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Spinell on the set of The Godfather
October 28, 1936
|Died||January 13, 1989 (aged 52)|
Queens, New York City, New York, U.S.
|Cause of death||Exsanguination|
|Resting place||Calvary Cemetery|
|Height||1.80 m (5 ft 11 in)|
(m. 1977; div. 1979)
|Relatives||Steve Spagnuolo (cousin)|
Joe Spinell (born Joseph Spagnuolo; October 28, 1936 – January 13, 1989) was an American character actor who appeared in numerous films in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as various stage productions on and off Broadway.
His notable roles included performances in The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974), Rocky (1976) and Rocky II (1979), Taxi Driver (1976), Sorcerer (1977), Cruising (1980), and many more. He was a recurring actor in early Sylvester Stallone films. Spinell's career consisted of bit to major supporting roles, many of them villainous, in major and small American films.
Spinell became a figure in the cult film genre. His three leading roles were in horror films. Actress Caroline Munro, with whom he shared the screen three times, was his co-lead in two films: the psychological slasher film Maniac (1980), which Spinell also wrote; and The Last Horror Film (1982), a horror comedy. The two had initially worked together in Starcrash (1978). Spinell's final lead role was The Undertaker (1988), a slasher film released posthumously.
Spinell was born Joseph Spagnuolo (Italian pronunciation: [spaɲˈɲwɔːlo]) in Manhattan, New York, the youngest of six children of Italian immigrant parents. His father, Pelegrino Spagnuolo (1892–1950), died from liver and kidney disease. His mother, Filomena Spagnuolo (1903–1987), was an actress who played bit parts in several movies, some of them alongside her son. Spinell was born at his family's apartment on Second Avenue in Kips Bay, Manhattan, an area then home to 10,000 Italian Americans. A few years after the death of his father, he moved with his mother and older siblings to Woodside, Queens, New York, where he lived off-and-on for the remainder of his life. He was known to heavily abuse drugs and alcohol intermittently throughout his career, especially during periods of unemployment. Spinell was born with hemophilia and suffered most of his life from chronic asthma.
Early 1970s to 1976: Supporting roles in major films
Because of his large, heavyset frame and imposing looks, Spinell was often cast as criminals, thugs, or corrupt police officers. As a teenager and young adult, Spinell starred in various stage plays, both on and off Broadway.
In 1972, he landed his first film role in a small part as the mafioso hitman Willie Cicci working for the Corleone crime family in the crime film The Godfather, directed by Francis Ford Coppola. It was the highest-grossing film of 1972 and was for a time the highest-grossing film ever made. It won the Oscars for Best Picture, Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay, as well as other nominations. Spinell was so liked by Coppola that he asked Spinell to sit in on much more of the film's shooting than was required, for which he was paid the daily actor rate even if not appearing in the day's scenes.
That same year he appeared in another small role in The Seven-Ups, a crime drama thriller film produced and directed by Philip D'Antoni and starring Roy Scheider. Spinell appears as a parking garage manager, named Toredano, whom the Seven-Up vice squad detectives interview during their criminal investigation.
In 1974, Spinell reprised his role as Willie Cicci in The Godfather Part II, where Cicci is still working for the Corleone crime family, but having been promoted from "soldier" (aka: 'button man') to being the personal bodyguard to Frank Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo). The film was nominated for eleven Academy Awards, and became the first sequel to win for Best Picture. It was Paramount Pictures' highest-grossing film of 1974 and was the fifth-highest-grossing picture in North America that year. Spinell was set to reprise his role as Willie Cicci in The Godfather Part III (1990) but he died before filming.
In 1975, he had a supporting role in as a Native American half-breed cowboy in Rancho Deluxe, a contemporary western film that was directed by Frank Perry and released in 1975, starring Jeff Bridges and Sam Waterston. Spinell appeared in one scene as the father to Waterston's character.
The following film he was in was Farewell, My Lovely, an American neo noir film, directed by Dick Richards and starring Robert Mitchum as private detective Phillip Marlowe. Set in Hollywood in the year 1941, the picture is based on Raymond Chandler's novel by the same name. Spinell appears in a minor role playing Nick, one of three chief henchmen who also include Cowboy (Burton Gilliam) and Jonnie (Sylvester Stallone); all of whom work for brothel madam Frances Amthor (Kate Murtagh), for whom they hound and harass Marlowe during his mystery case investigation.
Finally he was in 92 in the Shade written and directed by Thomas McGuane, based on his 1973 novel of the same name, where Spinell appeared in a minor role late in the film playing a Southern-accented tourist and coal miner, named Ollie Slatt, and which starred Peter Fonda, Warren Oates, Elizabeth Ashley, Harry Dean Stanton and Margot Kidder.
In 1976, he had a small role as a New York policeman in Next Stop, Greenwich Village, a drama film, set in the early 1950s, written and directed by Paul Mazursky, featuring, among others, Lenny Baker, Shelley Winters, Ellen Greene, Lois Smith, and Christopher Walken.
Following this release, he had another small role in Martin Scorsese's Palme d'Or winner Taxi Driver starring Robert De Niro. The gritty film tells the story of a lonely veteran (De Niro) working as a taxi driver, who descends into insanity. Spinell appeared in only one scene at the beginning of the film as a personnel officer at a taxi depot who gives De Niro's character his job interview in a cold and moody setting.
His third role that year was in Stay Hungry, a comedy-drama by director Bob Rafelson. The film stars Jeff Bridges, Sally Field, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Set in Alabama, the story centers on Craig Blake (Bridges), who is a young Birmingham scion who gets involved in a shady real-estate deal by a slick local con artist named Jabo (Spinell). In order to close the deal, he needs to buy a gym building to complete a multi-parcel lot. When he visits the gym, however, Blake finds himself romantically interested in the receptionist (Field) and drawn to the carefree lifestyle of the Austrian body builder Joe Santo (Schwarzenegger) who is training there for the Mr. Universe competition.
Later, Spinell played a supporting role in John G. Avildsen's Rocky. It was Sylvester Stallone's first lead in a studio picture which he also wrote. Other co-stars include Talia Shire, Burt Young, Burgess Meredith and Carl Weathers It tells the rags to riches American Dream story of Rocky Balboa (Stallone), an uneducated but kind-hearted working class Italian-American boxer working as a debt collector for Tony Gazzo (Spinell), a loan shark, in the slums of Philadelphia. In the meantime, the heavyweight champion of the world, Apollo Creed (Weathers) decides to give a local contender a chance to challenge him and settles for Rocky. As the drama unfolds, Gazzo eventually lets go of Rocky so that he can train for the fight. The film, made on a budget of just over $1 million, was a sleeper hit; it earned $225 million in global box office receipts, becoming the highest-grossing film of 1976, and went on to win three Oscars, including Best Picture. The film received many positive reviews and turned Stallone into a major star.
1977 to 1980: Subsequent success and cult film breakthrough
In 1977, he acted in Sorcerer, a thriller adaptation of The Wages of Fear directed by William Friedkin and starring Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal, and Amidou. Spinell has a small role as "Spider", an out-of-luck American expatriate working for an unscrupulous multi-national oil company somewhere in the Dominican Republic jungle and a friend of Scanlon (Scheider). Spider takes part in a truck-driving contest but fails.
His first role of 1978 was in Nunzio, a drama film directed by Paul Williams. The film stars David Proval, with Morgana King, and Tovah Feldshuh. The story centers around Nunzio Sabatino (Proval) is a grown man with the demeanor of a young child. He lives at home with his doting mother (King) and has a job as a bicycle delivery man for Angelo (Spinell), the neighborhood grocer, which Angelo provides as a favor for Nunzio's brother.
