THE MANIAC: JOE SPINELL
By Adam Howe
My whole life’s like a book. I go shootin’, ridin’, and fishin’. Listen, I’m a roper, I’m a doper, I’m a lover, I’m a fighter, I’m a rodeo rider… — Joe Spinell
Most of this article, I’ve shamelessly cribbed from The Joe Spinell Story the great documentary featured among the extras on the Maniac DVD, and essential viewing for Spinellophiles. I’ve played fast and loose with the facts. Between truth and legend, I’ve printed the legend. And in all likelihood, I’ve disparaged the good name of Sylvester Stallone. But what the hell.
If you don’t know the name, you know the face.
Greasy, pockmarked, in later performances often oozing pure alcohol.
His New York delivery slightly slurred by drink and dope.
He’s hitman-turned-fink Willie Cicci in The Godfather I & II.
Travis Bickle’s cab rank boss in Taxi Driver.
Asthmatic loan shark Tony Gazzo in Rocky I & II.
Darth Vader clone Count Zarth Arn in Italian Star Wars knock-off Starcrash.
And my personal favourite: serial killer Frank Zito in Maniac.
Born Joseph J. Spagnuolo, Spinell was raised by his mother in Queens, New York. Apart from a few lost years in Hollywood, the doting son would live with her in the family home. A chronic asthmatic, and hemophiliac, he found solace in the arts; a true Renaissance man, Joe was an accomplished painter, poet, and could act up a storm.
Despite being just a bit player on his first motion picture, Spinell became – after Brando – the highest-paid actor on The Godfather; until his untimely death, Joe would continue to receive residual checks in the thousands of dollars, and be forced to hide the cash from his lifelong nemesis, the IRS.
Hitting the ground running with his first movie role, Joe never looked back.
Taxi Driver (Scorsese).
Big Wednesday (Milius).
Sharing the screen with such legends as De Niro, Pacino, Oates, Scheider, Dean Stanton, Plummer, Stallone, Dee Williams, and Hasselhoff.
there they are; in home movie footage, we’re treated to the surreal sight of Lil’ Stevie and Big Joe chilling in Spielberg’s bungalow on the Universal lot. The 1975 Oscar nominations are about to be announced live on TV, and Spielberg has invited Joe to watch Jaws sweep the board. (Joe was originally cast as the “Swim, Charlie! Don’t look back!”-guy on the fishing dock in Jaws but had to turn down the role due to other commitments; the actor cast does a fine job, but Jaws fans and Spinellophiles can only wonder what Spinell would have done with the role.) When Spielberg fails to receive a Best Director nomination, Spinell covers his embarrassed ass by launching into a tirade at the Academy. “Who made the movie? The shark? Some guy’s mother? This man made Jaws!” He then vows to get Spielberg drunk. Perhaps he succeeded. They would never work together.
Joe’s experience on The Godfather is memorable for another reason. During auditions, he had met a struggling young actor named Sylvester Stallone. Seeing something no one else did in The Kid – as Joe dubbed him – Spinell took Stallone under his wing; kept him fed, clothed, helped out with the rent; knowing Joe he probably got The Kid drunk and laid too; even bought Sly the typewriter on which Stallone would hammer out a little screenplay called Rocky.
By this time, Stallone was a big star with a bigger ego. As Spinell’s reputation as a wild man became legend – the drink, the drugs, the women; and that’s just on-set – at the behest of his management, Stallone turned his back on his friend and mentor, and the godfather to his son, Sage. They would never work together again. For Spinellophiles, this is a criminal neglect of Spinell’s talents; it is impossible not to imagine Spinell as The Night Slasher in Cobra, Bull Hurley in Over the Top, even the Brion James role in Tango & Cash.
At his regular hangout bar, Friar Tuck, Joe refused to hear a bad word spoken about The Kid. Inspired by Stallone’s success with Rocky, Spinell embarked on his own passion project. Writing, producing, and – most importantly for a character actor – starring in what would be his own Rocky.
That film was Maniac.
