August 29, 2013
Marion Dougherty, the legendary casting director at the center of the new documentary Casting By (currently airing on HBO), got her start in the early days of television. She spent nearly a decade on Kraft Television Theatre, earned her first on-screen credit (below) during a brief stint on a live version of Ellery Queen in 1958, and wielded a creative influence over Route 66 and Naked City that would be difficult to underestimate.
In interviews, Dougherty was puckish but also taciturn. “Casting is a game of gut instinct. You feel their talent and potential in the pit of your stomach. It’s about guts and luck,” she said in 1991. The New York Times carped that, because of the instinctive nature of casting, “there’s not really much they can say” when Casting By interviews casting directors.
Fortunately, in Dougherty’s case, there is another way to examine her process in detail. Dougherty left a substantial paper trail – in particular, an index card file that spans nearly forty years and thousands of performers. The earliest surviving cards date from around 1961, when Dougherty became the East Coast “casting executive” for the two Herbert B. Leonard-produced dramas, and the file appears to become a nearly complete record of every actor Dougherty met after 1968, when her feature film career began to gain momentum. The card file comes up in several anecdotes mentioned in Casting By, and at one point Dougherty reads aloud from the card containing her original assessment of Gene Hackman, from 1962: “good type – his reading was nothing but I believe he could be v. good – esp. as gentle, big dumb nice guy.”
(Disclosure: I appear briefly in Casting By, and worked as an archival researcher on the film. Also, while the archival materials discussed below are not presently available to the public, the filmmakers have told me that Dougherty’s estate has donated them to the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.)
In Casting By, Jon Voight describes his disastrous television debut on Naked City. Dougherty’s card file reveals that some months before she hired him for that episode, Voight had read unsuccessfully for Route 66 (based on the description, probably for the role played by Lars Passgard in “A Gift For a Warrior”).
In general, Dougherty’s notes on actors were more pragmatic than poetic. “V.G.” (for very good) or “Exc.” (excellent) are abbreviations that appear on hundreds of cards, as is the triumphant “used” (meaning she hired the actor for a part). Disapproval was registered just as bluntly, with notes like “boring” or “square” (a favorite word) or “I thot dull” [sic]. But if Dougherty rarely wrote more than a hundred words on any given actor, her notes in their totality offer an enormous amount of insight into how she thought about the art of acting, as well as a kind of hands-on philosophy of her own craft.
In one sense, casting for Dougherty was a process of taxonomy. In her office, the card file was separated into six drawers organized by gender, age, and ethnicity (much like the Academy Players Directory, which was for many decades the industry’s mug book for working actors). Dougherty jotted down actors’ heights (a consideration in pairing off men and women) as well as their ages and how far she felt they could deviate from it on screen (“40, could go to 60,” she wrote of Dominic Chianese, years before he became one of television’s most famous senior citizens as The Sopranos’ Uncle Junior). She thought in terms of class, with some specificity: “upper middle or upper” and “blue collar” are notations she used. She also noted regional accents, and asked actors whether they could discard them. Going beyond class, Dougherty made notes on types: “rural”; “street”; dangerous.” She often wrote down whether an actor was right for comedy or “serious” material, or both. “Excellent for comedy high or low – imagine she’d be good also for drama as she’s very intelligent, feeling person,” Dougherty observed of Charlotte Rae. In auditions and meetings with actors, she didn’t just evaluate the level of talent on display; she was also thinking ahead to how she might use what she saw.
Dougherty also recorded whether she thought actors were good-looking, or sexy (not the same thing), and whether they were right for “romantic” leads. And she sometimes speculated on whether an effeminate actor was a “fag” or, later, “homosexual” or “gay.” Even in the early cards where the terminology is outdated, though, those notes come across not as homophobic but as an attempt to assess whether actors could “play” straight in an industry in which gender norms were rigid.
If her inclination to pigeonhole actors into basic categories seems antithetical to the idea of casting directors as diviners of the more ephemeral qualities of talent, it’s important to remember that Dougherty retired around the same time as the Internet Movie Database was launched. Her card file was, more than anything else, a mnemonic device, a way of sorting out the blur of hundreds of auditions during a period when there was no Google to summon dozens of images of every small-part player. In Casting By, Dougherty points out a system of remembering actors by associating them with people in her own life: “I would put down anything that hit my mind – I put down ‘has eyes like Aunt Reba’ and I knew what that meant, because Aunt Reba was very elegant and sort of snooty and [had] beautiful eyes.”
