Interview with Martin Casella ("Marty Casey")

Recently I was able to speak via email with Martin Casella, who played the role of the paranormal investigator "Marty." He offered many valuable insights regarding the filming process and his work on "Poltergeist." Martin is currently a playwright, and his most recent production is "Scituate." You can check out the web sites for all three of his recent plays at:

Many thanks goes to Martin for taking the time to speak with me about the film!

1. I know that you started out as an assistant to Spielberg on some of his previous films. Can you talk a bit about how you got the role, and what it was like working on set? Have you kept in contact with him over the years?
When I left working for Steven, I went back to acting and writing.  About three months after I left, I got a call from Mike Fenton's office (the casting director) asking if I would come in and read for the role of Tak in POLTERGEIST.  Having worked on the prep for the film, I had a vague idea of what I would be asked to.  (Heavy breathing and being scared would probably be very important in the audition...)  Which was exactly what happened.  I did my scene on videotape in the casting director's office and then went back to work; I was teaching high school drama at the time in Santa Monica, California.  The character of Tak, as one of the people on your website discussed, was named after the cinematographer who worked a lot with Jonathan Demme.  Sometime in the late spring I got a call from Steven's office inviting me to the first private screening of RAIDERS, on which I had spent a year working with Steven, Kathy K., Frank M.and George L.  I arrived at the screening early, not having seen Steven for a few months.  He was there by himself, nervously pacing.  When I arrived we shook hands, he asked me how I was doing, I said fine and that I had just been cast in a theatre production of THE LION IN WINTER.  He grinned, said congrats, looked very serious and muttered something about "I also heard you're going to be in my movie."  I looked stunned and then understood what he was trying to tell me.  And let out a yell you could have heard in Florida.  It was my first movie role, which also meant I was going to get my SAG card.  Plus I was one of the first people in the world to get to see RAIDERS, which as you can imagine was just utterly amazing.
I don't know about the other actor on your website who said the role was his - and then there were politics and suddenly the role wasn't his.  In the script the character was always referred to as "Dr. Ryan."  It was only called Marty during the shooting process.  As a matter of fact, I was surprised when I visited the set after my 5 week shoot - and during a take heard Beatrice Straight say the infamous line "Marty won't be coming back."  I whispered something to the AD that she had slipped and called me by the real name.  He told me that they had changed the character's name on the set that day.
I have kept in contact with Steven - but only occasionally.  About ten or so years ago, a buddy of mine in LA was producing a CD-ROM game called "Steven Spielberg's Director's Chair."  He worked hard to get me an interview to be a writer on the project.  I did get it and on the first day of story meetings I showed up and Steven did his little grin thing again and jokingly said "I know you."  I worked on the script for the CD-ROM for a few months, until they replaced me with the two writers who had written CASPER for Steven.  But a lot of my work is still in the CD-ROM, including character names and some dialogue.
Finally, in an example of how the world goes around, my sister now runs the Flight Operations Department at Dreamworks Aviation.  She actually speaks to Steven and Kate, their assistants, etc. nearly every day.
2.  In your famous "face tearing" scene, I know that it was actually Speilberg's hands doing the tearing-did you get to watch the sequence being shot?
