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Don Phillips Dies: ‘Dazed and Confused’ & ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’ Casting Director, ‘Melvin and Howard’ Producer Was 80

·4-min read

Casting director and producer Don Phillips, who helped launch the careers of such actors as Sean Penn, Matthew McConaughey and Mary Steenburgen, passed away on Thanksgiving Day from natural causes. He would have turned 81 on Dec. 21.

Phillips received his first break when he landed an entry-level job in the casting department of filmmaker Otto Preminger’s 1971 movie Such Good Friends. Impressed by Phillips, Preminger took an ad in Variety and Backstage to praise the novice’s work on the film.

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The acknowledgement led to Phillips getting hired to do extras casting on Sidney Lumet’s Serpico starring Al Pacino with his job subsequently expanding to casting the entire film. Lumet then tapped him as casting director on his next film, Dog Day Afternoon, also starring Pacino. Phillips is credited with holding out for actor John Cazale to be cast opposite Pacino as Sal.

Phillips went on to cast the cult 1976 movie Car Wash written by Joel Schumacher and directed by Michael Schultz. Phillips also worked on the 1978 National Lampoon’s Animal House with his casting partner Michael Chinich.

Phillips expanded into producing in 1974. His first movie as a producer was Universal’s 1980 film Melvin and Howard, for which Phillips hired then-little known filmmaker Jonathan Demme to direct the story about a small town man’s relationship with Howard Hughes (portrayed by Jason Robards). For the female lead, Phillips discovered actress Mary Steenburgen. The film earned Best Screenplay Oscar for writer Bo Goldman, and Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Steenburgen as well as an Oscar nomination for Robards.

Phillips went on to cast the 1982 coming-of-age comedy, Fast Times At Ridgemont High, directed by Amy Heckerling , written by Cameron Crowe and produced by Art Linson. Phillips found then-newcomer Sean Penn for the lead, Jeff Spicoli.

Story goes that, after Penn’s first audition did not go well, Phillips asked the young actor to come back at the end of the day to give it another try. Penn nailed the second audition and was hired on the spot. Phillips then helped assemble a cast that introduced such actors as Jennifer Jason Leigh, Forest Whitaker, Phoebe Cates, Judge Reinhold, Nicolas Cage, and Eric Stoltz, as well as Ray Walston as Mr. Hand.

Phillips befriended and lived for a time with playwright David Rabe who wrote the dark-comedy play Hurlyburly, loosely based on their personal experiences in Hollywood. It was staged on Broadway with William Hurt, Christopher Walken and Harvey Keitel starring and earned a Tony nomination. Hurlyburly was later adapted into a film starring Penn (who also did the role on stage at one time), Robin Wright, Garry Shandling, Meg Ryan, and Anna Paquin.

Phillips returned to producing with Penn’s directorial debut, The Indian Runner starring the then-unknown Viggo Mortensen (another Phillips discovery, and later close friend), David Morse, Patricia Arquette, Charles Bronson, and Valera Golino.

Phillips then worked with Richard Linklater as casting director on the iconic Dazed and Confused for which he met unknown actor Matthew McConaughey in an Austin bar, and cast him as Wooderson.

Phillips also is credited with discovering and casting such actors in their first major roles as Rory Cochrane, Ben Affleck, Cole Hauser, Renee Zelwegger, Milla Jovovich, Anthony Rapp, Parker Posey and Nicky Katt.

He worked with director Kevin Smith on Mallrats, which starred Affleck, Claire Forlani, and Shannen Doherty among others. Phillips also cast the Penn-directed The Crossing Guard with Jack Nicholson, Anjelica Huston, Robin Wright, David Morse and Robbie Robertson.

In 1997, Phillips worked with director David Fincher on his film, The Game starring Michael Douglas and Penn with Steve Golin producing.

Phillips reunited to work with director Linklater on The Newton Boys, headlined by McConaughey and Ethan Hawke. In 2000, Phillips re-teamed with old-friend Linson on Sunset Strip starring Rory Cochrane, Simon Baker, Anna Friel, and Tommy Flanagan. Phillips also returned to work with Penn on The Pledge which starred Nicholson, Benicio Del Toro, Patricia Clarkson and Aaron Eckhart.

In recent years, Phillips was developing a feature film Open Heart to be directed by Edoardo Ponti (The Life Ahead, which starred his mother, Sophia Loren). It is based on the true life story of Michael Debakey and Denton Cooley who performed the first artificial heart transplant. Phillips’ real-life nephew Dr. Chris Allison, an orthopedic oncology surgeon, was also involved with developing the screenplay.

Phillips was preceded in death by his wife, makeup artist Dorothy Pearl (Tootsie, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Miss Congeniality).

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