John Travolta certainly knows the value of a having a casting director in his corner.
If not for the faith a legendary one named Lynn Stalmaster had in his talent, the enduring star might never have won the role of “Sweathog” Vinnie Barbarino in the sitcom “Welcome Back, Kotter” … which set him on a course of fame that exploded soon afterward with the successes of such movies as “Saturday Night Fever” and “Grease.” Travolta is among those paying tribute to “my beloved Lynn” (as he puts it) and others in the documentary “Casting By,” which has its HBO debut Monday, Aug. 5.
“I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for Lynn and his so believing in me,” Travolta recalls for Zap2it. “At age 18, I was up for the movie ‘The Last Detail,’ in the part Randy Quaid eventually played. Lynn was just hellbent to get me cast in that, and he really fought for me, but Randy had an innate essence that was the character. When that didn’t work out, Lynn stayed determined to get me established, and the next thing that came up was the pilot for ‘Kotter.’ “
That was in November 1974, and the pilot wasn’t shooting in Los Angeles until February.
“I got offered my third Broadway show, ‘The Ritz,’ so I was heading back to New York,” Travolta reports. “My manager, Bob LeMond, got very upset and said, ‘You have to make a decision. Are you going to pursue a film career or a stage career?’ And I said, ‘Well, the theater gives me a weekly salary. Here, I have to wait.’ “
Enter Stalmaster again. After an appeal from LeMond for help, Stalmaster enlisted help in turn from his ex-wife Lea, who was casting a horror movie titled “The Devil’s Rain.” Travolta remembers, “She said, ‘I could put him in this tiny part, but I could give him five weeks of employment at $800 a week, because he could also test the makeup and do other things … and it would keep him on the West Coast.’ “
Thus, Travolta made the movie — which, in most of its later DVD incarnations, gives him starring billing for that “tiny part” alongside Ernest Borgnine, William Shatner and Eddie Albert — then stayed in California and tested for “Welcome Back, Kotter.” And the rest, truly, is history.
For his part, Stalmaster maintains he doesn’t like to say he “discovered” anyone, though Shatner, Jon Voight, Richard Dreyfuss, Christopher Reeve and LeVar Burton are among others whose careers he had a major hand in launching. Also for this article, Stalmaster points out that “so many people have contributed” to his success “among my associates, the agents and, of course, the actors.”
Directed by Tom Donahue, “Casting By” also honors such other staples of that profession as Juliet Taylor, Ellen Lewis and the late Marion Dougherty. Along with Stalmaster’s, those names are as familiar to movie credit hawks as they are to Travolta and the other actors and directors featured in the project. Among them: Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Glenn Close, Diane Lane, Jeff Bridges, Bette Midler, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone.
Also appearing is John Lithgow, who worked with Travolta when Stalmaster cast director Brian De Palma’s 1981 thriller “Blow Out.” Long based on the East Coast, Dougherty also played a big role in launching the film career of then-stage actor Lithgow, who notes that “Casting By” charts “her evolution from live television to (the filmed series) ‘Naked City’ to film. And all the time, she was using that great talent pool of New York theater actors.
“She really did change the nature of films, when urban stories came in with directors like Scorsese and De Palma and Sidney Lumet. I worked in theater 80 percent of the time then, and Marion was right there with that Rolodex of the best actors, and boom! There they were. And they were all looking for work in TV, not to mention film, whenever they could get it.”
Crediting filmmaker Robert Wise (“West Side Story,” “The Sound of Music”) as one of the biggest boosters of his own career, Stalmaster also worked on such television classics as “Gunsmoke,” “The Untouchables,” “Ben Casey,” “Hogan’s Heroes,” “Three’s Company,” “Roots” and “The Thorn Birds” and many movies with titles that speak for themselves: “In the Heat of the Night,” “Harold and Maude,” “Deliverance,” “Coming Home,” “Superman,” “Tootsie” and “The Right Stuff.” And that’s but a handful.
Briefly an actor himself, having appeared with John Wayne in “Flying Leathernecks,” Stalmaster soon changed his professional aims as he switched from performing in the 1950s television series “Big Town” to casting it. “Part of it was that I was in love with a lady,” he admits. “Not that I necessarily would have made it, but I decided to give up the dream of acting and go into production.”
The first producers Stalmaster did casting for supported his idea of opening his own agency, handling other projects as well as theirs. He believes his brief foray into acting has paid dividends over the years, given what he terms “my empathy for actors, knowing the pain of coming in on an interview when you don’t know how you’re going to be received. From the outset, I went out of my way to treat actors and actresses with the dignity they deserve.”
Among those who remain grateful for that is Travolta, who says stardom such as his doesn’t necessarily reduce the need for a casting director’s help and support.
“If you’re really wanted by a studio or a director as a priority, it’s not as significant,” he reflects, “but [casting directors] still have their lists of top-10 stars, so they can help influence a director toward their favorite actors.”
And reaching that level of popularity has its own significance, attests Travolta, that almost always involves a casting director at some step.
“For someone to tell you you’re going to be a big film star — or, at the minimum, an important actor — and then for someone as significant as Lynn Stalmaster to come and agree with [LeMond], do you know what that must have made him feel like as a manager? It meant that all his instincts were right.”