidents Russell Boast and Rich Mento said Fenton's "remarkable accomplishments and incredible work in elevating the awareness and appreciation of the craft of casting defines his legacy in the entertainment industry."

Fenton collaborated with Steven Spielberg on the director's first feature, The Sugarland Express (1974), as well as on episodes of NBC's Amazing Stories, three Indiana Jones films, E.T. (1982) and Empire of the Sun (1987). He also worked on many features that Spielberg produced, including the trio of Back to the Future movies, Poltergeist (1982) and An American Tail (1986).

"Working with Mike Fenton was like working in a candy store — he made casting a blast," Spielberg said. "His fervent support of actors was the stuff of legend, and after landing a part, any actor's smile was rarely as wide as Mike’s. He helped me get over every moment of indecision when I had three good options and couldn’t choose. He was as responsible for some actors getting their big breaks in my films as me.”

"He didn't just support actors, he launched crusades. And he was a pretty good actor himself, as he would always read off-camera dialogue to create energy and mojo for the person reading for the part. Much like the actors for whom he advocated, Mike loved his role — and those around him loved him so much, and I will miss him dearly."

His expansive list of credits — he has nearly 300 on IMDb — also included American Graffiti (1973), Chinatown (1974), Young Frankenstein (1974), Shampoo (1975), The Bad News Bears (1976), Marathon Man (1976), Slap Shot (1977), Breaking Away (1979), Norma Rae (1979), Blade Runner (1982), A Christmas Story (1983), Footloose (1984), Aliens (1986), Beaches (1988), Total Recall (1990), Chaplin (1992), Toy Story (1995) and Sharknado 2: The Second One (2014).

Asked about his craft in a 2019 interview, Fenton said that a casting director "puts together the psychological and the physical attributes of the person you're casting. Who best can play that part? As a casting director, do you cast that person because of the look, or do you cast it because of their ability? … That's the art of casting."

Ronald Michael Feinstein was born in Los Angeles on Jan. 29, 1935, and raised in Beverly Hills. His father, Robert, was a successful stock broker who lost all his money in the Depression and then owned a gas station.

Fenton graduated from UCLA film school in 1956 aiming to become a cinematographer and then landed a job in the mailroom at MCA. Mentored by Herman Citron, he was promoted to agent and represented such clients as Alfred Hitchcock and Shirley MacLaine.

After a year at the Ashley-Steiner Agency, he worked alongside future Oscar-winning producer Al Ruddy (The Godfather, Million Dollar Baby) before joining Paramount as casting director in 1963. He discovered actors for Elvis Presley and Jerry Lewis movies, then spent three years at T&L, where he also was an associate producer on the Robert Culp-Bill Cosby starring I Spy.

At T&L, he hired Fred Roos, another future Oscar-winning producer (The Godfather: Part II), and the pair went on to form their own casting agency in 1971. Fenton would later partner with Jane Feinberg, Judy Taylor, Allison Cowitt and, most recently, Ann Frederick.

In addition to his son, survivors his second wife, Irene, daughter-in-law Alison and grandchildren Riley and Olivia. He was married to Janet Monfort from 1963 until her 2003 death.