The Timothy Carey-John Cassavetes Partnership


Article & Interview 


“Loathsome,” “repulsive” and “most socially undesirable: have all been tossed about in various film guides attempting to describe the late character actor Timothy Carey. Renowned for his dominating presence in Stanley Kubrick’s early films THE KILLING (1956) and PATHS OF GLORY (1957), Carey had the exhibitionism and humility of an aging circus clown, suffering to invest everything he had into even the smallest of bit roles.  The sack-shaped giant with the oil spill hair and cadaverous grin died of his third major stroke on May 11, 1994.  But what remains unmentioned in reference sources are his humanist spirit, and love for the Average Joe that inspired not only his acting, but his own writing and directing ventures, which were as ridiculous as they were revolutionary. 

Carey’s true nature, belying his odious on-screen behavior, came out in the easygoing way he talked about the many leads he’s worked with, actors who’ve routinely-and literally-kicked him around.  He was given the cold shoulder by Robert Ryan on ALASKA SEAS (1954),”cursed and stomped on” by Richard Widmark during THE LAST WAGON (1956), and kicked in the ribs by Karl Malden during the filming of Marlon Brando’s ONE-EYED JACKS (1961) – to name only a few instances!  When asked to reflect on these incidents, a sad fondness crept into Carey’s voice as he had nothing but praise for the many actors whose resentfulness instilled in him a real martyrdom rather than bitterness:  ”I’ve been fired from several shows. I’m not proud of it, but I do hold the all-time record.”

 Carey went out of his way to make his films more interesting, which sometimes meant taking charge of a particular scene – rubbing many fragile egos the wrong way.  “I wasn’t trying to upstage anyone; I just wanted to do it for the good of the show.  Sometimes I’d overdo it maybe.  Sometimes I didn’t do exactly what the director wanted, that’s true…I try so hard, you know. To me, it’s like the last film I’m gonna make, and I want it to be the best.”

 Carey barnstormed Hollywood from the start.  If he didn’t dress up in a full Viking suit and scale the wall of 20th Century Fox studios (as he did trying to get a part in 1954’s PRINCE VALIANT), he climbed into a trunk to be thrown from the Santa Monica Pier, or shot himself with a blank on the set to get attention.  His first big break, a bit in Billy Wilder’s THE BIG CARNIVAL (aka ACE IN THE HOLE, 1951), came from a more traditional approach:  knocking on Mr. Wilder’s trailer door, only to have it opened by the bleeding-faced director, who just cut himself shaving when he heard noise outside his door.  Wilder’s order of “Ruass!!” (how you might tell a dog to “get the hell out” in German) wasn’t enough to keep Carey from going back over to the production office to blame them for his brush with the director; he got hired on the spot as an extra.  He was officially discovered by agent Walter Kohner, who helped him secure a bit in THE WILD ONE (1954), the part of brothel bouncer Joe in EAST OF EDEN (1955), as well as minor roes in several B pictures of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.

There was only one director sensitive to Carey’s impulses.  Stanley Kubrick cast him as pulled ham string-mouthed sharpshooter Nikki Arane in THE KILLING (1956) and again as scapegoated soldier Private Ferol in PATHS OF GLORY (1957).  It was in the latter film that Carey pushes and nearly breaks through the seams of Jim

Thompson’s taut script, so much so that Kirk Douglas felt overshadowed and made no bones about expressing his disgust to Kubrick.  But Kubrick remained sympathetic to Carey’s personality and, in rehearsing takes of the final firing line scene, leaned away from Douglas to whisper in Carey’s ear:  “make this a good one ‘cause Kirk doesn’t like it.”

During this time, Carey met his wife, Doris, but marriage was hardy enough to keep him from careening off the rails.  In the middle of production, he faked his own kidnapping, ransom note and all, causing quite a stir in Munich news media, as well as for Kubrick and the local police.  When they finally discovered Carey bound and gagged in a ditch not far from the set, he was interrogated and finally forced to confess that his abduction was a hoax.

Certainly not all of Carey’s directors had Kubrick’s eye for character or sense of tolerance.  This, along with getting kicked off of many sets, compounded by a terrible frustration with the Hollywood studio system in general, led him to take matters into his own hands.  “I was tired of seeing movies that were supposedly controversial,” he says “So I wanted to do something that really was controversial.”

That “something” became his debut feature as a writer, producer, director and lead actor, THE WORLD’S GREATEST SINNER, which he began filming in 1958 mostly at his El Monte home ad around Long Beach.  Inspired by Elvis’s body language and presidential campaign advertising (Carey originally hoped to complete the film in time for release on Election Day, 1961),  SINNER went on to exceed his initial ambition of simply being controversial.  Narrated by a snake, it’s the story of life insurance salesman Clarence Hilliard, who gets himself fired, pastes a black goatee to his chin and straps a guitar he can barely strum, promising to change his humdrum 9-to-5-type followers into meaningful “superhuman being.”  Hilliard’s ideals get lost along the way as he succumbs to power madness, drifts into isolation and starts wearing a jacket with “God” embroidered on the right sleeve.  Reviews ranged from “travesty of the arts” to “masterpiece of mess?”  Even avant-garde highbrow Frank Zappa, who wrote and performed the film’s score, bowed his head in embarrassment as he put the film down on the Steve Allen show during SINNER’s limited theater run in 1962. Raw with on-location shooting, crash-cut editing (one scene is even framed upside-down and off-the –street amateur acting, Carey’s first movie bristles with equal parts parody, empathy and an anarchic technical style.

 However, there was one young filmmaker who genuinely admired SINNER – John Cassavetes, whose favorite moment of the film comes when Hilliard defies God, shot in extreme close-up and slightly blurred, as through tears.  He was quoted that SINNER had “the brilliance of Einstein” and hence began the big brother-like encouragement that Carey would receive from him for the rest of his life.

 “I forget now exactly how we met,” Carey says.  “But I grabbed myself on his compassion about SINNER and he seemed like he just couldn’t do enough for me…Sent it to New York, sent it to London…and every time he sent it somewhere, they rejected it.  Every time we tried to get distribution for it, it always met with resistance, no matter where we went.  Germany, even the British Film Institute didn’t want it.” 

 It would take another few years before Cassavetes and Carey would work together, but this marked the first time their two almost distinctly parallel paths converges.  Carey, like Cassavetes, was born to a close-knit family in 1929 Brooklyn.  After the Marine Corps discharged Carey after finding out he was only 15, he enrolled in drama school on the GI Bill while Cassavetes broke off his literature studies at Colgate to do the same thing.  Both were to become involved in every aspect of filmmaking: from the writing, directing and acting to the real nitty-gritty of financing, distributing, designing press kits, costuming, editing, and promoting.  Family played an integral part in their projects, as their films and plays are made up almost entirely of relatives and friends.

 By the mid-50’s, when Carey’s career began to take off, Cassavetes was busy establishing himself as a cutting-edge talent along the lines of Montgomey Clift and James Dean.  He also developed a strong dislike for the rigid confines of the studio system.  He reacted as Carey would and began his own film, SHADOWS, in 1956 on the streets of Manhattan with him improvisational acting group that included Lelia Goldoni, Hugh Hurd, Rupert Crosse, and Ben Carruthers.

 SHADOWS and SINNER share more than just a few similarities.  Both crackle with brisk on-street photography, portray wild scenes of youth culture, and carry a playful exuberance that preceded the cult of nouvelle vague. And though SHADOWS was universally hailed as a cinematic landmark and awarded the Critics prize at the 1960 Venice Film Festival, Cassavetes was not satisfied with the final result.

 He re-edited the acclaimed print of SHADOWS more to his own liking, puzzling the critics, who regarded the revision inferior to the original they’d already bestowed so much praise upon.  It was a sign of things to come, slipping through the fingers of even his admirers, who tried to brand him as a leader among “underground” filmmakers. But Cassavetes wouldn’t have any of this, telling a reporter years later, “I was never part of anything.”

 After the critics felt snubbed by Cassavetes’s decision to re-edit SHADOWS, he alienated himself further from the hip cinema elite by signing with Paramount for a two-picture deal that resulted in TOO LATE BLUES (1961) and A CHILD IS WAITING (1963), both of which Cassavetes would write off as not his own, his hands tied by studio interference.  A bitter argument with his producer, Stanley Kramer, during the editing of A CHILD IS WAITING got Cassavetes blacklisted from Hollywood; whoever Kramer fired, nobody hired.

 It proved to be a critical turning point for Cassavetes, who developed his second independent feature, FACES, out of the disillusionment of his corporate studio experience and began filming in January 1965.  FACES, shot mostly in Cassavetes’s home and his mother-in-law’s apartment in which he cast his wife, Gena Rowlands, and a group of close friends and family, comprising the rest of the cast and crew, didn't make it out of the editing room until 1968.  Carey's

second film, TWEET’S LADIES OF PASADENA,        began in similar fashion the following year, at his El Monte home and all around Pasadena with the finances coming from a fund-raiser organized by Cassavetes.  Even by SINNER’s outrageous standards, TWEET’S visuals look about as bizarre as anything imaginable.  Again, Carey played the lead, this time the town weirdo, Tweet Twig, who juggles his  marriage with a British female wrestler, odd job duty for an old maid Pasadena knitting society and caring for several animal species that get dropped off at his doorstep in steady succession. 

Unsuccessfully pitched as a potential sitcom, only a rough, seldom-screened work print of TWEET’S exists.

While Carey was working on his first cut of TWEET’S, Cassavetes custom-wrote Carey a part for his feature, MINNIE AND MOSKOWITZ (1971).  That role of lonely, rambling coffee shop loiterer Morgan Morgan, would have been enough to secure Carey’s screen immortality all by itself.  At an all-night diner across the street from the old herald Examiner building in downtown LA, Cassavetes shot thousands of feet of film of just Carey’s stream-of-consciousness monologue with Seymour Cassel.  For Carey, it was the first time a director had let him move above and beyond what was in the script.  After hours and hours of filming, Cassavetes gave Carey a bear hug in front of everybody and told him: “You made the film, Tim.”  These words had a profound effect on Carey, who had at last found a true ally, an artist possibly even crazier than himself.

“(Francis Ford) Coppola wanted me so much to be in THE GODFATHER,” Carey says of the months following MINNNIE AND MOSKOWITZ, devoted mostly to editing TWEET’S and regular steady TV work, including the pilot for Columbo. “But the stage wasn’t right.  I just would have made a lot of money, and when you make a lot of

money, it doesn’t help an artists because the more money you have, the more trouble you have.  Except to make a film, that’s different, of course, but Cassavetes, it would never affect him…Coppola didn’t have the sensitivity that Cassavetes had.  He’s a good director, a nice fella, but he’s no John.  Nobody’s a John Cassavetes.  Nobody!” 

I wish I could get him on the phone now and call him up and speak to him…I wish I had a direct wire to where he is.  If there’s a heaven, boy, if there’s a God, he’s got to be right there.  I feel his spirit around me.  Many people I know that knew him remember him say, ‘Yeah, you can do it.’  I tried to get Marlon Brando to help my friend out doing THE WILD ONE.  He said, ‘No, no.  You get back to what you were doing.’  No encouragement.  But John Cassavetes was different!  He would inspire people.  He didn’t believe in anything negative; there wasn’t a negative bone in his body. You could always call him up any time and he was always there to give you a helping hand.  Just incredible…he had to drop dead and die, I mean it’s just a shame.  I don’t know why he couldn’t have stayed. He kept telling me he’s OK, he’s OK, but he wasn’t.”

 Carey’s ideas found a kindred spirit in Cassavetes.  While MINNIE AND MOSKOWITZ was in production in April ’71, Cassavetes presented Carey’s first script, AL, to Universal producer Ned Tannen.  Carey had already begun to shoot AL in downtown LA back when he first moved to California in the early ‘50s, before leaving it to concentrate on SINNER. Though several years had passed, AL remained a personal favorite of Carey’s.  Centered around the title character, a young Alabama salesman who can’t get his care off the LA freeway while his wife is having a baby, the script deals mostly with Al’s navigating through the marginal characters of the big city streets:  illegal Mexican immigrants, street kids, drunks, day laborers.  Carey who regularly hung around and made friends with janitors, security guards, and extras during production breaks in Hollywood, always made room for these ‘fringe” characters in his stories as he did in his life.  As with Cassavetes, it was with these outcast people, estranged from society and Hollywood treatments, that Carey found so much humor, loneliness, humanity; in short, where he saw so much of himself.

Enthusiastic, Universal planned to produce AL, but wanted to hire Daniel Petrie as director, while Carey insisted on complete creative control or no picture.  Just as production plans hit a dead end for Carey, things also turned sour for Cassavetes.  He fought to keep his friend, Seymour Cassel, as the male lead instead of Universal’s choice, Jack Nicholson.  Cassavetes got his way, but at the cost of Universal taking the film out of his hands in post production, softening the final sequence and pulling the plug on publicity.  Despite Universal’s spiteful handling, MINNIE AND MUSKOWITZ keeps its IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT-like sparkle from the freedom the actors exude, having a field day with the screwball script, shot in hot dog stands, motel rooms, parking lots and all over Hollywood.

 THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE (1976) marked the only other time Carey and Cassavetes would work together.  Cassavetes thought his deeply psychological foray into film noir would be a hit similar to THE GODFATHER. Instead, it got pulled from theaters after a week, attracted even more critical backlash than SINNER, and to this day remains his least appreciated film. In it, Carey

plays Flo, one of a circle of mobsters who plot the takeover of a successful Sunset Boulevard strip joint by killing the owner, Cosmo

(Ben Gazzara), who owes them a vast gambling debt. Carey became outcast from the rest of the actors, perturbed by Carey’s natural penchant for stealing entire scenes outright. In one scene, Seymour Cassel was suppose to grab Carey by the scruff of the neck, but instead grabbed his neck so hard that he could not turn his head. Cassavetes stuck up for Carey and told him to punch Cassel, one of his closes friends, in the nose. This never made the final cut, but elsewhere throughout Bookie, the physical distance between Carey and the rest of the actors is uncomfortably apparent. He recalled, “Some actors didn’t like me and said I was getting in front of his lights… John laughed at it.”

         Cassavetes, who talked about wanting to film Bookie four or five more times in order to tell the story in different ways, did end up drastically re-cutting it by 1978. He even took his next film, Opening Night (1977), back to the editing room because he didn’t like the audience’s positive response to the ending at an early screening. For Carey, also there was never a feeling of settling into a final, perfected product at the end of making a movie.

      “I’m changing (SINNER) every second”! Carey says. “I took my last cut of the show last year (1991)- that’s after years and years!” I’m not afraid to turn it around… some people say, “Oh , this is boring now, I’m losing my  touch “cause I’m doing it too much,

‘But a creative person can do it a thousand times-five thousand times- and still enjoy it because he’s creating each time. You wine and dine something! You don’t say, ‘Ok, it’s gonna take me two weeks and that’s it. ‘It’s something that’s going to be with you for the rest of your life.”

      Plans to film Confessions, a script that Cassavetes wrote with his son Nick, three years later never materialized, though the plan  was to reunite the acclaimed
A Woman Under the Influence team of Peter Falk and Gena Rowlands along with Cassavetes’s daughter, Zoe, and Carey as a gangster named Ibizza. It was around this time in 1981 that Carey began to leave behind his gigantic backlog of unproduced scripts and ideas and focus on  what would be his final masterpiece, The Insect Trainer

        All of Carey’s characters constitute a clear autobiography, embarking on impossible schemes, risking public ridicule and physical injury in pursuit of their personal ideals, and none more so than Carey’s alter-ego, The Insect Trainer’s main character, Guasti Q.

Guasti. Guasti represents all  of  the loneliness throughout his career, directly tied to the rejection he repeatedly faced amongst those whose art he shared. The booting off  of location sets, the months he spent developing a character only to be whittled down to a few moments by the time it hit the big screen, doing a screen test and not getting called  because someone easier to work with would come in and use Carey’s test as a primer, having idea after idea shot down… these are the elements that went into creating Guasti.

          Carey, who subtitled The Insect Trainer as “an intimate collaboration with Salvador Dali” after one of Dali’s final essays, “The art of Farting,” throws unassuming Guasti into the public theater of humiliation and disgust; Guasti a dishwasher in a Chinese restaurant who befriends a cockroach, becomes convicted of murder after farting so powerfully that a woman falls from her chair, hits her head on the floor and dies. The release of intestinal gas becomes Carey’s calling card, his Great Metaphor of artistic inhibition and expression.

             “I spoke to (John), “ Carey said of the last time he saw Cassavetes …”I didn’t show him ‘cause I didn’t have a script, but I told him some things about The Insect Trainer, the trial, what happens there. And her just got such a charge out of it. Then the last thing he said to me before he went up the stairs was, ‘Tim , I love your play.  ‘And

then he ran up the stairs like he was going to heaven. He said, ‘All I know is it makes me feel good when I fart. “In spite of everybody against it, he would say what he really felt.”

               Over the last couple of years Carey was alive, almost all he ever  talked about was Cassavetes. He told stories about the many things Cassavetes had done for him, from pushing through a throng at a 1974 post-Oscar party to ask him if  there was anything he needed, to a morning several years later on the lot at Paramount where Carey was looking for work. They talked and, finally, Carey was forced to smile, revealing the cap that had fallen off one of his front teeth. “What happened?” Cassavetes asked. “You can’t go walking around like that!” So he drove Carey dentist right there and then and took acre of the bill.

         Carey’s health began to deteriorate around the time cirrhosis of the liver took Cassavetes’s life in 1989. Hardly any of the Cassavetes company spoke to Carey at his wake, probably holding a grudge against him because of all the money and equipment he accepted from Cassavetes over the years. Everyone, however, heard Carey read the requiem he’d written: “His grace humility. Artistry against all odds. His light will never be extinguished. Cassavetes always perpendicular to humanity.  Antidote against apathy

in my life as a thespian. To me, he will always be theantropist (part human and part divine). Hail Cassavetes.”

              Nineteen-eighty-nine was the same year Carey had his second stroke, which interrupted his screen test for Coppala’s Godfather III. His condition also postponed his newly-completed The Insect Trainer just weeks before its scheduled premiere. After Carey recovered somewhat, he went about revising the script and by late 1993, with help

of  $3000 launch money donated by Cassavetes protégé Martin Scorsese, recast the play and spent the following months heavily involved in group readings.

               “First I’d take a big fart in front of them,” Carey said about how he went about casting the play. “That’s always a big help. I always thought, if you really want to become a really good actor, you’ve got to be able to fart in public. That, to me, is the most important. If you are so inhibited that you can’t fart- I don’t mean (in front of ) your friends-I mean just fart, out loud anywhere. I don’t mean the ‘silent creeper’-everbody does that. I mean just fart out loud! Just that you can do it and not be afraid of it. Humility is very important.”

                  During a rehearsal for The Insect Trainer a few weeks before he passed away, Carey went over the dense lines Guasti speaks at his trial, which includes asides to the audience which are largely poetic streams-of-consciousness. ‘So he goes and steps out of character, “one of the actors proffered in an effort to make sense of the dramatic switch in the tone and language required for the asides. “No,” Carey said, “think of it more like as stepping into character. “ After a pause, the actor nodded in a natural understanding of the practical advise Carey emphasized by ”stepping into character,” to provide a real push to de-abstract the relationship with the character and express as much of his own emotions as possible.

Carey’s directorial style, like Cassavetes’s, was his greatest achievement,

Breaking down the constraints of how people are supposed to act and behave, defying normalcy as an ambassador of eccentricity typified by Guastis’s self-defense in the courtroom at the end of The  Insect Trainer.  “Act and behave as nature demands. After such excellent precepts, it is vain to make loud pleas for the laws of decency and civility. Laws, which despite the difference they are said to command, shall not prevail over good health nor even life itself…Cemeteries are filled with people who didn’t fart on time…

        Timothy Carey’s son, Romeo, has since taken over directing The Insect Trainer and,

       At press time, is busy preparing the play for production.

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