Seymour Cassel, who has died aged 84, belonged to the stock company of compelling actors cast by John Cassavetes in his bracingly realistic studies of sour marriages and faltering friendships. He was in seven features directed by Cassavetes over 25 years, appearing opposite the film-maker’s other regulars, Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara and Gena Rowlands. Cassel’s best known character, the cocksure Chet, in Faces (1968), allowed him to show off his mischievous streak and earned him an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.
A later generation of directors, including Steve Buscemi and Wes Anderson, gave Cassel mostly comedic supporting roles throughout his 60s and 70s, by which time his sandy hair had turned a striking silver. Frequently seen chewing a cigar, Cassel never lost his easy grin, always giving the impression that he was sharing a joke with himself.
An only child, he was born in Detroit. His father, whom he never knew, was a salesman, and his mother was a burlesque performer whom he accompanied on tour around the US. His mother stripped on stage while Cassel sat with the band, and he appeared in vaudeville matinees from the age of three.
Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
He and his mother settled in Florida and then moved to Panama, where his stepfather ran a nightclub. When they divorced, Cassel returned to Detroit in 1949 to live with his godmother and spent three years with the US navy.
After dropping out of Miami University, Cassel moved to New York. He flunked an audition for the Actors Studio, worked as a waiter and studied at American Theatre Wing alongside Dustin Hoffman. His acting tutors over the years included Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler. Cassel met Cassavetes in the mid-1950s after answering an advertisement for an acting workshop Cassavetes had established.
Cassel operated a camera and performed other technical duties on Cassavetes’s debut, Shadows (1958), as well as taking a bit part. He worked again with the director on Too Late Blues (1961), playing a musician, and also doubled up as a crew member on Faces, which revolves around parties: at one, callous businessmen compete for the affections of their hostess (Rowlands); at the other, the young Chet entertains a group of middle-aged wives with impromptu songs and dances.
After appearing opposite Clint Eastwood in Coogan’s Bluff (1968), managing to be both volatile and vulnerable as a hood flirting with a probation officer, Cassel reunited with Rowlands in Minnie and Moskowitz (1971), written for them by Cassavetes (although the studio wanted Jack Nicholson as the lead).
Cassel played a walrus-moustached, ponytailed parking attendant who rescues the glamorous Rowlands from a disastrous date and falls for her, though they share more animosity than chemistry. The friction between them is electrifying. Cassavetes told the writer Ray Carney: “I made Gena and Seymour hate each other during the picture.”
The character of Moskowitz, an earnestly romantic troublemaker, gave Cassel plenty of opportunities to clown around.
The film co-starred Elizabeth Deering, whom Cassel had married in 1964. Deering also starred in Faces and A Woman Under the Influence (1974); the latter featured an appearance from their son, Matthew. Years later, Seymour gave Matthew’s friend Saul Hudson the nickname “Slash” because the future Guns N’ Roses guitarist was “always on the go”.
After The Last Tycoon and a part as a gangster in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (both 1976), Cassel had a lusty role in The Mountain Men (1980). Off screen he ran into trouble with drink and drugs. In the early 80s he was imprisoned for conspiracy to sell cocaine and he separated from Deering.
After Love Streams (1984), his last film with Cassavetes, who died in 1989, Cassel gained greater exposure in the box-office hits Dick Tracy (1990), as a chain-smoking cop, one of the few characters not in heavy comic-book makeup; Honeymoon in Vegas (1992), as the poker player Tony Cataracts; Indecent Proposal (1993), as Robert Redford’s chauffeur; and It Could Happen to You (1994), flirting with Rosie Perez.
Amid these colourful cameos came a rare top-billed role in the stylish black-and-white comedy In the Soup (1992), directed by Alexandre Rockwell. In a role written for him, Cassel plays the devilish Joe, who finances a highbrow film project conceived by a penniless director, Adolpho (Buscemi). As Joe unveils ever more unusual tactics to raise funding – in one scene, dressed as Father Christmas, he steals a Porsche – Adolpho fears his prankish behaviour conceals sinister motives.
Buscemi cast Cassel in Trees Lounge (1996) and its follow-up, Animal Factory (2000), based on Edward Bunker’s prison novel. In the latter, Cassel’s complex performance as a guard suggested that the prison’s staff, like the convicts, serve their own sentences.
He joined the eccentric ensembles in Anderson’s bittersweet comedies Rushmore (1998), playing a barber whose son wishes his dad was a brain surgeon instead; The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), as a bellboy disguised as a doctor; and The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004), as a diver eaten by a “highly abnormal shark-like fish”.
His double-act with Harry Dean Stanton, playing roommates in a retirement home, was the only thing to enjoy in The Wendell Baker Story (2005). In 2009, Cassel ran for president of the Screen Actors Guild and came third; a month later, he was suspended from the guild for two years for sexual harassment.
In his 70s, he seemed more prolific on screen than ever. As Buscemi observed: “He’s always shooting somebody’s first film or somebody’s short.”
Cassel is survived by Matthew, and by two daughters, Lisa and Dilyn, seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
• Seymour Joseph Cassel, actor, born 22 January 1935; died 7 April 2019