Colleagues of legendary casting director Mike Fenton remembered the industry veteran as a tireless champion of actors who had a keen eye for talent, a great sense of humor and a full life outside of work with a wide circle of friends.
Fenton, who died Dec. 30 at the age of 85, had nearly 300 casting credits to his name and helped launch the careers of such stars as Harrison Ford, Richard Dreyfuss, Drew Barrymore and Robert Downey Jr. He won the Casting Society of America’s Artios Award in 1996 for Best Casting for TV Nighttime Special for “Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree” and again in 2000 Best Casting for TV Miniseries for “Arabian Nights”
Graham Yost, screenwriter and showrunner known for “Broken Arrow,” “Speed” and FX’s “Justified,” became friendly with Fenton through a running club dubbed Flying Squirrels that the casting pro founded in the 1980s. Yost met his wife, Connie, through the group.
“He was just the sweetest guy and very funny,” Yost said. The Flying Squirrels used to meet every Saturday in Santa Monica, and it was Fenton who looked out for the group of runners as they ran along the tight streets. “He would yell, ‘Car!’ even if it were a mile away,” Yost recalled.
Over the years, the running group faded but its members kept in touch. Years later, a few members started playing poker every Sunday, and even through the COVID lockdown the group would meet over Zoom to play. Yost noted, Fenton was in a nursing home, and had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease a few years ago, but “it was a way we could see Mike.”
The last time Yost saw Fenton was at the 2016 Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences tribute to three casting legends: Fenton, Lynn Stalmaster and Juliet Taylor. “It was such a great thing to see this tribute to Mike, and all the people they found,” Yost said.
“E.T” star Henry Thomas, one of Fenton’s most notable discoveries, was also present that night. “(Thomas) had that incredible audition (for ‘E.T.’), and the clincher was that he got that job,” Yost said.
As demonstrated in the clip posted below, Fenton can be heard off-screen working with Thomas during his audition for what would become the 1982 blockbuster directed by Spielberg. At the end of the reading, Fenton tells Thomas he got the job. “Henry was just amazing, and he (Fenton) would tell great stories. He would do anything for you,” Yost said.
Yost said Fenton’s skill came in part because he always had unconventional ideas about matching actors with roles. Yost cited the decision to cast Sally Field in “Sybil,” the landmark 1976 TV movie about a woman battling multiple personalities, as an example of a Fenton inspiration that turned an actor into a star. While Dianne Crittenden served as the film’s casting director, Yost says, Fenton “changed her life because no one thought of her for that. He was the champion of that idea. He changed her life from ‘The Flying Nun to (future) Academy Award winner.”
Actress Frances Fisher cited Fenton’s role in elevating the role of the casting director as well.
“He unionized casting directors by founding @CSAcasting,” Fisher wrote of Fenton’s work as a co-founder of Casting Society of America in 1982.
“Doctor Who” casting director Andy Pryor remembered Fenton on Twitter. “R.I.P. Mike Fenton, Casting Director of so many of our favorites. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “E.T.,” the “Indiana Jones” films, “The Goonies,” “Back to the Future” & many more. Thank you for all that joy.”
Amblin Entertainment tweeted a poignant tribute from director Steven Spielberg. “Mike Fenton, who was inarguably one of the top casting agents in our industry for decades and essential to key Steven Spielberg and Amblin Entertainment films, has passed at the age of 85.”
Mike Fenton, who was inarguably one of the top casting agents in our industry for decades and essential to key Steven Spielberg and Amblin Entertainment films, has passed at the age of 85.
Steven Spielberg pays tribute to Mr. Fenton today as we at Amblin note his passing. pic.twitter.com/k6Badz6I2p
— Amblin (@amblin) January 2, 2021
“Gremlins” director Joe Dante shared, “RIP Mike Fenton, one of the best casting directors in the business! I worked with him on “Twilight Zone,” “Innerspace,” “The Burbs,” and the best-cast film I ever made, “The Second Civil War,” with 90 speaking parts. I never met anyone who loved their work more.”
Producer Jane Kelly Kosek shared on Facebook, “So sad to hear that Mike Fenton, one of our casting directors of our film “Not Since You,” passed away today. He helped us put together such a wonderful cast for “Not Since You.” He also cast “E.T.”, “The Goonies” and “Back to the Future!” He was a nice man too. RIP”
“Criminal Minds” casting director Lisa Zambetti called Fenton’s death “such a loss.”
On Instagram, casting director Jennifer Ajemian, whose credits include Amazon Prime’s “North of Boston,” wrote that Fenton’s passing was “very sad news for the casting community. We are such admirers of Mike’s extensive work and contribution to the casting craft.”
While “Iron Will” producer and President of Seismic Pictures, Robert Schwartz wrote, “The end of 2020 saw the passing of casting director extraordinaire, Mike Fenton, one of my favorite people in Hollywood. We worked together on several movies and he was simply the best and such a lovely, kind and generous person. RIP Mike.”
“Blazing Saddles” writer Andrew Bergman remembered Fenton via his Twitter page. “A lovely guy. Helped cast “The Freshman” and “Honeymoon in Vegas.” Great taste and open to surprises.”
A lovely guy. Helped cast The Freshman and Honeymoon in Vegas. Great taste and open to surprises.
— Andrew Bergman (@andy_bergman) January 2, 2021
Actor, writer and producer Ryan Paul James wrote about attending a casting workshop that Fenton hosted. “I took Mike Fenton’s casting director workshop back in Orlando, Florida in 1996. There was only a handful of us actors and we went to Boston Market for lunch. He had the greatest casting stories,” James wrote.
“I remember him telling me at that lunch that there’s a chance I will never get in his office for an audition cause there are so many actors in LA. Fast forward 8 years later, my first year in LA and guess who I got to audition for. When I reminded him of that story, he laughed and called me in a couple more times for auditions. R.I.P. Mike.”
“Avatar” actor Woody Schultz also remembered taking classes with Fenton.
Sad to hear about #MikeFenton. Truly one of the all-time great casting directors and a helluva nice guy. As a young actor I took a series of classes with him and he took such joy in sharing his wisdom with us. Grateful for the experience. Sending love to his family and friends.
— Woody Schultz #BlackLivesMatter (@UGottaWoody) January 2, 2021
Producer David Latt also had a full-circle moment when he hired Fenton to cast what would become one of Fenton’s last project, the cheeky 2014 TV movie “Sharknado 2: The Second One.” “In the 1980s I interned under Mike Fenton and @marciliroff. It was a dream job then & a fulfilled dream when I hired Mike 30 years later to cast #Sharknado 2. #RIP. You taught me only the good stuff.”
Watch Thomas’ audition below and listen as Fenton coaches the actor: