Come Back to the Five and Dime, Casey Siemaszko…

Things are scary and uncertain right now. We are living in an ever-revolving/evolving/devolving news-cycle different than the ones we are accustomed to. This particular news-cycle has a bite and brother, does it smart. Ye olde writer has traded in his freshly pressed gabardines and seersuckers for a ragtag pair of pajama bottoms and a variety of moth loved tee-shirts that saw their best days in the early 1990s. It’s a Barnum and Bailey world indeed, and we can all be forgiven for looking more and more to the past even as the present seems to be doing a big ol’ Lindy Hop on our collective psyches.

I’ve been ruminating a lot lately about some of the people and places that gave me comfort as I was growing up and coming of age. A lot of those touchstones are no longer with us, having been unceremoniously torn down or having long ago shuffled off the stage. Yet those special people and places and events live on and burn brightly in my mind’s eye. These are, in no particular order: My grandparents with whom I spent many-a summer day, a best friend who navigated the hells of junior high school with me, bittersweet first loves and broken dates, my first Simon and Garfunkel album, a plethora of comic books and the world of movies. Movies in particular were a window for me as I contemplated life outside of high school walls and a tiny town. They were my gateway drug to worlds and lives beyond what I had ever known or even imagined and the good ones, I mean the really good ones, changed my young life indelibly and unfathomably. Stand By Me, The Goonies, Jaws, Born On the Fourth of July and countless others were a big part of my company growing up.

As a movie obsessed teenager in the late 1980s, I – along with about a million other adolescent boys – wanted to be as cool as River Phoenix, an actor whose work in the 1986 film Stand By Me I had greatly admired and respected. Somehow or another though, my inherent geekiness would never quite allow for Phoenix’s effortless badass/sensitive persona. Instead, I always came up closer to another actor I intensely followed in the late 80s, Casey Siemaszko.

Casey Siemaszko had entered public consciousness with supporting roles in the aforementioned Stand By Me and, a year before that, Back to the Future. At first blush, the characters he played in those two seminal films were about a million and one miles away from anyone that I would ever want to be. In point of fact, Casey essayed in those two flicks to frightening perfection the very sort of characters that early on in my junior high experience delighted in terrifying me (you do not know true terror gentle readers until two sixteen year old brothers do the Bristol Stomp on you in front of an entire class of your peers. Ah, the joys of higher education. La-di-da, la-di-da, la la). But, like some scrubby caterpillar that metamorphs into an exotic yet quirky butterfly, Casey Siemaszko’s filmatic season of hell mellowed and, to everyone’s surprise – perhaps even Casey’s – this compact and talented thespian made a segue way into more thoughtful and relatable parts, beginning with 1987’s ode to the meek and downtrodden, Three O’Clock High.

In director Phil Joanou’s paean to the day to day terrors of high school, Casey Siemaszko played a character named Jerry Mitchell who inadvertently angers the school bully who promptly challenges him to a fight at the end of the school day. Watching the film back in ’87, I knew the exaggerated characters and tropes quite well. I had been in precisely one fist fight by that point, which I had lost with much aplomb and flair. Casey brought to his role an absolute put-upon everyman quality that instantly elevated him as the Patron Saint of Geeks worldwide. Watching the film back then I knew that, try as I might, I would never be River Phoenix. But I’ll be damned if I didn’t hit upon one of my first life epiphanies watching Three O’Clock High: I was Casey Siemaszko. And effortlessly so. What’s more, so were a lot of other awkward and gangly teens just trying to make it through another day of school.

Mr. Siemaszko went on from the world of Jerry Mitchell and Buddy Revell to wave the flag even more loudly and proudly for us underdogs in such solid work in films like Young Guns, Biloxi Blues and Breaking In. And, being the accomplished talent that he was (and is), he moved on past the phase of likeable guy roles and eventually built a strong acting resume featuring just about every shade of human nature under the sun (his role as Curly in the 1992 adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is a particular favorite of mine). Casey Siemaszko was an early hero of Generation X with his nuanced work and we loved him for the big, beating soul that emanated from the films he was in.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Casey lately, perhaps even more so in the light of the global pandemic we are all enduring at the moment. Why? It’s rooted in my DNA, perhaps; because at a low-ebb during my teens, Casey was a source of reassurance and comfort. He spoke to me as a contemporary and a peer. He was someone whose acting choices I could find relation to and at his heart he didn’t seem too very different from me and my buddies. He was human, he was vulnerable and oft-times caught up in a world that seemed if it had gone quite mad. He was our North compass everytime we fought for a table to sit at in the cafeteria. He was our best friend all those times we got picked over for teams in P.E. He was our Rock of Gibraltar when our hearts were broken. And now in 2020, more than ever, his past performances are a balm for our weary eyes as we sift through the morass of daily news and worry about our loved ones and what they might be going through as we ride choppy and uncertain waters.

Casey Siemaszko is still a working actor, and a successful one at that. And even though he’s still out there in some vague and unidentifiable way, we all miss Jerry Mitchell, Don Carney, Charley Bowdre and Mike Lafebb. Perhaps that is the best compliment to pay any actor; their performances that so deeply move and yes, even save us, live on in our hearts and souls long after a director yells, “cut.”

For all of the above, and more, this survivor of teendom thanks you, Casey Siemaszko.

About Ryan Vandergriff

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