“Watching Spinell act like a psychopathic killer with a mommy-complex is like watching someone else throw up.” — Vincent Canby, 1981 New York Times review of Maniac
Rightly lauded by horror fans as a classic of slasher cinema – trashed by pretty much everyone else – Maniac tells the tragic story of Frank Zito. The neglected son of an abusive mother, Frank grows up to become a serial killer, scalping women to decorate his harem of mannequins in his shithole NYC apartment.
To achieve his vision, Spinell surrounded himself with a team of hungry young filmmakers, including debutant director Billy Lustig – whom Joe auditioned at a 42nd Street porno theater in which his new bride was starring in Confessions of a Flea – and special effects maestro, the Wizard of Gore, Tom Savini. Though keen to work with Spinell, Savini was leery of the violent script - he would later dismiss the finished film as “sleaze,” despite Maniac containing some of his best SFX work – and had to be tempted with an acting role: the show-stopping scene in which the Maniac decapitates a male victim with a shotgun blast to the head.
A character actor is never better than when given a starring role in which to shine, and Spinell pours his heart into Frank Zito. At times, his shambolic performance is one of the most devastatingly accurate portrayals of a serial killer ever committed to celluloid, right up there with Rooker’s Henry; at other times, it is hysterical. The Oscar clip is a booze-soaked monologue – Spinell called it his 100-proof performance – in which Zito rages to camera about “fancy girls in their fancy dresses and their lipstick, laughing and dancing.” Joe based his performance on David Berkowitz – one sees shades of the Son of Sam as Frank rants at his mannequins in his squalid apartment – and less successfully, Ted Bundy. Frank’s radical transformation from drooling lunatic to ladies man strains credibility, though it’s amusing to watch Spinell wine and dine the beautiful Caroline Munro, who is, of course, powerless to resist his rat bastard charm.
Upon release, Maniac was a huge financial success, and caused a shit-ton of controversy. Banned outright in many countries, in the UK it didn’t even make the notorious ‘video nasty’ list; our censors simply buried it, refusing the film classification until the millennium, when even then many scenes were butchered. Outraged women’s groups picketed the movie and painted over the poster which depicted the Maniac clutching a victim’s bloody scalp in one hand, a Buck knife in the other, a hard-on bulging in his jeans like a Rolling Stones album cover, and the tagline I WARNED YOU NOT TO GO OUT TONIGHT. Spinell was dismayed by the reaction – The Kid never had this trouble with his pet project – particularly from feminist groups calling him a woman-hater. For all his sins, Spinell was a great lover of women, and a regular at Gallagher’s topless bar.
The Maniac controversy was perhaps more damaging to Spinell’s career than his increasing reputation as a party animal.
Hollywood stopped calling.
Spinell threw himself into B-movies, and partied harder than ever.
During filming of The Last Horror Film, shot largely guerilla-style at the Cannes film festival, the half-mil budget ballooned to over two mil as Joe and his cronies hit the town. The nightlife began taking its toll on Joe. Friends warned him he was living dangerously close to the edge. When his beloved mother died, the wheels came off completely. On the rare occasions he was offered work, he wasn’t fit to act, turning down roles for the first time. Billy Lustig recalls a heartbreaking moment when a shabby-looking Spinell, drunk and still grieving for his mother, visited his office with a wizened old woman in tow. The old broad began singing in Italian. Joe leaned his head on her shoulder and wept.
The circumstances of Spinell’s death are as colorful as his life. Worried friends hadn’t seen or heard from Joe in days. The cops were called. On gaining entry to his apartment, they discovered a massacre. Joe was slumped on the living room couch, wearing only a towel. The room was a bloodbath. A disembodied head was perched on the TV like something from Jeffrey Dahmer’s crib. On closer inspection, the cops noticed the head bore an uncanny likeness to Joe; it proved to be a prop from Maniac he had kept as a souvenir. Joe had slipped in the shower and cut his head, managed to stagger from the bathroom to the living room couch, where he passed out and died of hemophiliac blood loss.
JOSEPH J. SPAGNUOLO 1936-1989
Black Cat Mojo, is available NOW from Comet Press. Coming soon are new novellas Die Dog or Eat the Hatchet, and Damn Dirty Apes. He is currently working on his first novel, One Tough Bastard. You can Tweet him @Adam_G_Howe.