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Big little Joe

He was just after some Campbell’s soup when he first met Andy Warhol, but then Joe Dallesandro went on from being the doorman at the legendary Factory to becoming one of the most memorable of the Warhol superstars. An unlikely pioneer at the age of 18, his mixture of masculine and feminine qualities on camera in the Paul Morrissey directed, Warhol produced trilogy „Flesh“, „Trash“ and „Heat“ made him the first and most famous male nude sex symbol of American underground films of the sixties and seventies and one of the 10 most beautiful men Francesco Scavulla said he had ever photographed. He was the Little Joe of Lou Reed’s song „Walk on the Wild Side“, and the jeans-clad male hips on the cover on the Rolling Stones album „Sticky Fingers“ are his. After quitting the Warhol scene, however, instead of heading for Hollywood stardom, he moved to Europe, made a score of Shoot ’Em Ups in Italy and worked in France with the likes of Louis Malle, Serge Gainsbourg and Jacques Rivette before returning to America in the eighties where he then made fleeting appearances in Coppola’s „The Cotton Club“ and John Waters’ „Cry-Baby“. Looking back at an extraordinary career that spans four decades, Dallesandro now talks about his years at the Factory, the truth behind The Andy Warhol Diaries and explains the difference between retiring and completely retiring.

AU: Do you remember the first time you met Andy Warhol?

Yes, the first time I met him I went to meet the man who painted „Campbell’s Soup Cans“. But I didn’t hear „paint“, I only heard „Campbell’s Soup“, and I thought I was going to meet the guy who made Campbell’s soup. Then I met this person sitting behind the camera reading a newspaper. So, I didn’t really see his face, all I saw was somebody reading a newspaper sitting behind a camera, and that’s how I met Andy Warhol. I was asked by Paul Morrissey on that day to be in this film called „The Loves of Ondine“. Originally, it was supposed to be a 24 hour movie that Andy was making called „Four Stars“, which was only screened once in it’s entirety. But we released it first as a smaller film, The Loves of Ondine, my picture advertising it … and that’s how I met Andy Warhol. I just wanted to eat some soup. I was hungry.

AU: Did you have any other acting jobs or training before you started working with him and Paul Morrissey?

No, my school was the Andy Warhol experience, the four to five years I had with them. Paul now calls it one year, but I couldn’t have made the movies I made with them in just one year.

PJ: What was it like working with Warhol from your perspective?

The first three years while working on the „Flesh“, „Trash“, „Heat“ trilogy, we were kind of partners in the whole thing. He would listen to what I had to say, he would hear my stories, and then he would take the things that I told him about and kind of incorporate a little of that into the movies. He also appreciated me a lot more in the beginning. But as we went along it kind of got odd because he didn’t see that I was growing in any way. He was grooming me to go on with the career but he was not saying the good things that you should say about someone you appreciate.

AU: Nowadays, it seems as if almost everyone who has ever met him has something to say about Warhol, about how he was, how the Factory worked and how everything came together at the time. Since you were there too, does it bother you that there’s quite a lot of nonsense about?

Oh, yes, there is tons of it out there. And I listen to it, I watch people write books about the Warhol days, and I sit there thinking „Hey, this guy was asleep the whole time he was there. He lived in a room in the back, never came out, what the fuck is he writing a book about?“ So, there are people who have their memories. And then Paul says to me sometimes „Joe, everybody’s memories are clouded, even yours“, and I go „Paul, I remember very clearly, you know“. And I sit and I laugh.

