Lynn Stalmaster, the Oscar-winning casting director whose eye for talent helped launch the careers of John Travolta, Christopher Reeve, Richard Dreyfuss and many other actors, has died. He was 93.
Stalmaster became the first person to receive an Academy Award for casting when he accepted an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement in 2016. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had long resisted giving special recognition to casting directors and Stalmaster was brought to tears.
“It’s not only an Oscar for me, but it’s recognizing the major contribution casting makes,” he said.
He began his career as an actor, even appearing with John Wayne in the 1951 film “Flying Leathernecks,” but wanted a backup plan. He was an apprentice to a pair of TV producers who made him their casting director.
Stalmaster was searching for stars for shows such as “Gunsmoke” and “Ben Casey” when director Robert Wise tapped him to cast supporting actors in a 1958 film starring Susan Hayward called “I Want to Live!”
Stalmaster opened his independent casting office just as the reign of Hollywood’s contract-based studio system ended, which allowed actors and directors new freedom of choice in picking their projects. Stalmaster made it his business to know every young performer in Los Angeles and New York, and traveled the U.S. and Europe to find fresh talent.
Stalmaster cast more than 200 films, including “The Graduate,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Harold and Maude,” “Tootsie,” “Deliverance,” “Being There, ”Judgment at Nuremberg” and “The Right Stuff.” He also worked on a documentary about casting directors, “Casting By,” its title a reference to how Stalmaster and his peers were credited in films, as opposed to being called “casting directors.”
“A pioneer of our craft, Lynn was a trailblazer with over half a century of world-class film and television casting credits,” said the Casting Society of America in a statement. “Thank you, Lynn, for showing us the way.”
Born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1927, Stalmaster said his father gave him the confidence to become an actor.
“Imagine my father — he was on the Supreme Court in Nebraska — dads don’t want their sons to be actors,” he said. “But he said to me, ‘I want you to go to the Abbey Theater.’”
With his background in acting, Stalmaster would often read opposite the actors he hoped to cast to bring out their best performance during auditions.
“I could look into their eyes and play the scene,” he said in a 2016 interview. “And I probably played more roles than any other actor in history — and females!”
He suggested Travolta for what became his breakout role: Vinnie Barbarino in the sitcom “Welcome Back, Kotter.” Other actors who can thank Stalmaster for early film roles include Dreyfuss, who had one line in 1967’s “The Graduate,” as well as Jon Voight, James Caan, Martin Landau and Jeff Bridges.