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Bare-knuckle battle in SAG

Seymour Cassel's backers say his brusque style is just what the actors union needs now.

September 12, 2007|Richard Verrier | Times Staff Writer

He's played hustlers, gangsters, an aging hippie and a deaf mute.

Now, Seymour Cassel is auditioning for what could be his toughest role yet: president of Hollywood's most powerful union, the Screen Actors Guild.

A character actor whose career was nearly derailed more than two decades ago by a little-known stint in federal prison, Cassel has launched an unexpectedly strong challenge to incumbent Alan Rosenberg leading up to the Sept. 20 election. Drawing upon his years in the business, the 72-year-old actor has enlisted the support of such stars as Nicolas Cage, Ethan Hawke, James Caan and Dennis Hopper.

The street-smart actor, his supporters say, is just the kind of blunt-spoken leader the union needs as it confronts Hollywood studios in bare-knuckle negotiations to renew a contract that expires next year. The studios already have accelerated production of movies and television shows as a safeguard against a potential strike by the nearly 120,000-member union.

Yet critics say Cassel's firebrand style could be a liability. Opponents say that during Cassel's six years as a SAG board member he has had a history of disruptive conduct, making him unsuitable for a job once held by the likes of James Cagney and Ronald Reagan.

"I found his behavior very troubling and erratic," said former SAG board member David Berman, an actor on "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation." "He was one of the reasons I chose not to run again."

But if Cassel has a short fuse, he didn't show it during a recent interview.

"I'm running because most people know me and have seen me for 40-plus years," he said, puffing on a cigar in his trailer outside a Burbank soundstage, where he was shooting his 146th movie, "Alvin W."

He admitted to having some rough edges, referring to himself in the third person: "This guy speaks his mind. He may not have all the finesse that somebody else does, but it comes from the heart."

As for his six-month prison sentence in 1981 for possessing and intending to distribute cocaine, Cassel said flatly, "It was stupid. It's irrelevant now. I've been sober for 20 years."

Cassel was once one of Rosenberg's biggest supporters. But in the topsy-turvy world of SAG politics the two are now archenemies, reflecting a schism within the faction that swept control of the union two years ago on a platform of getting tough with the studios.

Yet the two are separated more by style than substance. Both vow in upcoming talks to secure fair compensation for work that is distributed via the Internet and to protect the decades-old residual payment system that studio executives want to overhaul. Each says he's prepared to take the union on strike if necessary.

While Cassel and Rosenberg are considered front-runners, two others are also running for the post: background actor Barry Simmonds and Charley M. De La Pena, who is active on the guild's disabilities committee.

Rosenberg, whose backers include Ed Asner, Meryl Streep and Tim Allen, touts his track record negotiating increases in cable TV pay and improving relations between Hollywood and the union's regional branches.

Rosenberg's supporters credit him for guiding the union through two of its most turbulent years. "He has the intelligence and courage to captain us through the next two years," Asner said.

Rosenberg says Cassel is too explosive for the job.

"I admire Seymour as an actor and I think he's sincere," said Rosenberg, 56, whose credits include "The Guardian" and "L.A. Law." "But having him be president would be like having Billy Carter run the guild instead of Jimmy Carter. He's not a team player. He's a loose cannon."

Countered Cassel: "Alan is a politician and I'm not. I don't take a lot of bull."

Such bravado comes from having to fend for himself on the streets of New York and Detroit, where he was the only child of a mother who was a traveling dancer and a father he never knew.

Cassel was waiting tables in New York when he spotted an ad for a scholarship to study acting with the late John Cassavetes. He didn't get the scholarship, but he did land a part in and helped produce Cassavetes' 1959 film, "Shadows."

The two would work together on a string of independent films, including "Faces," for which Cassel was nominated for an Academy Award for his supporting role in 1968. Cassel would go on to become one of the most prolific film and TV actors in the business, appearing in scores of TV shows and movies, from "Convoy" to "Rushmore."

But his off-screen life took a turbulent turn in June 1981 when he was sentenced to six months in prison for the drug charge, court records show.

Several years later, Cassel tested positive for illegal narcotics, violating the terms of his probation. He subsequently completed treatment and counseling for his addiction and "began to put his life back together," according to a court memo.

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