Casting directors wield anonymous power

June 27, 1991|By Ryan Murphy | Ryan Murphy,Knight-Ridder Newspapers

"There's no Oscar for casting because most people who aren't informed feel that directors and producers come up with all the good ideas," says Marion Dougherty. "Ha! Without good casting, there would be no good pictures."

Dougherty, now a 60ish vice president of talent at Warner Bros., is the person who shaped the casting system into what it is today. Before Dougherty's flex of muscle in the the late '50s, motion picture and television casting was identical to the theatrical "cattle call," where hundreds of actors are herded into a room, eyed by the director and most of the time dismissed (because of union rules "open casting calls" still persist in the stage world).

Dougherty, who got her start in New York casting television dramas, saw that this was not only humiliating for actors but a waste of time for directors. And so she pioneered the system in which a casting director interviews the masses and then goes to the director with the top five to 10 choices for a role.

Dougherty gave casting directors their power and clout and also made several discoveries that changed the motion picture landscape for the second half of the 20th century. It was Dougherty, not Francis Ford Coppola, who "discovered" Al Pacino. She caught a stage performance of his in New York in the mid-'60s and insisted that he be cast in "The Panic in Needle Park," which gave him his entree into Hollywood.

It was Dougherty, who plucked Robert De Niro from obscurity. When Pacino was too busy to star in "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight," Dougherty lined up De Niro for the part. She is also credited with giving James Dean his first big break (in a "Playhouse 90" episode), first casting unknown Dustin Hoffman, back when no Hollywood types would touch this strange, intense talent, in "Naked City." Dougherty also handed Richard Dreyfuss, Warren Beatty and Robert Duvall their first big parts in that gritty TV classic.

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