Documentary shines light on Wallis Nicita ’67 and other great casting directors

Wallis Nicita '67
Wallis Nicita '67

Over more than 40 years in the film business, Wallis Nicita ’67 has done it all — from casting to producing to screenwriting. Thanks to a new documentary, casting directors like her are finally getting some recognition for the important role they play in the filmmaking process.

The central figure in “Casting By,” a documentary that aired on HBO, is Marion Dougherty, who was Nicita’s mentor and first boss in the film industry. As the Hollywood studio system, with its rosters of contracted actors, collapsed in the 1960s and ’70s, Dougherty, who died in 2011 at age 88, paved the way for a new model in which independent casting directors kept tabs on young talent and recommended them for auditions.

“The casting director is the first person a director calls when they get a script,” Nicita explains. “If you have a script with lots of juicy parts in it, you want to talk to the person who really knows the labor pool. It’s not the director’s job to stay au courant with the latest list of actors.”

Over the years, Nicita worked her way up from answering Dougherty’s phones to casting some of the biggest movies of the 1980s, including “Caddyshack,” “The Big Chill” and “Silverado.” Along the way she helped launch the careers of such stars as Kevin Costner, William Hurt and Kathleen Turner.

Later, she produced several of her own films, including the well-known Cher vehicle “Mermaids.” Recently, she sold an original screenplay to horror director Eli Roth.

Nicita credits the critical-thinking skills she learned at the College for helping her succeed in different roles in Hollywood. “Everyone (today) wants a technical education, but critical thinking is something you need to learn how to do to live your life. That’s what liberal arts gives you,” she said.

Many of Nicita’s favorite film industry memories are of rough-and-tumble New York in the 1970s, when filmmakers were seen as artists and given a wide berth to pursue their vision. She fondly recalls working on the casting of Sidney Lumet’s “Network” for Dougherty associate Juliet Taylor, now best known as Woody Allen’s longtime casting director.

“Everyone knew it was a brilliant script,” Nicita says. “Everyone was pounding on the door to get in, and I was the one answering the door. One aspiring actor pushed in the door and knocked me out. I fell to the floor. He was intent on barging into a casting session.”

The police arrived, and a revived Nicita had to help explain that Dougherty’s office — full of young, beautiful women — was not a brothel, as they had first suspected.  “One of the officers turned to me before he left and asked me if he could come back and read later.”

“Casting By” sheds light on the unsung role of casting in a movie’s success. There’s no Academy Award for it, and Nicita believes there should be. If Dougherty hadn’t recommended then-unknown Jon Voight for “Midnight Cowboy,” for instance, would that movie have won as many Oscars (three) as it did?

Nicita believes director John Schlesinger still would have won but that the actors selected to star in the film — Voight and Dustin Hoffman — were critical to its success. “At least 80 percent of the success of the film is whether you believe that everything the actor says is true,” she says. “And that’s not easy to do.”

Michael Agresta

June 2, 2014