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Mike Fenton, the legendary casting director who worked on the “Back to the Future” franchise, “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and scores of other classic movies and TV shows, has died. He was 85.
Fenton co-founded what is now known as Casting Society of America in 1982. He was a prominent casting director for more than 40 years, with a mile-long resume that stretched from “The Andy Griffith Show” and “That Girl” to “Chinatown,” “American Graffiti,” “The Godfather II,” “Blade Runner,” “A Christmas Story,” “Norma Rae,” “Footloose,” “Honeymoon in Vegas” and “Chaplin.”
“Working with Mike Fenton was like working in a candy store — he made casting a blast,” Steven Spielberg said in a statement. “His fervent support of actors was the stuff of legend, and after landing a part, any actor’s smile was rarely as wide as Mike’s. He didn’t just support actors, he launched crusades. And he was a pretty good actor himself, as he would always read off-camera dialogue to create energy and mojo for the person reading for the part. Much like the actors for whom he advocated, Mike loved his role — and those around him loved him so much, and I will miss him dearly.”
Like Spielberg, producer-director Frank Marshall had a more than 40-year professional relationship with Fenton. Fenton cast Marshall’s first feature as a helmer, 1990’s “Arachnophobia,” which starred Jeff Daniels and Harley Jane Kozak.
“Mike had an extraordinary impact on so many people, both inside and outside the film business. I will never forget our 40 years of friendship, his boundless enthusiasm and his great hair,” Marshall told Variety.
Casting Society of America co-presidents Russell Boast and Rich Mento hailed the organization’s co-founder as a leader in the industry who advanced the standing of casting as a discipline.
“Casting Society of America is saddened about the death of co-founder Mike Fenton. His remarkable accomplishments and his incredible work in elevating the awareness and appreciation of the craft of casting defines his legacy in the entertainment industry. CSA extends its love and support to his cherished family and friends,” Boast and Mento said in a statement.
Spielberg noted that Fenton was particularly helpful when he was feeling indecisive about a key role.
“Mike helped me get over every moment of indecision when I had three good options and couldn’t choose,” Spielberg said. “He was as responsible for some actors getting their big breaks in my films as me.”
Fenton attended UCLA with the intention of becoming a cinematographer. But after graduating in 1956, he wound up working as an agent, first for Lew Wasserman’s MCA and then at Ashley-Steiner. He joined the staff of Paramount Pictures in 1963 but left two years later to become head of casting for T&L Productions, the outfit behind the groundbreaking 1960s NBC drama series “I Spy.”
By the early 1970s he was working on some of the most popular and most cutting-edge movies in Hollywood. In a 1990 profile, Fenton told Utah’s Deseret News, “I’ve been fortunate to work with some of the greatest directors in the history of this business.”
From 1979 to 1982 alone, Fenton worked on such notable movies as “Breaking Away,” “The Amityville Horror,” “And Justice for All,” “Porky’s” and “Poltergeist,” in addition to the 1982 blockbuster “E.T.” and the cult-fave “Blade Runner.”
Fenton’s success in spotting rising stars and matching actors to roles was rooted in his “exquisite taste” and decency as a person, Marshall said.
“He had a gift for spotting and nurturing talent and a heart of gold,” he said.
Fenton had several partners in his casting companies over the years, Fred Roos, Jane Feinberg, Judy Taylor and Ann Frederick. He earned a lifetime achievement kudo from the Casting Society of America in 1989.
Fenton’s final credits included the Syfy TV movie “Sharknado 2: The Second One” and the 2002-2003 ABC series “Dinotopia.”
His long list of notable projects included feature films “To End All Wars,” “Dante’s Peak,” “Congo,” “Blown Away,” “Not Without My Daughter,” “Total Recall,” “Bird on a Wire,” “Turner & Hooch,” “Beaches,” “Short Circuit,” “Turk 182,” “History of the World: Part I,” “Thank God It’s Friday,” “The Deep,” “The Last Tycoon,” “The Bad News Bears,” “Shampoo,” “Young Frankenstein” and “Dillinger.”
Other TV credits included “Gomer Pyle USMC,” “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father,” “Square Pegs,” “The Paper Chase” and Spielberg’s 1985-86 NBC rendition of “Amazing Stories.”
As busy as Fenton was, he had time for extracurricular pursuits. In the 1980s he founded the Flying Squirrels, a running club. The group grew to as many as 40 people who would meet Saturday mornings at the corner of San Vicente Boulevard and Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica for a run followed by a breakfast outing, Marshall recalled.
Fenton’s survivors include his wife, Irene; a son, Mick, from his first marriage to Janet Monfort.