Huffman made Eastwood legit

For your average moviegoing audiences, those World War II vets in Clint Eastwood’s “Flags of Our Fathers” are just a bunch of old guys doing what they do best: act.

But for the legit cognoscenti, the names and faces of Len Cariou, George Grizzard, George Hearn and Harve Presnell are above-the-title thesps who represent not only thousands of Broadway perfs but four Tonys and a slew of noms. Whether it be “Sweeney Todd,” “A Delicate Balance,” “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” “La Cage aux Folles” or “Seascape,” they’ve done it onstage and they’ve done it with distinction.

Unfortunately, the person responsible for this concentrated deluge of seasoned acting talent in “Flags of Our Fathers” did not live to see the fruition of what had been years of touting and championing the best of Broadway. At age 62, veteran casting director Phyllis Huffman died on March 2.

“Those actors were all her ideas,” says Huffman’s associate, Geoffrey Miclat, who now works with Ellen Lewis Casting in Gotham. “She knew all these amazing theater actors.”

One wouldn’t think of Eastwood as necessarily legit-prone in his casting choices. But after working with Huffman on no fewer than 21 movies, he obviously trusted her eye for talent.

Regarding Cariou & Co., Huffman had an easy sell, according to Miclat.

“She brought them to his attention, and Clint loved all of them,” he says. “It was almost as simple as that.”

Despite their extensive legit credits and more than a few screen roles — Grizzard memorably played Paul Newman’s best friend in the 1960 weeper “From the Terrace” — Eastwood nonetheless did require auditions of his vets.

“Clint doesn’t do director sessions,” Miclat says. “He goes purely on tape, and everybody has to audition.”

Huffman read with the four men on the East Coast and then sent the results to Eastwood, who quickly approved. While such movie activity bodes well for New York theater actors, both old and young, casting directors are hardly in accord as to whether “Flags” signals a major trend.

In their opinion, for every Tony-blessed actress like Anika Noni Rose in “Dreamgirls,” there is a Jennifer Hudson who came to the movie tuner with little stage experience. The Toronto-based production of the “Hairspray” movie, despite its close proximity to New York, counts few legit actors in its ranks.

“We cast so many young people. They hadn’t had time to become stage stars,” says Richard Hicks of Firefly Casting.

His biz partner, David Rubin, does admit a preference for the theatrically trained.

“If I’m looking to make a leap of faith on an actor, and I have to choose between one who has done a few films and an actor who has worked onstage, I will always gravitate to the stage actor,” he says. “Theater is the only medium in which, once the director is done, the actor is completely in charge of their performance.”

Still, Rubin’s rule is hardly original. “From the early silent films on, Hollywood has always looked to the best of New York theater for (its) next generation of stars,” he says.

Ellen Lewis casts for several New York-based directors, and while Mike Nichols might showcase more legit actors than, say, Martin Scorsese, it’s generally for a very good, specific reason. “On something like ‘The Departed,’ for instance, it was about the Irish mob, and obviously we did a lot of local casting out of Boston,” Lewis recalls.

Also, in recent years, more and more actors have begun to direct. “Both Ed Harris and Todd Field were actors, and as actors they appreciate actors with craft,” says casting director Todd Thaler, referring to their films “Pollock” and “Little Children,” which he cast.

It works the other way, too. While casting director Bernard Telsey put a slew of stage actors (Norbert Leo Butz, Amy Ryan, Alison Pill, Matthew Morrison) into Steve Carell’s new film “Dan in Real Life,” he’s also the man who started the “American Idol” trend on Broadway when he took a chance on Frenchie Davis in the long-running stage hit “Rent,” which he also casts.

“Whenever we see someone who loses ‘American Idol,’ we get excited,” he says. “They aren’t going to have a 10-year record deal, and so they are available for theater.” If, of course, they can also act, sort of.

Telsey wears two hats. In addition to casting films, he’s an artistic director at MCC, an Off Broadway theater company that has a rep for giving TV and film stars, like Jeremy Piven (in Neil LaBute’s “Fat Pig”), a shot at their New York stage debuts.

“Because I also cast for a living,” says Telsey, “we get those phone calls: ‘My client is looking to do a play.’” After all, he adds, “Just because they’re in a TV show (or film) doesn’t mean they can’t do something else.”

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