Bernie Casey was yet another professional football player of the late 1960s and early 1970s to go Hollywood and leave NFL behind. Bernie Casey might not have the name recognition power of Jim Brown, he didn’t lack a powerful screen presence. Some claim Casey is the best actor to arise from the NFLugees during this era.
Casey appeared in several of the best-known blaxploitation films of all time. including Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde, Cleopatra Jones, and the Wayans-produced blaxploitation spoof I’m Gonna Git You Sucka. He also landed a role in the James Bond film Never Say Never Again as CIA operative Felix Leiter.
If you’re a kid of the 80s, you probably first saw Casey as Mr. Ryan from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Colonel Rhombus in Spies Like Us, and you undoubtedly remember him as U.N. Jefferson, the Lamda Lamda Lamda representative in Revenge of the Nerds.
Throughout his career he has continued to show his diversity as an actor with great performances in films from just about every basic genre.
He is also no stranger to a little controversy.
Casey played a true rogue when he starred in Hit Man (1972). Tyrone Tackett might have been a policeman at one point in his life, but his substance abuse, womanizing, and penchant for violence, indicate that time was long ago in a different world. Tacket’s actions on the screen were powerful enough to earn condemnation from the NAACP and set such a high standard many of the future action movies in the genre simply couldn’t compete. Most looked ridiculous when they tried.
Casey also starred in what might have been the first film to ever have to calculate donated ‘Blue Chip Stamps’ when crunching the numbers of the project’s budget, Black Chariot, and was James Bond’s CIA contact in Never Say Never Again, the notorious Kevin McClory Bond film.
Hit Man (1972) Trailer
Why We Love and Respect Him: If Bernie Casey would have been given the right role, in an Oscar-caliber screenplay circa 1975, he might have been Denzel before Denzel was even Denzel. Instead, Casey when he seemed to be peaking, he found himself costarring with a coked-out David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth, an oddball flick produced by two guys who would do Deer Hunter just two years later. Thankfully, awards don’t mean shit.
Casey has played good guys, bad guys, guys in between, monsters, authority figures, and funny guys; and was superb in nearly every one of those roles.
We just love him for being so versatile.
Best Known For: Dressing like a successful business man, recruiting a mostly white group of nerds to join a black fraternity, and having some of the best hair in the business.
Blaxploitation Role Call:
Black Chariot (1971) as The Drifter: Casey’s character drifts into town, gets chummy with a motorcycle gang, disrespects the man in charge, and gets sucked into taking drastic actions in order to make things right.
Black Gunn (1972) as Seth, Black Activist Leader: An entrepreneur’s little brother gets mixed up with a militant activist group, fronted by Casey, and becomes entangled in a web of violence and big stakes.
Hitman (1972) as Tyrone Tackett, Pornographer/Hit Man: Tyrone takes time out of his duties as a porn talent scout to mourn his brother’s death, and quickly learns things are a mess back in Oakland and he’s going to have to straighten some of it out. Tryone drinks heavily, meets Pam Grier, sees his niece raped in a porn movie then later finds her dead, and sometimes has to get violent.
Cleopatra Jones (1973) as Reuben Masters, Drug Counselor: Cleopatra Jones hates dope, and so does her boyfriend Reuben, the head man in charge at the local halfway house for recovering addicts, but that doesn’t mean either of them will blindly follow The Man’s rules. Cleopatra Jones doesn’t hesitate to use her elite fighting skills to battle drug dealers, while Reuben boldly tries to clean up the mess left behind. An alternate title producers might have considered was Miss Shaft, or Shaftess, as this was a direct response to the popularity of Shaft, and proved to be a precursor to the films Ms. Grier’s turned into cinema classics.
Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde (1976) as Dr. Henry Pride, a psycho scientist: A respected scientist determined to save dying liver cells gets a dose of his own medicine and is turned into a white vampire who loves hookers.
Brothers (1977) as David Thomas: (From IMDB) Thinly disguised account of the relationship between radical black activist Angela Davis and Black Panther and prison inmate George Jackson, who was one of those killed in a failed 1971 prison breakout.
I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (1988) as John Slade, Aging Vigilante: This is Keenan Ivory Wayans’s love letter to the blaxploitation films of the 70s and features numerous superstars of the era, including Casey as Jack Slade’s boyhood idol, John Slade. John Slade hels Jack put together team of elite crimestoppers in an effort to clean up the streets and stop Mr. Big
AT LUNCH WITH: Bernie Casey; A Filmmaker Battling Flawed Images of Blacks; New York Times, Nov. 27, 1997
Bernie Casey is still out there fighting the good fight.
”I was on a radio talk show this morning and the host said, ‘Can I ax you a question?’ ” Mr. Casey said, visibly bristling. ”I said no, but you can ask me a question. He laughed, but he said, ‘O.K., can I ask you a question?’ ”
”I always challenge young people who talk ebonics and use a lot of profanity to become more literate, to find the words to express what they mean,” Mr. Casey said. ”We need to understand the power of words.”
Spike Lee Says Bernie Casey is the best actor of the former NFL Players club; ESPN Interview by Ralph Wiley
Several feature articles in 1970 and 1971 detail Goodwin’s financing of the production. According to a Los Angeles Times article, “95% of them [the film’s owners] are black and many with investments of $50 or less.” An additional $5,000 in financing was raised, according to statements made by Goodwin, from Blue Chip Stamps, a then popular grocery store premium. Goodwin explained in the Los Angeles Times article that backers were asked to give a minimum of five dollars or four books of Blue Chip Stamps [which, at the time, had a monetary face value of $1.20] to invest in the film.