His second role that year was in Big Wednesday, a coming of age film directed by John Milius. The picture stars Jan-Michael Vincent, William Katt, and Gary Busey as three best friends and California surfers facing life and the Vietnam War against the backdrop of their love of surfing. Spinell appeared in a small role as a US Army psychologist who interviews Leroy "The Masochist" Smith (Busey) who pretends to be mentally insane to avoid being drafted.
Next he played a nightclub owner and wrestling MC known only by his stage name 'Burp' in Sylvester Stallone' directorial debut Paradise Alley, which Stallone wrote and starred in. The sports film tells the story of the three Carboni brothers, Cosmo (Stallone), Lenny (Armand Assante), and Victor (Lee Canalito), living in Hell's Kitchen, New York City in the 1940s who become involved in professional wrestling.
His final role that year was a major part as the main antagonist in Starcrash, an Italian-produced space opera film directed by Luigi Cozzi. The cast includes Caroline Munro, Marjoe Gortner, Christopher Plummer, and David Hasselhoff. The film is set in a distant galaxy, where a star ship searches for the evil Count Zarth Arn (Spinell). Closing in on a planet, the ship is attacked by a mysterious weapon. Three escape pods launch during the attack, but the ship crashes into the planet and is destroyed. Shortly after, smugglers Stella Star (Munro) and Akton (Gortner), find the sole survivor of the crash, from which their adventures against Count Zarth Arn start.
Spinell's next role was a small part in Winter Kills a black comedy film directed by William Richert, based on the novel by satirist Richard Condon. Its all-star cast includes Jeff Bridges, John Huston, Anthony Perkins, Eli Wallach, Richard Boone, Toshirō Mifune, Sterling Hayden, Dorothy Malone, Belinda Bauer, Ralph Meeker, Elizabeth Taylor, Berry Berenson and Susan Walden. Spinell appeared in the opening scene as a dying man with bandages covering his face who confesses to the assassination of a fictitious US President.
Spinell reprised his role as Gazzo in Rocky II this time directed by Sylvester Stallone. Rocky II finished in the top three highest-grossing films of 1979, in both the North American market and worldwide. The film grossed $6,390,537 during its opening weekend, $85,182,160 at the U.S. box office, and $200,182,160 overall.
His final release of the decade was in Curtis Hanson' The Little Dragons, a martial arts family comedy film. It stars Charles Lane, Ann Sothern, Chris Petersen, Pat Petersen, Sally Boyden, and John Davis Chandler. The film is about two young brothers (Chris, and Pat Petersen) who use their karate skills to rescue a friend (Boyden) after she is held captive for ransom by the Forbinger family, the tough-talking backwoods mother (Sothern) and her two bumbling sons (Spinell and Chandler).
His first supporting role in films of the 1980s was Cruising a crime film and thriller written and directed by William Friedkin and starring Al Pacino, Paul Sorvino, and Karen Allen. The film is about a serial killer targeting gay men into S&M activities. Officer Steve Burns (Pacino), who resembles the victims' dark-haired, slim figure image, is sent deep undercover by Captain Edelson (Sorvino) in the urban world of leather bars. Edelson eventually meets Patrolman DiSimone (Spinell), a corrupt NYPD officer, who harasses and abuses gay men from these communities, despite his own willingness to engage in gay sex and to appear in the leather bars as a customer.
He followed up with a minor role in The Ninth Configuration, a psychological drama film directed by William Peter Blatty. Spinell played Lt. Spinell, (a role which was not part of the original screenplay) one of several inmates of an isolated mental hospital for former members of the U.S. military, where the psychopath director of the institute, Colonel Vincent Kane (Stacey Keach), turns up on the heat on the patients treatment. While Spinell has very few lines (all of his dialogue was ad libbed), the best of the film’s comic dialogue is given to the other members of its strong ensemble cast which includes Scott Wilson, Jason Miller, Ed Flanders, Neville Brand and Moses Gunn.
