Reverend Robert W. Castle—an Episcopalian priest and activist for social justice, whose family connection to a major American filmmaker propelled him into a late-life side career as a film actor—has died at the the age of 83.
A self-described “child of God and Jersey City,” the combative and charismatic Father Castle began his career as rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church in New Jersey, from 1960 to 1968. During that time, he marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and protested the Vietnam War, and availed himself to organizations such as the Black Panthers. (Castle once mortgaged his house to raise bail money for Jersey City Panther leader Isaiah Rowley.) Such activities led to multiple arrests and didn’t endear him to the Archdiocese, and after leaving St. John’s, he was unable to land a posting in another parish. After abandoning his career for many years, he finally landed at St. Mary’s in Harlem in 1987, staying there until he retired in 2000.
Father Castle’s familiarity with political activists led to a similar familiarity with Central Booking, which resulted in many newspaper stories being written about him. One of these came to the attention of his cousin, director Jonathan Demme, who was astonished to learn that the angry street priest with the gruff, Lawrence Tierney demeanor was, in fact, his fondly remembered cousin Bob. Demme, riding high from the success of The Silence Of The Lambs, contacted Father Castle, and persuaded him to star in the documentary feature Cousin Bobby (1992).
Castle’s compellingly tough yet gentle presence in that film led to a succession of small movies roles, several of them in other films directed by Demme, like Philadelphia (in which he played Tom Hanks’ father), Beloved, The Truth About Charlie, The Manchurian Candidate, and Rachel Getting Married. He also appeared in two by Abel Ferrara, The Addiction and The Funeral, as well as Big Night, Sleepers, Cop Land, and Lost Souls.