Lynn Stalmaster, Pioneering Casting Director, Now in Spotlight at 86

Lynn Stalmaster Headshot - P 2014
AP Images/Invision

Lynn Stalmaster Headshot - P 2014

The recent documentary Casting By, which celebrated the career of the late casting director Marion Dougherty, helped call widespread attention to the impact of practitioners of her profession and led to the Academy's creation of a casting directors branch, a major step in the direction of perhaps one day having a best casting director Oscar -- which seems only fair, considering that every other profession that receives an opening credit mention has one.

But while Dougherty, who was based in New York, was undeniably one of the greats, so, too, was -- and is -- her West Coast counterpart who was the first casting director to receive an opening credit mention (on 1968's The Thomas Crown Affair) and who helped bring to light many of the finest talents in film history. His name, which you'll see a lot if you pay attention to the credits of great movies, is Lynn Stalmaster.

A few days ago I met up with Stalmaster at his Century City apartment to look back on his remarkable life and career in advance of his numerous appearances throughout this long weekend at the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood, which will celebrate movie legends known the world over -- such as Jerry Lewis and Kim Novak -- but also often-overlooked people who arguably shaped the movies just as much, like this warm, sharp 86-year-old who seems much younger than his years, save for a whistling hearing aid.

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Stalmaster was a shy kid who came out of his shell during high school and college via acting. "When I would get on stage, I would come to life," he says. He eventually enjoyed a good measure of success as a professional actor in theater, on TV and in a few films. As a backup plan, though, he took up work as an assistant to a duo of producers, whom he impressed over several years of service. "One day, they turned to me and said, 'Lynn, our casting director is retiring, and we'd like you to cast our shows.' " He said yes, and as he had a portfolio of five shows for them, "I learned to handle a lot at once but not compromise."

After a few years, Stalmaster asked the producers if they would mind if he went independent, so that he could cast not only their shows but others, and perhaps films, too. Not only did they not object, but they invited him to keep his space within their offices while doing so. Soon he was responsible for filling out the casts of TV shows such as Gunsmoke and Have Gun, Will Travel.

The stars of a show or film are generally secured before a casting director comes on. The casting director's primary responsibility is to find people for the rest of the parts -- via beauty contests, theatrical performances, etc. -- and then make sure their schedules work with the stars', and negotiate contracts with them. Stalmaster established a reputation for being atypically willing to cast new faces -- and often minorities -- in parts on high-profile programs.

A call in the late 1950s from Robert Wise opened the doors to film. Wise wanted Stalmaster to find people to surround Susan Hayward in I Want to Live! (1958) who looked like the real prison mates of the death row inmate she was portraying. (They subsequently re-teamed on 1961's West Side Story.) Wise later recommended him to Stanley Kramer, who used him for Inherit the Wind (1960) and Judgment at Nuremberg (1961).

Film became Stalmaster's primary focus, leading to assignments for the likes of Billy Wilder (The Fortune Cookie), William Wyler (The Children's Hour), George Stevens (The Greatest Story Ever Told), John Sturges (The Hallelujah Trail), Blake Edwards (10), Mike Nichols (The Graduate) and Sydney Pollack (They Shoot Horses, Don't They?). His most frequent collaborators were Norman Jewison (The Thomas Crown Affair, Fiddler on the Roof), who made him the first casting director to be acknowledged in a film's opening credits -- "You can imagine how moving his wonderful, kind gesture was to me," Stalmaster says -- and the late Hal Ashby (The Last Detail, Bound for Glory and Being There), with whom he was "like brothers."

Before Stalmaster's generation of casting directors, during the studio system era, actors were assigned to films by studio casting departments, who picked them from lists of contracted players who were categorized as either leads or character actors. Actors reading for parts were often met with someone looking at the script, not at them. Stalmaster jotted down notes during casting sessions to document his thoughts, but he also made it a major focus to treat actors with the respect that he, a former actor, felt they deserved. "I want to look into their eyes. That's the key," he says.

It is largely thanks to his wisdom and foresight that breakthrough roles were given to a handsome young Canadian actor named William Shatner (Judgment at Nuremberg); a New York theater actor named Jon Voight (TV's Hour of the Gun); Richard Dreyfuss (helped to land him a line in The Graduate and the lead in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz); Scott Wilson (the wrongly accused man in In the Heat of the Night); a USC theater student named Levar Burton (Roots); Billy Redden (the strange banjo-playing kid in Deliverance); Jill Clayburgh; a Broadway theater actor named Christopher Reeve (Superman); and John Travolta (Welcome Back, Kotter, after the actor lost out on a plum part in The Last Detail to Randy Quaid), who has repeatedly credited Stalmaster for his career.

If not for the documentary Casting By, which Stalmaster thought was "outstanding," many -- including me -- might have remained largely oblivious to the essential role that he and his peers have played throughout film history. He, however, has been aware and proud of their impact for a long time. "I think the casting breed overall, for a long time, has been superior," he says. "And so many of them are women!" When I ask him how it feels to now be the dean of his profession, he laughs it off: "I've been around the longest!"

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg