Like John Cazale, Joe Spinnell was one of the greatest and most recognizable character actors of the 1970s. Spinnell played pivotal roles in several 1970s film classics (“The Godfather,” “The Godfather Part II,” “Taxi Driver,” “Rocky,” “Big Wednesday,” “Cruising”) and was the star, co-writer, and executive producer of 1981’s “Maniac,” arguably the most notorious of all the early 1980s slasher films.
To say Spinnell was a “character” is an understatement. The man was a terrific actor and had a big heart, but was more than a little loony. Really loony. Apparently, John Wayne Gacy wanted Spinnell to play him if they ever made a movie about him. But as loony as Spinnell was, he was arguably, crazy like a fox at times. Reportedly, he was the second highest paid actor in “The Godfather” after Marlon Brando. He apparently made more money from “The Godfather” than Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, and Diane Keaton, even though he only had a minor role. Why? He asked Francis Ford Coppola if he could hang out on the set when he wasn’t working and Coppola agreed. Since Spinnell was a SAG actor, he was logged in as “working” every day he was on the set. As a result, he collected a huge paycheck and collected huge residuals from what was then, the biggest box-office hit in movie history. As they say, nice work if you can get it.
“The Joe Spinnell Story” is a terrific documentary that was sort-of thrown away as an extra on the “Maniac” DVD. However, the entire documentary is available on YouTube. If you’re a fan of 70s cinema or cult cinema in general, this documentary is a must-see.
Not many people remember the late actor John Cazale by name. But you would instantly recognize him by the amazing characters he played (Fredo in the first two “Godfather” films; Sal, the quiet, but scary bank robber in “Dog Day Afternoon”; and Stan, the loudmouth macho-wannabe ne’er do well in “The Deer Hunter”). He was only in five feature films, before he died tragically of bone cancer in 1978. But every one of the films he was in (“The Godfather,” “The Godfather Part II,” “The Conversation,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” and “The Deer Hunter”) was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, three of which actually won the top award.
“I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale” is an-all-too-brief, but great documentary about one of the best character actors in film history. The fact that so many great actors (Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Meryl Streep, etc.) made it a point to be interviewed for this film is a testament to Cazale’s legacy.
Trivia note: the film was released by the late Adam Yauch’s (MCA of the Beastie Boys) fantastic indie studio Oscilloscope Laboratories.
An excerpt from producer/studio executive Robert Evans’ beyond brilliant audiobook version of his autobiography “The Kid Stays in the Picture.” This is the part where he discusses the making of “The Godfather.” The audiobook was so highly regarded that it was turned into a documentary in 2002, directed by Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen. One of the fringe benefits of having an allergy attack is that I get to talk like Robert Evans. Does it annoy my wife? You bet your ass it does!