The cards reveal how elaborate this associative ritual could become. Dougherty often compared new actors to those she had grown up watching on the screen. Robert Forster (assessed in 1966, prior to his debut in film or television) reminded her of a “more polished” John Garfield. The mature Roy Thinnes struck her in 1991 as “sort of a cross between [Jack] Palance and Steve Forrest.” For character actors, Dougherty would match other character actors: Sully Boyar (from The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 and, famously, a single scene in The Sopranos as Carmela’s psychiatrist) was “a poor man’s Zero” (Mostel, that is). David Doyle: “like a jokey, younger Orson Welles.” Diane Ladd: “reminds me of Nina Foch or Miriam Hopkins.” With Burt Young, Dougherty got into a debate with herself that underlines how specifically she understood actors’ qualities. “He looks a bit like younger less ugly Ernie Borgnine . . . Great for hoods,” she wrote, then added, “not really, more Borgnine or [Richard] Castellano” – actors, in other words, whose warmth and humor undercut their menacing looks. Dougherty’s other favorite source of metaphor was the animal kingdom. “She looks like a bird,” she wrote of Calista Flockhart. Grace Zabriskie was a “pug” (but “not unpretty,” Dougherty hastened to add), Henry Winkler a “bassett hound.”
Although most of Dougherty’s index cards refer to specific meetings with actors, she would sometimes create a card just to record the name of an actor who had impressed her on the stage or screen. She first observed Robert Redford in a 1960 Playhouse 90, Lawrence Pressman on Broadway in 1968’s The Man in the Glass Booth, and Rue McClanahan and Holland Taylor in the 1969 Off-Broadway production Tonight in Living Color. Dougherty thought Peter Boyle was “damn good” in Joe and noticed Joe Don Baker (“a cross between Ralph Meeker and Marlon Brando”) in a supporting role in another 1970 film, Adam at 6A.M.
But while many cards, especially during Dougherty’s studio years – in the mid-seventies, she moved from New York to Los Angeles to become the head of casting for Paramount and later Warner Bros. – chronicle auditions for specific films, the majority of the insights she recorded were gleaned from conversation. Her notes make it clear that Dougherty was less interested in an actor’s line readings than in the sense she got of the his or her personality during her gentle questioning about their backgrounds, their aims for the future, and their self-assessments of their strengths and preferences as a performer. “When I talked to people, very often I didn’t talk about what they did in movies or plays or anything else,” Dougherty explained to the Casting By filmmakers. “I would ask them about where they learned acting, what they did, and I’d ask them about what their animals were and what their kids were – just anything that would give me an idea of them.”
(That said, Dougherty disdained actors who wouldn’t read for a part, and one suspects those actors were at a serious disadvantage when it came to films that she was casting. “[G]ood actor but won’t read and I don’t dig that,” is her only note on Brock Peters.)
Dougherty’s notes on her conversations with young actors are a touching record of where her passion lay. Even in her private files, only the most abjectly clueless or unprepared auditioners were subjected to Dougherty’s scorn. “Came in totally unprepared to read . . . a real lox,” she wrote of one popular Saturday Night Live star. Her genuine enthusiasm for young actors, for kernels of talent and expressions of conquer-the-world excitement, comes across again and again in her casting cards. She took notes (in 1961) on how Martin Sheen read from the Bible at a talent show and moved from stagehand to actor in his first hit show, The Connection, and (in 1966) how Bo Svenson had done kabuki in Japan, a play in Hong Kong, and “Bergman pix as a child” (!). Actors who struck her as intelligent, and in particular actors who expressed a desire to play against their image, won her admiration. What actor wouldn’t tell a casting director that they wanted to do meaty, serious work and not just get by on their good looks? And yet Dougherty recorded variations of that remark many times, with evident credulity.
“We had a nice talk; I chided him about being late,” is one of her more motherly notes – written in reference to a twenty-two year-old Jude Law. Her protective impulses also extended towards older actors fallen on hard times. Casting By reveals that one small-part actor, Tom Spratley, lived in the boiler room of the 30th Street townhouse that was Dougherty’s headquarters during its heyday (and a nexus for a variety of eccentric, up-and-coming actors and writers). Dougherty helped to discover Rocky actor Burt Young, and he became a sort of mascot around the 30th Street office as she and her assistants helped him through a period of personal tragedy in the seventies. Even when Dougherty perceived a talent as limited, she was looking for ways to use it creatively. “He was hammy, paunchy, and totally wrong for the part,” she wrote of one character actor. “However, he could be used for overbearing, dumb, etc . . . with a firm director he’d be useful.”
Dougherty used the card file to keep tabs on actors who had caught her eye. Although new meetings would occasionally merit a new card, Dougherty’s habit was to add updates to an actor’s original card whenever they caught her attention, either in a film or an audition. In some cases, a single card documents decades of brief encounters. Dougherty created a card for Paul Dooley when he replaced Art Carney in The Odd Couple on Broadway in 1966; she updated it again in 1970 (when she saw him in The White House Murders on stage), in 1973 (a cryptic note: “Cuckoo’s Nest – interested”), in 1976 (“used” in Slap Shot), and in 1979 and 1980 (when she saw him in Breaking Away and Popeye). (Those references to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Slap Shot, both of which were officially cast by Mike Fenton and Jane Feinberg, are among the many intriguing mysteries to be found in the cards. Slap Shot was directed by George Roy Hill, who knew Dougherty from Kraft Theatre and was her companion for many years; it’s likely that she consulted on the casting for all his features, even those that she didn’t work on formally.)
