Jane Alderman, casting director who discovered many Chicago talents, dies
By Chris Jones
October 24, 2016
When the producers of the 1985 Steven Spielberg movie "The Color Purple" were looking to cast the role of Sofia, they contacted Jane Alderman, a Chicago casting director who was hugely influential in putting the city's talent on the national map. She offered up an unconventional idea.
"My mother said to them, 'you really should take a look at this daytime talk show host we have in town,' " said Jason Alderman on Monday, speaking from his home in California. The host without much acting experience, of course, was Oprah Winfrey, whose life was no longer the same.
And although she rarely took credit, Alderman made similar transformations in the lives of "Flashdance" star Jennifer Beals (whom she discovered at the Francis Parker School), Jeremy Piven, John Cusack, Gary Cole and many others, be they famous names or merely working Chicago actors.
Alderman, 77, who had retired to North Carolina, died Sunday of complications related to emphysema, according to her son.
"Jane will always be remembered by me for her warmth, her support for a struggling young actor, and for a smile as big as her talent," said David Schwimmer on Monday, noting Alderman's ability to "cast to perfection."
With various partners — including Tom Guerra and Shelley Andreas Stallworth — Alderman pretty much invented the notion of Chicago talent attracting the attention of Hollywood and TV producers. "When she started, directors would just come to Chicago to shoot exterior shots and then get out of town fast, because the first Daley crew was not too friendly to them," Jason Alderman said. "My mother was really on the ground floor of persuading them to do a lot more than that in Chicago."
Alderman saw all that change. And she enjoyed the fruits of that early work — Alderman cast the show "ER" for more than 15 years. She also cast such movies as "Backdraft" and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," among a formidable list of other assignments.
But her first love was theater, and its actors. "There wasn't a play in Chicago she did not see," said Stallworth, Alderman's partner for 12 years. "She was dedicated to the entire theater community of Chicago."
In the 1990s, Alderman was highly supportive of the Eclipse Theatre, a company that still exists, bringing to its shows a broad array of prominent showbiz power brokers — she was so successful that some in the ensemble decamped for more lucrative paychecks than the wages that come from a Chicago storefront. But as Alderman saw it, there always a generation below, waiting to be discovered. She passed that on through a plethora of teaching assignments at a variety of local institutions across the years.
"Every actor was touched by her," said Erica Daniels, longtime casting director of the Steppenwolf Theatre. "She was the advocate for Chicago talent. Long before anyone else. And she had such an eye for who belonged in what role. As a casting person, you aspired to have her taste, but also the way she treated the talent. Nobody's time ever was wasted. She created an atmosphere that allowed you to be your best."
Alderman and the-then Shelley Andreas initially had their office above a furrier on Michigan Avenue. "It was like an R-rated 'Laverne & Shirley' in there," said Jason Alderman. "They had Playboy magazines in the bathroom and all kinds of glamorous people traipsing through there. I was a 13-year-old boy. I'd go after school, eat instant soup and just watch."
Alderman, who was born in Britain, raised in New York City and divorced in the early 1980s from Tom Alderman, was also an actor. Among many other roles, she appeared in Tracy Letts' "Superior Donuts" on Broadway. But she will be best remembered for what she did for the careers of other actors in Chicago.
"I have," her son said, "hundreds of brothers and sisters."
Survivors also include a sister, Jennifer Browne and a brother, Nicholas Browne. Plans for a memorial service in Chicago are pending.
Born: 1939, England, U.K.
Died: 10/23/2016, North Carolina, U.S.A.
Jane Alderman’s western – actress:
The Awakening Land (TV) – 1978 (Idy Tull)