Saturday, October 27, 2012

Casey Siemaszko, Oct. 9, 1987

Standard-Examiner staff

OGDEN -- Filmmakers must wonder if half the kids in America want to be in the movies. Before the casting calls for “Three O'Clock High" were over, about 3,200 actors had auditioned for the lead role.

Chicago-born actor Casey Siemaszko was one of the 3,200 who showed up for casting calls in Los Angeles, New York or Chicago – or who sent in a videotape (they came from 17 states) – hoping to win the part of high school journalism student Jerry Mitchell. Two and a half months later, in September 1986 – after a series of readings and screen tests – Siemaszko got the part. Four days later, he was in Ogden preparing for his first starring role in a motion picture.

"The first time I read for (the part) I had just finished 'Gardens of Stone,’” Siemaszko (pronounced Sham-OSH-koe) said during a lunch break at Ogden High School last November. "I was a soldier in that film and I had a buzz-cut and flat-top and I wore a white T-shirt. … I didn't feel like I looked right for the part.

"He's right," said the film's director, Phil Joanou. "I don't know how many times I watched that tape of him with my hand held up to (the TV monitor to) cover his hair."

As he sat eating a plate of vegetables in a small office behind the auditorium stage, it was hard to imagine Siemaszko looking any different than the 18-year-old character he plays in “Three O’Clock High." In reality he's seven years older.

"Everybody (here) in the school thinks I'm 20," the actor said shortly after taking a seat. "But I'm actually 25, have a college degree, etc. I don't want them to know how old I am, at least not yet."

Siemaszko was born Kazimierz Siemaszko to a Polish father and British mother in Chicago.

"I use Casey because having two difficult names is too much, I think, he explained.”The reason I didn't change my last name is because my parents are immigrants and I'm first-generation. "That’s part of it. The Siemaszko family in Poland is a big acting family. And in the future I hope to do film there, as well, because I speak the language fluently and I read it and write it."

In fact, the actor said, all the early stage work he did was in Polish. "My dad and I were in a Polish folk dance group," he explained, adding that he went to Polish Saturday school and was a member of a Polish Boy Scout troop. Saturday school, he said, was the toughest to get used to.

"It was sort of like, 'Wow, I’m gonna miss cartoons on Saturday morning.' But in the long run it's turned out to be quite a good experience. I went to school there for two years, so I really got to learn the language and got a feel for the culture. So I’m a real Polish person.”

After attending St. Ignatius College Prep, a strict Jesuit-run high school -- Siemaszko earned a degree from the prestigious Goodman School of Drama in Chicago.

"While I was there I realized that there was more to acting than I thought," the actor said between bites of his lunch. "So then I really took it seriously and I worked there professionally, after school, for about a year and a half."

During that time, he got a taste of what it was like to perform in front of a camera. He did a TV pilot with Robert Conrad -- "Hard Knox" -- for NBC; industrial training films for McDonalds, Brunswick and Pizza Hut; scored a bit part in the film "Class," and continued his stage work.

'"It was a good environment,” he recalled, “because right now Chicago is a happening theater town and you get a lot of good habits that way."

Still, he wasn't getting the jobs he wanted. "I was getting really frustrated because all the leads (in film and television) are cast in L.A. or New York." Siemaszko already had his union cards and some experience, and his Chicago agent had put him in touch with' an agent on the West Coast.

"And (the people in L.A.) were just like, 'You gotta come out and we'll get you some work.' So I said, 'Mom, Dad, I gotta go.' And I just packed up my VW bug with $500 or $600, my guitars, my TV set, my VCR and I was gone."

The trek west was in March 1984, and Siemaszko was out of work for almost a year.

“It was pretty slim for a while," he said. "I was praying to God that my tax return would come so I would be able to survive a couple of months."

When he wasn't running to auditions, Siemaszko worked for a moving company.

"I looked at it like starting a business. The first two years of your business is like a rocky road." Then he smiled, twisted his fork in circles in the cheese sauce on his plate, looked up and admitted. "But if it wouldn't have clicked in four years I'd probably still have been doing it."

His tenacious attitude came from his parents, Siemaszko said, who taught him to finish everything he started. And eventually he got work – a recurring character on "St. Elsewhere" as Lizzie Westphal's college boyfriend.

"I was a little beefier then," the slim actor said. "I've trimmed down some. I eat a lot of vegetables and drink a gallon of water every day."

The TV part was just the ticket he'd been looking for – a recurring character on a critically praised show – and so casting directors started giving him jobs, including small roles in "Secret Admirer," "Back to the Future" and “Stand by Me." His three or four lines in “Back to the Future" got his name in front of the folks at Steven Spielberg's production company, Amblin Entertainment, which produced the film. And subsequently, he was able to read for “Amazing Stories," landing the part of the doomed tail-gunner in the Spielberg-directed episode titled "The Mission."

When Siemaszko interviewed with Spielberg for the part, he said they ended up talking about assembling airplane models because both had done it when they were young.

"I really didn't even know who he was when I walked into the room," Siemaszko said. "They were all in the room talking and I thought, 'Wow, which one of them is Steven Spielberg?’ But he's a real human individual."

Siemaszko seems to be much the same -- a down-to-earth sort of guy who enjoys the process of acting, even if it means he's always playing characters who are younger than his actual age.

"The fact that I'm older and that I play younger characters is only a plus," he said. "Because in this particular role there are so many levels and so many ups and downs." Siemaszko's character, Jerry, is a straight-laced student who spends the entire film trying to avoid having to fight the campus bully after school.

"In terms of, ‘Am I going to be playing 18-year-olds for the rest of my life?' Well, sometimes it's sort of a drag, but in terms of  your whole life it's pretty small. Right now I can play a larger range because I'm older – upstairs -- I'm older," he said, tapping his index finger on the side of his head.

Siemaszko, who killed time between takes entertaining the cast and crew by playing blues guitar, said it was fun to finally be the star. And "Three O'Clock High" was particularly enjoyable to make. Or, to use his words, "There's a good mojo on the set."

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