The Secret Life of a Casting Director

by Natasha Wolff | November 6, 2015 3:00 pm

Movie stars aren’t born, they’re built. And more often than not, the person responsible for guarding the gate to fame and fortune is a casting director, someone whose job is to spot talent and shepherd it to the right place at the right time. It’s an important job but can also be a thankless one, so viewers can learn from the Tom Donahue-directed documentary Casting By[1]. The film focuses on casting directors including the late Marion Dougherty (pictured), a pioneer whose keen eye and rapport with actors helped create careers, not to mention some amazing films; Midnight Cowboy, The World According to Garp, Lethal Weapon and dozens more were cast by Dougherty.

The importance of good casting is no surprise—Martin Scorcese himself says, “More than 90% of directing a picture is good casting”—however, the movie is chock full of revelations about the business. These are our favorites.

You never know who you’ll meet.
In casting the 1966 George Roy Hill film Hawaii, Dougherty spent a year traveling—from Tahiti to Tonga—to find the right players. One of them, a community theater actress in the film’s namesake state, was a young Bette Midler. “If you’ll wear a bonnet,” Dougherty told the unknown Midler, “I think we can do it.” Midler took the money she earned from the movie and left the Aloha State for New York City. The rest, of course, is history.

It takes patience to make it.
After relocating from New York to Los Angeles, a young John Travolta thought his big break was going to come from a role in The Last Detail, which was cast by Lynn Stalmaster. When the role went to newcomer Randy Quaid instead, Travolta decided to split town—until, that is, Stalmaster’s ex-wife cast him in a B horror film to tide him over. His next gig, another Stalmaster affair, was his breakout series, Welcome Back, Kotter.

No one starts out perfect.
Despite the legends that have grown around them, plenty of the stars Dougherty worked with were diamonds in the rough when she found them. After casting a young Warren Beatty on the TV series Kraft, she said, “I could understand every third sentence.” And when Gene Hackman attempted to show off his chops, Dougherty explained, “His reading was nothing, but I thought he could be very good.”

Not all good work is rewarded.
To this day, there’s no Academy Award for casting. Despite an effort to establish a category for the craft and a separate campaign to have a special Oscar awarded to Dougherty—an Emmy winner who was championed by Clint Eastwood and Robert Redford among others—casting remains the only title credit job on a film that’s not eligible for film’s biggest honor.

Timing is everything.
Stalmaster was involved in one of the most influential casting calls ever when he put an unknown Dustin Hoffman up for the part of Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate. Hoffman wasn’t the only one up for the part, however. Richard Dreyfuss had an appointment to see director Mike Nichols about playing Braddock, however it was set for the day after the director was to see Hoffman. Looking back, Hoffman says, “I didn’t think I was right for the role,” but Nichols told him, “Inside, Benjamin Braddock is short and Jewish.”

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