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HOLLYWOOD CASTING DIRECTOR HAS BUILT AN UNRIVALED REPUTATION

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Mike Fenton took the classic road to success - he started in the mailroom and worked his way up to the top. Only in Fenton's case, getting to the top has meant making other people rich and famous.

Fenton, a Los Angeles casting director with more than a quarter of a century in the field, has helped put some of today's best-recognized actors in some of the biggest movies of the past 20 years.Fenton says it's hard to say how critical the role of a casting director is in the development of a movie.

"But if I may, I will quote Robert Altman, who has stated on more than one occasion that casting is 90 percent of filming," says Fenton from his Universal City office.

"I would never say that the casting director makes 100 percent of the choices because we don't. We hopefully guide the director, make the director aware of actors with whom he or she may not be as familiar as the casting director is, and generally support the director in choosing charismatic and interesting individuals who have the physical and mental traits that lend themselves to portraying the character as developed by the author."

With his partners - first Fred Roos, then Jane Feinberg and now Judy Taylor - Fenton has built an unrivaled casting reputation in film and television. His peers in the Casting Society of America, of which he is president, last year gave him a lifetime achievement award.

Fenton's movie credits include "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "Chinatown," "American Graffiti," "The Godfather II," "Norma Rae," "The Long Riders," "E.T. - The Extraterrestrial," "Poltergeist," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," "Beaches" and all three "Back to the Future" entries.

"I've been fortunate to work with some of the greatest directors in the history of this business," says Fenton, 55.

Fenton graduated from the University of California at Los Angeles film school in 1956 with the intention of becoming a cinematographer.

"But I couldn't get in the union, and when I came into the job market if you couldn't get in the union you had no career," says Fenton.

He enrolled in law school at the University of Southern California but left after a year ("I just couldn't see sitting in a room reading contracts the rest of my life," he says) and went to work at the Music Corporation of America.

"Just like so many of my colleagues and friends in this business, we all started somewhere, and I started in the mailroom," says Fenton. He became an agent at MCA, then worked at the Ashley-Steiner Agency before joining Paramount Pictures Corp. as a casting director in 1963.

He left Paramount in 1965 to become head of casting for T&L Productions, where he also served as associate producer of the Robert Culp-Bill Cosby series "I Spy." In 1971, Fenton and Roos formed their own casting agency. Roos left to join Francis Ford Coppola as a producer, and Fenton joined forces with Feinberg in 1973.

Becoming a casting director rather than an agent didn't make his life any more stressful, says Fenton, whose upcoming films include "Bird on a Wire" with Goldie Hawn and Mel Gibson and "The Freshman" with Marlon Brando and Matthew Broderick.

"We're just the other side of the coin. A casting director cannot in any stretch of the imagination make anywhere near the money an agent can make, but we see the business from a different point, and we do get our names on motion pictures and television shows.

"I mean, to have cast `E.T.' and `Back to the Future' and `Cuckoo's Nest' - nobody else can say that."

He even gets some compensation for his lost goal of making movies.

"We have more films than any director in history because we do so many in a given year," says Fenton, who still would like someday, given the time and opportunity, to direct a project. "We've cast over 200 motion pictures. There's not been a director living who has directed 200 motion pictures, nor will there ever be."

Occasionally, Fenton does seminars around the country to help regional actors decide whether to head for Los Angeles or New York. Last year he went to Detroit, St. Louis and Orlando, Fla., and this year he is going to Knoxville, Tenn., and to Chicago. He can offer the kind of advice only industry insiders can give.

"I am not an acting teacher or an acting coach," says Fenton, "but given the experience that I've had in this business, I have seen enough and worked with enough actors over the years that what I hope to do is to give information to aspiring actors in order to help them in getting into the mainstream - Los Angeles or New York.

"I don't do seminars expecting to discover talent, although it has happened on occasion."

Fenton, who says the most important thing for actors to remember is to take their jobs seriously, feels talented people don't necessarily succeed.

"It's luck and timing," he says. "A lot of people are very talented and never get a job."

It's a matter of too's:

"Too many people, too many actors, too much competition, too few jobs."