The Timothy Carey-John Cassavetes Partnership
“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.
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.”
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.”
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
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.
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.”
not all of Carey’s directors had Kubrick’s eye for character or sense
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
“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
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
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
pitched as a potential sitcom, only a rough, seldom-screened work print of
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.
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
I feel his spirit around me.
Many people I know that knew him remember him say, ‘Yeah, you can
I tried to get Marlon Brando to help my friend out doing THE WILD
He said, ‘No, no.
You get back to what you were doing.’
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
I don’t know why he couldn’t have stayed. He kept telling me
he’s OK, he’s OK, but he wasn’t.”
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
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.
Flo, one of a circle
of mobsters who plot the takeover of a successful Sunset Boulevard strip
joint by killing the owner, Cosmo
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,
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.”
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 represents all
the loneliness throughout his career, directly tied to the
rejection he repeatedly faced amongst those whose art he shared. The
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
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
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
$3000 launch money donated by Cassavetes protégé Martin Scorsese,
recast the play and spent the following months heavily involved in group
“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.
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
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