Dougherty’s addenda to her cards document a process of constantly upgrading her assessment of an actor’s skills or range. Tim O’Connor, a consummate underplayer, “always bored” her until she saw him in Tonight in Living Color; then she raved that he was “very good . . . attractive and virile, yet funny.” When Dougherty saw Mitchell Ryan on Broadway in Wait Until Dark, she was frustrated: “he is not able to reach the audience – strangely removed – Has now had a lot of classical [experience] but still nothing that reaches out and makes contact – too bad because he’s very good rugged type.” Two years later, she scrawled this note underneath her earlier comments: “Finally hit it in Moon For the Misbegotten.” Overwhelmingly, Dougherty looked for the positive, delighting in finding new wrinkles in what actors could do and new angles on how she could use them. Only occasionally would she watch an actor for a while and conclude there was less than met the eye. “She really can’t hack it,” Dougherty wrote of one underground actress who appeared in many cult movies. “He really is an Ivy League bore,” was her assessment of an actor who eventually became a major TV star playing just such characters.
Some of Dougherty’s cards have “courtesy” written at the top – a code indicating that she met with an actor as a favor to someone, in some cases with a reluctance reflected in the iconoclastic casting director’s notes on the meeting. But Dougherty also took referrals willingly, often seeing actors recommended by directors and other casting directors she trusted, or sounding them out on actors she’d met. It’s fascinating to trace who sent whom to Dougherty’s attention. Naked City director Walter Grauman pointed her towards Richard Benjamin in the early sixties (according to the card, Grauman had used Benjamin in five episodes of The New Breed, although that credit isn’t noted anywhere online). Al Pacino, one of her discoveries, sent her the character actor Richard Lynch, he of the distinctive facial burn scars, in 1972. Spratley “raved about” Ed Begley, Jr. in 1976. Sometimes the intel from Dougherty’s trusted sources was more cautionary. Of the character actor Michael Higgins (Wanda; The Conversation), Sidney Lumet had “seen him be brilliant just a couple of times” – a back-handed compliment if ever there was one, and yet a fair assessment of an actor who worked a lot but tended to recede into the background.
Another invaluable bit of information captured in Dougherty’s card file is an alternate history of what-might-have-been casting – a record of auditioners who came close to getting iconic parts that went to someone else. Lois Smith “gave [a] damn good reading” for the Brenda Vaccaro role in Midnight Cowboy (although she “had no comedy” when she read for Norman Lear’s Cold Turkey). Dougherty “would have used” Ray Liotta for the Sam Bottoms role in Bronco Billy. George Roy Hill thought that Christine Baranski had a “very good face for whore if Swoosie [Kurtz] can’t do it” (but Kurtz did, in The World According to Garp). Tom Skerritt (“think he has a lot of sadness in him”) read well for unspecified roles in A Man Called Horse and Smile. Dougherty liked Susan Tyrrell for Dark Shadows (well before her film debut) and The Day of the Locust. She read Richard Gere for The Day of the Locust, too – possibly for the lead – but she was suspicious of his charm and thought he’d be better suited to play villains (which is how she eventually cast him in Looking For Mr. Goodbar).
Casting By explains that Dougherty’s retirement was not a graceful one. Ousted at Warner Bros. in 1999 (when keeping track of actors using index cards must have struck outsiders as prehistoric) with a classic Hollywood knife in the back, she learned of her firing from an announcement in the trade papers. Although her enthusiasm for actors was never diminished – she noticed Naomi Watts and Paul Rudd in her final years at Warners – Dougherty had soured on television, the medium that launched her. “Sexy lady – has just done a pilot – there goes that!” she groused on Annette Bening’s card in 1987 (although the pilot didn’t sell, and Bening became a film star). “Hope he gets the right part before TV snaps him up – give him a chance to learn more. He then might be a real leading man,” she wrote of Julian McMahon (ten years away from his TV stardom in Nip/Tuck) in 1993. It was a potent irony: television, the medium that launched her, had come to represent for Dougherty a minefield in which actors would learn bad habits and short-circuit promising careers.
Dougherty died in 2011, after suffering dementia for several years. It’s a shame that she didn’t remain active long enough to notice the renaissance in television that began with The Sopranos, and continues. One could easily imagine her in a Manhattan brownstone, scouting for new faces for Orange Is the New Black, going out the same way she came into the business sixty years ago.
Editor’s Note (9/5/13): At the request of the Marion Dougherty Estate, most of the cards originally used to illustrate this piece have been replaced with others.
Photos courtesy HBO.