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Just Imagine…Everyone as a Casting Director

LeVar Burton via Wikimedia, Tweigel59 CC BY-SA 4.0

Lynn Stalmaster was born in Omaha, Nebraska but moved in his youth with his family to Beverly Hills, California. His career interests were in TV and movies. After a brief acting career, he moved into the production side of the business. He eventually ended up in casting.

Stalmaster was noted for pushing young actors into roles that gave them the career boost that they needed. Can you imagine the movie The Graduate without Dustin Hoffman in the starring role? Or the Superman films of the late 70s and early 80s without Christopher Reeves? The TV mini-series Roots would not have been the same without LeVar Burton in the lead role. John Travolta would maybe never had a long acting career without the start that Stalmaster helped him get with the TV show Welcome Back, Kotter.

Lynn Stalmaster cast over 400 movies and TV shows. This included four Academy Award Winning movies and many of the most popular TV shows at the time. He was the first casting director to win an Academy Award. When he was given the Academy Award, the actor Bruce Dern said, “Lynn gave me and my entire generation the opportunity to dare to dream that we could make a difference or matter.”

Creating the opportunity for others “to dare to dream” should be a mission for all of us. As each of our careers mature, we need to become “casting directors” for young people who just need the opportunity to show how they can perform. Just imagine the joy of seeing someone succeed—someone who might never have had the chance without your efforts.

As “casting directors,” we run up against the caste system that dominates our society. Who gets seen? Who gets a chance? While we have made strides in improving diversity and inclusion, there still exists a caste system when candidates are being considered for certain roles. Certainly race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, age, and other biological factors are intertwined into our society’s sense of caste. But there are other dimensions as well. These include the schools you attended, your economic status, your religion, your political beliefs, and other factors that should have no effect on qualifications for a role. All these factors can work to hide someone from view–to prevent them from ever getting that break they need in order to flourish.

Each of us should do our part in fighting caste systems that deny opportunities for people “to dare to dream.” Just imagine how different our society would be if everyone of us were principled casting directors. How many Dustin Hoffmans, Christopher Reeves, LeVar Burtons, or John Travoltas might we discover? Just imagine what each of us can do to break apart the caste system that denies roles for many who might be well suited for them. Lyn Stalmaster made a practice of “being open” and had a reputation for casting against type, enabling him to find new faces. Imagine if we practiced that active form of openness. Just imagine how each of us can become more aware of human talents that may not be readily evident because of the obscuring powers of caste.

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“They [gifted film directors] were always open to a new talent they’d never encountered. And incidentally, ‘opened’ is one of my favorite words. Because as I’ve said many times, you never know where or when you will find the answer. And I’ve found the answer in some very strange places.” —Lynn Stalmaster (from his 2016 Academy Award Honors remarks)


This is part of our “Just Imagine” series of occasional posts, inviting you to join us in imagining positive possibilities for a citizen-centered democracy. The story above is based on a real situation, with some details changed to protect confidentiality.