I was there for the face-tearing scene but those are Steven's hands ripping at the dummy's face.  I gave Steven my watch and ring.  That scene had cost a lot of money to prep.  Steven had a blast doing it.  It was really fun watching him.  I always thought he wanted to be an actor.  By the way - you probably know this - but I had to go back to the set some weeks later and shoot an insert to smooth out the transition from me picking at something on my face to the face falling off.  By then I was in another play and had cut off all my long hair.  They had to find the dummy's wig and put it on me so it would match the previous footage.  (That's why my hair looks strange in one of the shots.)  Another bit of trivia: the make-up people spent three hours rigging me so that blood would seep out of my skin and then chunks of my face would fall off.  But because it was being a shot in a mirror, they rigged the wrong side of my face.  Once I was dressed and ready to shoot, Frank Marshall (who was the second unit director) realized there was a mistake and sent me back to make-up.  We shot the scene about two hours later.
above, Marty's stand in, a guy named Spielberg.
3. In the novelization, there are some scenes which were apparently thought up by the writer James Khan, and others from the script, which were not in the finished film. Some of these included your character Marty becoming "frozen" in space after the face tearing scene, in which he is stuck in the kitchen. He can't move, but he can still FEEL. Into the kitchen comes a horde of spiders, rats, and other insects which then begin crawling all over him, eating him alive until there is nothing left (this turns out to be a hallucination of his as well). Later, after the ghosts on the stairs sequence, Marty retreats into the downstairs bathroom to hide, but then transforms temporarily into "the beast." He proceeds to both lap water from the toilet, smash the bathroom mirror, and then he eats the contents of the medicine cabinet. Afterwards, he crawls out into the hallway, naked, and then stands up in front of Steve, Diane, and the other scientists, no longer possessed. Were you aware of these scenes, and was there discussion of any of them actually being shot? There was also some more with Marty when he goes upstairs toward the kids' room and gets bitten in the side. I'm guessing that a lot of these scenes were dreamed up by Khan and were never in the script.
About the novelization.  Nothing you described from the novel involving my character was in the shooting script, nor was any of it discussed.  EXCEPT - the scene where Marty went upstairs, opens the door to the kids' room and is bitten by the beast.  We shot that scene for the better part of day, with me looking around with a flashlight, seeing the room and going up to the door.  The door handle was rigged so that it turned and turned and turned - until it finally opened.  The something came out of the door, bit me in the side and lifted me high into the air, where I was left screaming.  That all took place during the scene where Carol Ann's spirit "passed through" Diane.  It was fun (if painful) shooting the scene, as I was rigged in a harness and lifted really high into the air while I was yelling.  My recollection was that Steven was there that day (I remember making a joke to him that involved the Peter Pan ride at Disneyland). The special effects guys also rigged my shirt with tubes that squirted out some gross shiny liquid (dishwashing soap) in the shape of a gigantic mouth - which was supposed to be ghost saliva but no matter how they shot it actually looked like ghost semen.  It was intended to look scary but everyone on the crew got the giggles.  I actually have some still photos of the scene, with me hanging in the air, screaming away.  Steven later told me the scene was cut because what Diane and the family were going through was much more important than what was happening to me. I couldn't agree more.
NOTE: Here's the scene Marty is talking about, from the shooting script:


