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Jonathan Demme Remembers Robert “Cousin Bobby” Wilkinson Castle

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Robert Wilkinson Castle, a fiery Harlem-based Episcopal priest, passed away on Oct. 27, 2012 at 83. Filmmaker Jonathan Demme remembers his long-lost cousin, who became the subject of his 1993 POV documentary Cousin Bobby.

Even as Hurricane Sandy took aim at his birth state of New Jersey, Robert “Cousin Bobby” Wilkinson Castle died in bed at the farm he shared with his wife Kate Castle up in the northeast kingdom of Vermont, not far from where his children –  Paul, John and Jane — have all made their various homes for many years. Bobby Jr., Bob’s son from his former wife Nancy is buried nearby as well.

New Jersey, hit hard by Hurricane Sandy, was also once the site of Cousin Bobby’s immersion in the fierce social justice actions and police riots that racked Jersey City and the country in the 1960s.  Bobby’s center-stage civil rights presence and his involvement in Jersey City’s Black Power activity finally resulted in the Episcopal church providing Father Castle with a kind of ‘ticket-to-ride’ out of his New Jersey parish, leading to Bob’s immigration to the great state of Vermont.

Back in the 40′s, while growing up in Jersey, Bob attended and then became a summer camp counselor in Vermont. One day he was leading a flotilla of camper-filled canoes back to camp across the lake from Canada. Approaching base camp, but still a fair distance from the shoreline, Bob saw people appear from the woods, running down toward the water, waving their arms in excitement. As they drew closer, Bob heard the folks shouting, “The war is over! The war is over!”

What colossal impact that moment clearly had on Cousin Bobby! He would spend the rest of his life fighting for this idea, this vision, of life without war. He also fought, ferociously, as we all know, a life-long battle on behalf of other notions he held dear. These included such things as, “all men are created equal”, “government of the people, for the people, by the people,” “speak truth to power!” and most of the ideas contained in your basic Ten Commandments. What a great preacher! What a great priest! What a great person.

Father Castle’s 1990 baptism of his cousin, Brooklyn Demme, at St. Mary’s is shown in the film Bob and I made together back then, Cousin Bobby. Today, Brooklyn is using Bob’s “prayers from the burned-out city” as an element of the piece he is writing about John Brown’s quest for the abolition of slavery.

Bob traveled overseas twice that I’m aware of, starting with our unexpected trip to the Cannes Film Festival for the world premiere of Cousin Bobby in 1992. (His subsequent puddle-jump to Bimini for his cameo at the end of Silence of the Lambs doesn’t count as foreign travel.) Bob’s second time abroad was a solo trip to Haiti because he “had to see a priest become president” with the inauguration of the populist liberation-theology catholic priest, Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide. I’m pretty sure Bob’s motivation had more to do with participation than observation, though because he wound up running through the streets of Port-Au-Prince that historic weekend, palm branch in hand, chanting along with the joyful citizens sweeping across town, celebrating the promise of positive social change for future generations.

I’ve always been so proud to share Bob’s Castle blood in a relationship that I hold as dear as anything in my life. He has turned on a million lights for me over the years, and has always been a complete and utter stone blast to work with, to play with, to hang with, to get arrested with, just to be with. He’s with me now as I scribble these thoughts, and he always will be. I love that magnificent guy so much.

“Our father/mother, who art in heaven.” — Thank you, Robert!


Jonathan Demme has directed and/or produced more than 30 movies, including Rachel Getting Married, The Manchurian Candidate, Beloved, The Agronomist, The Silence of the Lambs (for which he won an Academy Award and the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Director), Philadelphia, Married to the Mob, Something Wild, Swimming to Cambodia and Melvin and Howard, for which he was named Best Director by the New York Film Critics Circle. His documentary I’m Carolyn Parker: The Good, the Mad, and the Beautiful aired on POV in 2012.

POV Guest Blogger
POV Guest Blogger
POV (a cinema term for "point of view") is television's longest-running showcase for independent non-fiction films. POV premieres 14-16 of the best, boldest and most innovative programs every year on PBS. Since 1988, POV has presented over 300 films to public television audiences across the country. POV films are known for their intimacy, their unforgettable storytelling and their timeliness, putting a human face on contemporary social issues.