I remember when Paul and I started doing the first couple of films together. We had already done „The Loves of Ondine“ and „Lonesome Cowboys“ with Andy, but we, Paul and I, had started with „Flesh“, and I think we had also started with „Trash“ at the time. Then Andy got sued by this guy named Fu-Fu Smith who claimed that he owned „Chelsea Girls“, and he sued Andy for a million dollars. But when Andy got the charge while we were out at Max’s Kansas City, he thought it was a joke and threw the letter away. And then he lost the case. So they put a block on the accounts and it took almost a year to get a new case started again. But since that day, Andy tape-recorded every conversation he had with anybody. Everywhere he went he used a tape recorder and those tapes later on became books. Pat Hackett sat down and transcribed all these tapes, which became „The Andy Warhol Diaries“, and basically they were just all the conversations that Andy had with people on the telephone over the years. Half of them don’t make sense, some of the tapes you can’t really hear, and so Hackett just made it up as she went along.

PJ: You’re one of most memorable of all figures to emerge from the Factory, but you’ve never really hung out there much …

Well, you know, I didn’t have much to do when I first went there. I cleaned up the place, and then I hired Vincent Freemont to do that. He worked in a restaurant in the Village and he was a fan of Andy, so I said to him „Come down, you do this job, and I promise you if you stay with the company, one day you’ll run the place.“ And he stayed with the company and in the end he became one of the heads of the Andy Warhol Foundation. So everybody who stayed at the Factory had something to do there. When I first got in with the Factory, well, I made the movies I did but, basically, Andy never said more than two or three words to me. My brother, who was his chauffeur, had long, long conversations with him. But Andy and I never had any kind of long conversations.

AU: Can you imagine why?

Well, I think he was frightened of me, or whatever…I don’t really know. He thought of me as the person who would chase the people he didn’t want to come in to bother him. Because when I had gone to work there, up in the office, as a regular, it was after Andy had gotten shot, so we had built this square thing around the elevator with the half door that I would buzz people in when they came to the door. And people didn’t argue with me. If I told them to go away, they’d go away. Andy would come in to work in the morning or in the afternoon and tell us who he wanted to see and who he didn’t want to see. And I would tell the guys that Andy is not here and send them away if they were not on the „wanted“ list. So, I did that, answered phone calls, helped Paul with booking and sending out films, collecting the money that came in, things like that really.

PJ: What was your impression of Andy Warhol’s art when you first got in with the Factory?

Andy’s art … you know, people liked his art, but that had nothing to do with me. I kind of like it when I see it in a show, when there are lots of little things all over the place. But to hang one of them up, it never made any sense to me.

PJ: Through your performance in the Warhol/Morrissey films you became the most famous nude sex symbol of underground cinema in the ’60s and ’70s. Did you actually feel comfortable in front of the camera in the beginning?

I didn’t have any problem with it. Having been brought up a catholic, of course, I was in a dilemma of asking myself if what I’m doing is something bad or not, if this is pornographic or if this is art, and what is the difference between the two. But I was always reassured by Paul, that what I was doing was very special, you know, and that it would be seen for many years and I had to trust him that what he was telling me was the truth. And as we see today, many years later, I guess he was right.

PJ: Why, as you’ve commented elsewhere, did you think of „Lonesome Cowboys“ as it being your guiltiest movie?

Really? I don’t think I said that [laughs]. We all went out to Arizona to pretend to be cowboys, and I thought „Yeah, I can be a cowboy, I’d love to ride a horse“… and it turned out the silliest cowboy movie you ever saw in your life. It was nothing like I had ever seen. But I understood from the first day I started working with them for „The Loves of Ondine“ that the people I had just hooked up with and connected with were different, were strange, so I wasn’t shocked by anything. And everybody had looked to me as „Little Joe“ who they all wanted to protect and to take care of, because all the other people in the film were older than me, and I was new to the group. Everybody tried to look after me, though some of them changed pretty quickly as we went along. You know, some people suffer from envy and some of them then wanted to punch my head in and stuff because they thought I went further than they did with the Warhol people and they would have liked to have done the same thing. I didn“t do anything different, I didn’t ask them to put me in movies, they asked me.

PJ: Are there any films you would have not done twice if it wasn’t for the money?