His next effort was a small role as a sailor-suited slob in Forbidden Zone, a musical fantasy comedy film directed and produced by Richard Elfman. The cast includes Hervé Villechaize, Susan Tyrrell, Warhol Superstar Viva, and The Kipper Kids.
Although primarily known as a character actor, Spinell co-wrote, co-produced, and starred in his first lead role as a serial killer named Frank Zito in the 1980 film, Maniac. The psychological slasher film directed by William Lustig and co-starring Caroline Munro. It is an intense psychological horror film centered around Frank Zito (Spinell), an unhinged serial killer residing in New York City who murders and scalps young women.
Spinell's next film was Brubaker a prison drama film directed by Stuart Rosenberg. It stars Robert Redford. The film features a large supporting cast including Yaphet Kotto, Jane Alexander, Murray Hamilton, David Keith, Tim McIntire, Matt Clark, M. Emmet Walsh, Everett McGill, and Morgan Freeman. Based on a true story set in Arkansas in the late 1960s, Redford stars as newly arrived prison warden Henry Brubaker, who attempts to clean up a corrupt and violent penal system. He first infiltrates the prison as an inmate and discovers rampant abuse and corruption, including open and endemic sexual assault, torture, worm-ridden diseased food, insurance fraud and a doctor charging inmates for medical care. Spinell appeared in a supporting role as Floyd Birdwell, one of the prison guard trustees alongside Kotto, McGill and others as the warden Brubaker's personal staff in which he and the others are reluctant to Brubaker's approach to running the prison.
His final role of 1980 was Brian G. Hutton' The First Deadly Sin, a crime mystery thriller film produced by and starring Frank Sinatra which Spinell appears in a minor role as a doorman/bouncer at a New York apartment building that Sinatra's character interviews while looking for a serial killer who resides in the building. The film also features Faye Dunaway, David Dukes, Brenda Vaccaro, James Whitmore, and Martin Gabel.
1981 to 1982: Continuous career and second lead
In 1981, Spinell had a supporting role in the Sylvester Stallone' vehicle Nighthawks. The crime-thriller film also co-stars Rutger Hauer, Billy Dee Williams, Lindsay Wagner, Persis Khambatta and Nigel Davenport. The story is about Sgt. DaSilva (Stallone) and Sgt. Fox (Williams) who serve as high-risk warrant officers in the Bronx. After a terrorist named Wulfgar (Hauer) arrives in New York City, DaSilva and Fox's direct supervisor Lt. Munafo (Spinell) transfers them to an anti-terrorist squad.
His next film was Night Shift, a comedy film, directed by Ron Howard and starring Henry Winkler and Michael Keaton. Spinell appeared in a small role late in the film playing a nightclub/brothel owner.
In his third film of 1982, he appeared in the lead role in David Winters' The Last Horror Film, co-starring Caroline Munro. Filmed guerrilla-style without permits during the 1981 Cannes Film Festival, the movie is about Vinny Durand (Spinell) a New York City taxi driver who is obsessed with the international actress Jana Bates (Munro), known as the "queen of horror films". He goes to attend the Cannes Film Festival in France hoping to meet her and get her to star in his movie to kickstart his career as a film director. Upon his arrival strange things start happening around Jana Bates, until it leads to a mysterious string of murders. It went on to win numerous awards, including the Paris Film Festival Award, the Los Angeles Golden Scroll Award, and the Sitges Film Festival Award. It was one of several films where Spinell wrote in a small role for his mother Filomena.
Next, he had a small role in Monsignor directed by Frank Perry in the early scenes playing the father of a bride at a wedding reception. The cast includes Christopher Reeve, Geneviève Bujold, Fernando Rey, Jason Miller, Joseph Cortese, Adolfo Celi, and Leonardo Cimino.
1983 to 1989: Final roles, third lead, and death
His first role of 1983 was a small role playing the corrupt lawyer Eisenberg in Vigilante. The vigilante film was directed by William Lustig and producer Andrew W. Garroni, both of whom Spinell had worked with on Maniac. It stars Robert Forster, Richard Bright, and Fred Williamson.