He goes room to room looking for pranksters. When he gets to the active bedroom he hesitates, listens through the door, pulls in his courage and turns the knob. Of course, the door is locked. Tak is never without a trick. He slips a file from his utility belt and starts to jimmy the door. The lock gives and Tak easily turns the knob, and lets out an agonizing SCREAM! He falls backward holding his side, rolling over and over until he is at the top of
the carpeted staircase.

4. Do you recall filming any other scenes which weren't in the final film?
I don't recall shooting anything else that didn't end up in the film.  One thing that we did shoot that still makes me laugh about is when we shot the scene of Craig T. opening the door to the kid's room while we the ghost hunters were standing there, amazed, watching as all the toys in the room danced in the air.  It was all done with a blue screen - but Steven himself stood there off-camera with a pointer, making spooky noises and moving the pointer around so we would know where to look.  He would yell "LOOK HERE!  LOOK HERE!!"  Every once in a while he would go "Boo!" and we would all jump.
5. Regarding the sequels: Were you ever asked about appearing in "Poltergeist II"? Apparently Beatrice Straight's character Dr. Lesh was written into the script initially, but then she backed out and was replaced by Zelda. I think II would have been much better had they found some way to include Lesh, Ryan, and Marty. In addition, what did you think of II and III?
I was never asked to appear in any of the sequels.  I saw number two but wasn't thrilled with it.  By the time number three came out, I heard such terrible things about it I didn't go see it.  A trivia note - when I started writing screenplays in mid-eighties, my agent heard that MGM-UA was looking for a writer for another sequel - and contacted them, thinking it would be a good piece of publicity for the studio if one of the actors from the first film wrote one of the sequels.  Nothing ever came of it.
6. If there is a fourth film ever made, would you consider appearing in it (assuming it was a good script)? There have been some rumors floating around about MGM doing either a sequel or a remake (I hope the remake talk is false).
Oh David gee - if I was asked to be in a sequel I would do it in a second.  I am perfectly happy being a writer but I miss acting.  I'm not sure what my character would do 25 years after the original story took place, but it sure would be fun.
7. Has Warner Brothers approached you about contributing in some way to the 25th anniversary edition two disc DVD set of "Poltergeist," due to be released sometime this year? It would be great to hear you on a commentary track or something. If not, I can put you into contact with one of the WB DVD execs.
 It's strange but no one has ever contacted me in any way, shape or form about anything to do with the three years I worked as Steven's assistant, nor about the time I spent working on POLTERGEIST.  I always thought someone would want to know about what went on, what it was like, etc.  And since there aren't that many of us left from the original cast -- uh oh, the POLTERGEIST curse! -- I thought someone might contact me.  You are the first such person and I am flattered that you tracked me down. So I'm happy to answer your questions.  (Yikes I sound like some nutty old MGM star....)  If anyone at WB would like me to answer any questions and/or talk on the anniversary DVD, feel free to give them my name and e-mail address.
[Will do, Marty-I've passed along your info to my contact at WB. And thanks for the great interview!]
Marty sent me this cool story about actress Beatrice Straight:
I was a huge fan of Beatrice Straight's and when I found out I was getting to work with her I was so thrilled.  And she was amazing, both as an actress and a person.  She was such a class act - always polite, never getting angry, always knowing her lines, etc.  And she went through so much - having giant fans and air guns blown at her, having dirt and mud and goo poured onto her, having to spend hours staring at blank blue screens.  (She talked about how she worked harder on POLTERGEIST than she had on NETWORK; she joked about having won her Oscar for a scene that took one morning.)  But when we were shooting the long monologue she has when she talks to Robbie about ghosts and spirits of dead people, she had trouble with all the dialogue because as an older person it was hard to remember so many words.  She blew take after take - we were there for hours - and she got more upset and agitated - Tobe and Steven tried to make her comfortable  - we all did.  And finally, finally, we did a great take and she got to the last sentence of the speech, two whole pages, word perfect - and she forgot the last few words.  And this classy, kind, sweet wonderful Oscar-winning actor just shouted "FUCK!!!!!!" at the top of her lungs.  It was so unexpected that everyone was silent - and then burst into hysterical laughter.  Her outburst completely relaxed everyone.  We took a short break, Beatrice did the next take perfectly and we all went to lunch.
Here's Martin's bio, from:
Martin Casella

MARTIN CASELLA (Playwright) - Plays: THE IRISH CURSE (New York International Fringe Festival 2005 – Outstanding Playwriting Award; Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2006; off-Broadway, Fall 2007);  GRAND JUNCTION; BEAUTIFUL DREAMER; DESERT FIRE (w/Roger Holzberg); PAYDIRT; MATES (L.A. Weekly Award and Drama-Logue Award for Best New Play). One-Acts: GEORGE BUSH GOES TO HELL (New York Last Chance Texaco Play Festival; Ohio State One-Act Festival); THE BIG ENCHILADA (Cal Arts One-Act Festival.)  Musicals: SAINT HEAVEN (Stamford Center for the Arts, 2006; NYMF 2006 – Director’s Choice Award; TRU New Musicals Festival 2005; Stages 2003), PAPER MOON (Paper Mill Playhouse; Goodspeed; Fords; Walnut Street; two seasons at the Bunkamura Theatre, Tokyo), HAPPY HOLIDAYS (Pasadena Playhouse), TAKING CARE OF MRS. CARROLL (Bailiwick, Chicago) and DOO-DAH! (Stratford Festival Reading Series, Canada).   Films: ONE NIGHT STAND, directed by Talia Shire and starring Ally Sheedy and Frederic Forrest.  Daytime: ONE LIFE TO LIVE.  Mr. Casella wrote the upcoming feature TOM’S DAD, the tv movie BEHIND THE LENS and DADDY’S GIRL, a pilot for HBO.  He recently wrote A THOUSAND RIBBONS, a film about the African-American poet Phillis Wheatley.  Current theatre projects include PLAY IT COOL, a jazz musical; FREE MONEY, a musical about the invention of credit cards; a musical about the infamous TOKYO ROSE; and JIMI SLEPT HERE, a musical memory piece about the New York arts scene in 1980’s.  Mr. Casella taught playwriting at the California Institute of the Arts, and is a proud long-time member of the WGA, The Dramatists Guild, Screen Actor’s Guild and Actor’s Equity.  He lives in New York City.