Lynn Stalmaster, ‘master caster’ who gave actors including John Travolta and Dustin Hoffman their breakthrough roles – obituary

Stalmaster in the 1970s - Tony Korody/Sygma via Getty
Stalmaster in the 1970s - Tony Korody/Sygma via Getty

Lynn Stalmaster, who has died aged 93, largely devised the profession of casting director with which he was to become synonymous in Hollywood; he helped shape more than 400 films and television shows, from West Side Story to Roots to Superman, and among many others launched to stardom Dustin Hoffman, Christopher Reeve and John Travolta.

Almost everyone who has watched screen entertainment in the last 60 years will have seen the credit “Casting by Lynn Stalmaster” – and the product of his eye for talent and his open-minded approach to telling stories.

His career began in the 1950s as the studio system of keeping a roster of actors under contract was breaking down and television was creating new opportunities for them as free agents. Stalmaster had been an actor but had found steadier work as a dogsbody on the drama series, Big Town, set around a newspaper.

When Stalmaster was asked to take on the casting for the show, he realised it was a gratifying way to help actors find roles, having always been nervous himself when auditioning. Stalmaster was then invited to submit ideas for a new Western series. He suggested making diversity of casting a feature, including European accents and villains who did not look like villains.

The programme was Gunsmoke, which went on to become the longest-running series of the 20th century and with which Stalmaster was involved for 300 episodes. Rather than working with one show or studio, he set himself up as an independent casting director, soon coming to dominate the profession in Hollywood as Marion Dougherty did at the same time in New York.

In 1958, Stalmaster moved into film by casting I Want to Live, for which Susan Hayward won an Oscar portraying Barbara Graham, controversially executed by the state of California for her part in a robbery.

Much of the film’s authenticity stemmed from Stalmaster’s judicious selection of little-known actors as journalists and prison wardens. He relished collaborating with directors, perhaps influencing films by suggesting someone who looked different from what they had imagined. It was Stalmaster who found Dustin Hoffman for The Graduate, and he also got Richard Dreyfuss his first line to camera in the same film.

Stalmaster receiving his honorary Oscar from Jeff Bridges in 2016 - Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP
Stalmaster receiving his honorary Oscar from Jeff Bridges in 2016 - Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Ensemble casts that Stalmaster put together included those for Judgment at Nuremberg, West Side Story, The Great Escape and Fiddler on the Roof. He made many of his new discoveries through numerous visits to the theatre. It was he who got Ned Beatty his film debut in Deliverance, and Christopher Reeve his in the submarine drama Gray Lady Down after seeing him in a play with Katharine Hepburn.

Stalmaster then proposed him for the role of Superman (1978) when the producers were struggling to cast it. He put Reeve’s name at the top of the pile of potential actors three times, only for it to be rejected on every occasion. The day after Stalmaster finally persuaded director Richard Donner to meet Reeve in London, the actor was cast.

Lynn Arlen Stalmaster was born at Omaha, Nebraska, on November 17 1927. His father became at 28 the youngest man, and the first Jew, to sit in the state’s supreme court but later gave up law for business.

Lynn suffered from severe asthma as a child and to improve his health the family moved to Beverly Hills when he was 12. A shy boy, he came out of his shell performing in plays he had written for his class at high school – André Previn, a fellow pupil, accompanied them on the piano.

By the time he was studying at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television he was already a seasoned radio actor. He went on to appear in small parts in several films including The Flying Leathernecks (1951) with John Wayne.

Stalmaster at a screening of The Right Stuff in 2007 - Charley Gallay/Getty Images
Stalmaster at a screening of The Right Stuff in 2007 - Charley Gallay/Getty Images

In 1968, Stalmaster became the first casting director to have his name appear alone on the screen in the credits for The Thomas Crown Affair, with Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway.

Other films which he cast included In the Heat of the Night, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Harold and Maude, Being There, First Blood, Tootsie, Nine ½ Weeks, The Untouchables and The Bonfire of the Vanities. The director John Frankenheimer noted: “If you’ve got Lynn Stalmaster to cast your movie, you have a damn good chance of having a good movie.”

It was Stalmaster who found LeVar Burton, then a university student, to play the part of Kunta Kinte in the landmark series about slavery, Roots (1977). He got John Travolta his break in the sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter and also cast Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff (1983). Others who owed much early success to him included Jeff Bridges, Jon Voight and James Caan. In 2016, the “Master Caster’s” contribution to cinema was acknowledged with the award of an honorary Oscar.

Lynn Stalmaster was twice divorced and is survived by a son and a daughter.

Lynn Stalmaster, born November 17 1927, died February 12 2021