Then came Eureka, a drama film directed by Nicolas Roeg. It stars Gene Hackman, Theresa Russell, Rutger Hauer, Joe Pesci and Mickey Rourke. Spinell had a non-speaking small role as Pete, one of the hoods employed by Miami gangsters Aurelio D’Amato (Rourke) and Mayakofsky (Pesci) to murder erstwhile gold prospector Jack McCann (Hackman), who is refusing to sell his Caribbean Island to the mobsters so they can build a casino on it.
In 1985, he co-starred as the main villain Brusstar in the crime film Walking the Edge, starring Robert Forster, Nancy Kwan and A Martinez. Set in Los Angeles, a criminal gang led by Brusstar enters a home with the intention of killing a former drug dealer. His wife Christine (Kwan), survives the hit that kills her husband and young son. She decides to take revenge on the gang and enlists a hapless taxi driver (Forster) to help her.
His second film that year was Hollywood Harry, a comedy/mystery film set in Los Angeles starring and directed by Robert Forster where Spinell had a supporting role playing Max Caldwell, the business partner and friend to private detective Harry Petry (Forster) in helping him solve cases.
His third project that year was Maniac 2: Mr. Robbie, a horror short promotional film directed by Buddy Giovinazzo and co-written by Spinell and Joe Cirillo which was loosely based on a 1973 feature film titled An Eye for an Eye (aka: The Psychopath). The short film was produced by Joe Spinell in order to raise financing for a sequel to Spinell's 1980 horror film Maniac. The short was included with the 30th anniversary edition release of Maniac. The feature-length version of the film was never shot after Spinell's death in 1989.
His fourth picture of 1986 was The Messenger, directed by and starring Fred Williamson.
In 1987, Spinell appeared in another small role as one of several Atlantic City mafioso thugs in The Pick-up Artist, an American romantic comedy film written and directed by James Toback, starring Molly Ringwald and Robert Downey Jr..
In 1988, Spinell appeared in a small but significant role in the first of two David A. Prior directed films for AIP (Action International Pictures) Studios which was Operation Warzone, an American Vietnam War film. He plays Brig. Gen. George Delevane, a corrupt military official who is involved in an arms-for-profit deal with a corrupt U.S. Army officer back in Vietnam. Meanwhile, three U.S. Army soldiers survive a Viet Cong ambush and rescue two undercover American agents, named Hawkins and Jensen, whom are seeking out Delevane.
His last lead role was in The Undertaker, a slasher film. The film was completed in 1988, but was never released for the public and existed only in an incomplete form. The Undertaker was later re-edited for a DVD release by Code Red in 2010, and by Vinegar Syndrome on an expanded Blu-ray in 2016. The film is considered a cult classic, due in part to Joe Spinell's involvement and its long and troubled production.
Spinell's very last role was a supporting part in playing a U.S. government official, named Hansen, in the low-budget 1989 action-thriller Rapid Fire, his second (and last) film in working with director David A. Prior for AIP, which was filmed in Mobile, Alabama a few weeks before his death.
Spinell was married to adult film star Jean Jennings (1957-2011) from February 1977 to July 1979. Together they had one daughter before they divorced.
A close friend of Sylvester Stallone, Spinell was the godfather of his late son Sage Stallone. Spinell had a falling out with Sylvester Stallone during the filming of their final collaboration Nighthawks (1981).
Spinell died in his apartment located off of Greenpoint Avenue in Sunnyside, Queens, New York on January 13, 1989 at the age of 52. Sometime during that morning, he cut himself badly on his glass shower stall door after apparently slipping in his bathtub while showering. Soon afterward he fell asleep on his living room couch instead of calling for help, and his hemophilia caused him to bleed to death. His body was found by his friend Vincent Gabriele. Gabriele had phoned Spinell that evening after a woman who knew Vincent called and said Spinell did not sound well. Gabriele called, and Spinell asked him to stop over and bring some ice cream and other groceries. However, when he got there about 20 minutes after the call, Spinell did not answer the door. Gabriele then called the building superintendent who said he did not have a key, so Gabriele called 911. The ambulance workers entered the apartment through the fire escape, where they found Spinell dead sitting on a white sheet draped over the couch, having bled to death over part of the couch from an apparent deep cut on the back of his head.