Well, I made a few pretty bad films in Italy. I didn’t even know what they were until we got on the plane going to the location. And first I was told I was only going to do a small part and then I would read the script and find out that I was the star of the movie. I was upset, but … so, yeah, I had a couple of those. And a couple of movies I made I don’t even remember being in them [laughs]. But that’s not because I was not there or anything, it’s just because it was not a great experience to make these films, there was nothing memorable about it.

AU: You haven’t done a lot of movies recently…

Yeah, I am retired now, pretty much. You know, sixty is not that early, I’ve had a body of work. And it was not a career I chased down. I am not out there, not the actor who has ever been out there fighting for a career. If someone wanted me to be in a film, I am happy to do it for you. If you want somebody else, I am not going to fight for the part. The acting business is a dog-eat-dog world and I don’t fight for any job.

AU: Have there been offers lately?

Yeah, I have friends who still remember me and still want me to do little things for them and I am happy to do it. But I’ve kept myself out of the limelight for a while. I’ve kind of made it known that I am retired, that I am not interested, but now I let people know that I am willing to do a few more things before I completely retire.

AU: What’s the difference between retiring and completely retiring?

With completely retiring I mean, when I sit back and watch the grass grow. Right now I am still working. I am still doing things for people, helping people. My whole life I’ve always worked. Even as an actor between films, I’ve always found different things to do. I’ve built stuff, I am proficient as a carpenter, as a plumber, as an Electrician … because acting lends itself lots of free time. You do maybe two, three films a year, and then you have the rest of the year off. I mean the acting may take up three months of your life in a year, so what are you going to do with the other nine months?

PJ: It seems like you’ve felt an urge to do things that are rather down to earth in that spare time.

Yeah, I’ve always done things down to earth, and I do so right now. I run a quite large residence hotel in Los Angeles. Everybody who I’ve put in the place are all friends and actors and street workers, you know, they have all these characters that walk along Hollywood Boulevard dressed up as from Charlie Chaplin to Shrek to Batman to Superman, entertaining the people who come to visit Hollywood, and they all live in my place because it is the cheapest place to live in Hollywood.

PJ: Do you ever wonder how different your life would have turned out if Paul Morrissey hadn’t asked you to step into the scene in „The Loves of Ondine“?

I think, who I am I have always been the same person. No matter what I would have done in life I would have done it to the best of my ability, and I would have had a good time with it. No matter what I brought to the screen, it was always Joe. I am not any different in real life than I am on the movies. I mean, I played different characters but any job I’m doing I feel good about doing, you know, so I would have a good life no matter what. It’s just the nature of who I am. I don’t think that the movies made me any different. I didn’t get a big head over it, I don’t have an ego over being an actor, I watched other people loose themselves with that, but I never wanted to be what they were, I don’t suffer from envy, so that was a gift from God, because I watched other people suffer terribly over that – wanting what other people have – I never had that problem.

PJ: Despite the few „pretty bad“ Italian films you mentioned earlier, you’ve also worked with some very interesting people in Europe.

Absolutely. After the Warhol years, I stayed on in Europe, and I lived in Italy because I fell in love with Rome and with a woman called Stefania. I told the person who was working as my agent at the time that I didn’t want to make any more art films. I was through with art films, I didn’t want to work with any art director and I just wanted to make Shoot ’Em Ups, nothing else. And he said „Joe, you’ve got to think about that, we’ve got to get you make some art films too, because that’s the career where you come from.“ And I said „No“. So the people that I would work with in Italy were mostly these low budget Shoot ’Em Ups, but what I did in France were all … well, real art films [laughs], from Louis Malle to Jacques Rivette … I did all sorts of strange films in France, but in Italy I did nothing but Shoot ’Em Ups. […] I had a good life there. It changed from the Warhol days, now I was actually making money. I lived like a millionaire, spent all the money I had, even though I didn’t get a million dollars. But I wasn’t into property or cars or prestige. I just had a great life, what can I say... 

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