February 24, 2024

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He was a teenager working in his grandparents produce market in Glendale when opportunity came knocking. One of his grandfather’s best customers — a man who provided catering trucks for Hollywood movies being shot on location — was complaining he was having trouble finding a cook for one of his crews.
“I can cook,” 19-year-old Paul Casella said. When you’re part of a big Italian family, you grow up following your nose into the kitchen to watch your mother or grandmother work her magic over a pot of marinara sauce and meatballs. You learn you can never use too much basil. Yes, the boy could cook, his grandfather said. He got the job.
It was up in Big Sur during the filming of “The Sandpiper,” starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in 1964 where Paul caught his first big break. By then, he had already worked in the catering truck cooking lunch and dinner for casts and crews, and stars, like Elvis Presley and Ann Margaret, when they shot the movie “Viva Las Vegas.”
One day, on the set of “The Sandpiper,” Paul bragged that he made great Italian food. The man running the catering crew said okay, kid, let’s see what you’ve got. Tomorrow you’re making an Italian meal for 200 people, including Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
Paul went back to his motel room and called his mother. “Ma, I’m making chicken cacciatore and eggplant parmesan for 200 people tomorrow, I need your recipes,” he said. Mama Casella laughed. Only 200? Her recipe amounts were for family dinners of maybe 10 people, at most, not an army.
“Multiple everything I tell you by 20,” she said. “And, honey, good luck.” Her son was cooking her chicken cacciatore for Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Please, baby, don’t screw it up.
“Dad wound up cooking this amazing meal,” said Martin Casella, Paul’s son. “Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton liked it so much they arranged for him to be their private cook for the rest of the movie shoot. The catering crew had to hire another cook.”
The movie business would be Paul Casella’s livelihood and passion for the next 60 years, not as a caterer, but in transportation. He became a studio Teamster driver at 20th Century Fox, than struck out on his own in the 1970s as a freelance transportation coordinator on many major films. He and his wife, Connie, started their own company in Burbank, Transcord Enterprises, providing mobile studio production vans.
If it moved in the movie business, Paul Casella wanted to be the guy moving it. He was the first person to have an onscreen Transportation Coordinator credit on a movie, (“The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean” 1973) thanks to his close friend, actor Paul Newman.
He went on to become head of transportation at Burbank Studios and later vice president of logistics at Sony Pictures Studio, creating Sony’s set, costume and prop recycling programs, and overseeing major films like “A League of Their Own” and “Men in Black” before retiring at 80.
The Casella family formed a Hollywood dynasty that stretched over three generations of family members working as film set drivers and coordinators, studio travel agents, writers, directors, actors, even a doctor and lawyer — all with ties to the entertainment industry.
He and Connie adopted a parish school in Watts — St. Lawrence of Brindisi — and funded scholarships for its students. Opportunity had come knocking for him as a teenager, and he wanted to give kids living in poverty the same chance.
“Paul truly lit up the lives of so many people in our parish,” said Father Matt Elshoff. “His goodness was something that was evident from the first day we met.”
Paul Casella died at age 86 of a sudden heart attack on Feb. 15. He never had a chance to say goodbye, but his family knows what his last request would have been to his friends in the movie business and everyone he met along the way fortunate enough to have opportunity knock at their door.
Pay it back. Knock on a poor kid’s door with a scholarship. Give them an opportunity, too.
Dennis McCarthy’s column runs on Sunday. He can be reached at dmccarthynews@gmail.com.
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