Spinell was buried in Calvary Cemetery, Queens near his home.
|1972||The Godfather||Willie Cicci||Uncredited; small role|
|1973||Cops and Robbers||Marty||minor role|
|The Seven-Ups||Toredano||minor role|
|1974||The Godfather Part II||Willie Cicci||supporting role|
|1975||Rancho Deluxe||Mr. Coleson||small role|
|Farewell, My Lovely||Nick||small role|
|92 in the Shade||Ollie Slatt||minor role|
|1976||Next Stop, Greenwich Village||Cop||small role|
|Taxi Driver||Personnel Officer||small role|
|Stay Hungry||Jabo||minor role|
|Rocky||Tony Gazzo||supporting role|
|Big Wednesday||Psychologist||small role|
|Paradise Alley||Burp||minor role|
|The One Man Jury||Mika Abatino||supporting role|
|Starcrash||Count Zarth Arn||supporting role|
|1979||Last Embrace||Man in Cantina||small role|
|Winter Kills||Arthur Fletcher||small role|
|Rocky II||Tony Gazzo||supporting role|
|The Little Dragons||Yancey||small role|
|1980||Cruising||Patrolman DiSimone||minor role|
|The Ninth Configuration||Lt. Spinell||minor role|
|Forbidden Zone||Squeezeit's Father||small role|
|Maniac||Frank Zito||lead role|
|Brubaker||Floyd Birdwell||supporting role|
|Melvin and Howard||Go-Go Club Owner||Uncredited; small role|
|The First Deadly Sin||Charles Lipsky||minor role|
|1981||Nighthawks||Lt. Munafo||supporting role|
|1982||National Lampoon Goes to the Movies||Talent Agent / Beauty Show M.C.||("Success Wanters"); small role|
|Night Shift||Manetti||small role|
|The Last Horror Film||Vinny Durand||also known as Fanatic; lead role|
|Monsignor||Bride's Father||small role|
|One Down, Two To Go||Joe Spangler||small role|
|Losin' It||U.S. Customs Policeman||small role|
|The Last Fight||The Boss||minor role|
|1985||Walking the Edge||Brusstar||supporting role|
|1986||The Whoopee Boys||Guido Antonucci||small role|
|Hollywood Harry||Max Caldwell||supporting role|
|Maniac 2: Mr. Robbie||Mr. Robbie||Short film; lead role|
|The Messenger||Rico||small role|
|1987||The Pick-up Artist||Eddie||small role|
|Deadly Illusion||Hit Man||small role|
|1988||Operation Warzone||Brig. Gen. George Delevane||supporting role|
|Married to the Mob||Leonard 'Tiptoes' Mazzilli||(scenes deleted); small role|
|The Undertaker||Roscoe||lead role|
|1989||Rapid Fire||Hanson||supporting role|
|1975||Strike Force||Sol Terranova||supporting role|
|1977||The Godfather Saga||Willie Cicci||Archive footage from the previous two Godfather films|
|1979||Vampire||Captain Desher||minor role|
|1980||Nightside||Michael Vincent||minor role|
|1983||Trackdown: Finding the Goodbar Killer||Escobar||small role|
|1985||Out of the Darkness||Jim Halsey||minor role|
|1986||The Equalizer||Mob Boss||Episode #1.16 'Wash Up'; minor role|
|1986||The Children of Times Square||Street Vendor||small role|
|1986||Blood Ties||Joey||minor role|
|1986-1987||Night Heat||Various roles||3 episodes|
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