Svelte hustler, Warhol muse, Factory Superstar - 'Little Joe' Dallesandro was the underground screen icon everyone fell in love with. In a rare interview, the reclusive actor opens up about stripping off, holding back and the reality of walking on the wild side.
It hardly ever rains in LA, a city so reliably sun-drenched it makes Saint-Tropez look like Staines, but today the City of Angels appears almost angelic in its rainbow-tinted refraction. In an unrelated but no less wet incident, Joe Dallesandro – still handsome, shy and utterly baffled by media attention – is getting to grips with a domestic plumbing emergency. Currently managing an apartment building in Hollywood, he is primed for this sort of thing. As it turns out, dealing with a burst water pipe is preferable to answering questions about his gloriously colourful past.
Today Dallesandro lives a fairly modest existence, happy to fade into the background even if people make it difficult for him to forget his wild, formative existence. He hasnít done an interview in years and isnít the slightest bit interested in playing the game. The request for this one came with a puzzled: “Why?”
“The thing I get bored with is that itís the same old stuff over and over again,” says the 66 year-old with weary-sounding reluctance. “I get tired of telling the same old stories. The trouble is, now I’m older, I can’t even remember the stories anymore.”
But people remember Joe Dallesandro. Perhaps it’s because there’s something so unforgettable about the way he looked. Or that the films he made with Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey in the late 1960s – the warped triumvirate of Flesh, Trash and Heat – are now considered underground classics. Who could fail to be seduced by all that unself-conscious nudity, unprecedented at the time and so ground-breakingly sexy?
I consider myself bisexual. It wasn’t that I was sexually attracted to men per se, but if you do something for a while you can acquire a taste for it.
Bigger stars have had songs written about them, but few can lay claim to being immortalised in verse in quite the same way as Joe. As ‘Little Joe’ in Walk On The Wild Side, he was the non-fiction body for sale in Lou Reed’s ode to Warhol’s Factory ‘Superstars’ – the svelte, street-wise hustler who evolved into underground cinema’s most compelling sight. Co-star and cross-dressing icon Holly Woodlawn might have plucked her eyebrows along the way, but it was the unbelievably handsome Joe that everyone fell in love with.
Born in Florida in 1947 to a dysfunctional family, Dallesandro had a turbulent upbringing and evolved into a law-breaking teenager often in trouble with the police. His mother spent time in the state penitentiary for car theft, while his father, unable to cope, left Joe and his younger brother Bobby to fend for themselves in a series of love-free foster homes. Thrown out of school for assaulting the principal (never a good idea), he would eventually wind up on the streets, before turning to casual prostitution to support himself.
No stranger to people admiring his body, Joe famously worked as an underage nude model in the mid-1960s for Bob ‘Beefcake’ Mizer’s Athletic Model Guild and the spurious-sounding Bruce of Hollywood studio. With his chiselled abs and permanently erect nipples, men swooned at the sight of this near-perfect specimen, a physique the normally conservative New York Times would call: “so magnificently shaped that men as well as women become disconnected at the sight of him.” When quizzed about that formative adulation, he is resolutely nonplussed. “I don’t know what to say,” comes the blank reaction, his voice raspy and gnarled by experience. “That’s how other people felt and I have no control over that. None of that was calculated, it was just who I was.”
He claims never to look at the internet (“My wife keeps me up to date, but Iím not that interested”), yet even a cursory glance at YouTube reveals an oiled-up muscle teen obviously exploited by predatory men. “I can’t get over the fact that people are still interested in looking at nude photos I did when I was 15 or 16, and they’re still flashing those photos around. All the models they had and they’re still showing my shitty old photos. It’s nuts. I don’t have any regrets, but that’s one of the things in my life that I don’t think about anymore.”
Later, back in New York, visiting a Greenwich Village apartment (“a friend said to me ‘come and meet this artist, the Soup Can guy’ “), the buff 19 year old strolled in to find a film crew setting up equipment in the living room. Asked to take part in the action by stripping down to his Y-fronts and wrestling the movie’s male lead, filmmakers Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey invited the diminutive hunk to join their coterie of Factory faces. Warhol would later tell the press, “In my movies, everyoneís in love with Joe Dallesandro.”
“There’s no rhyme or reason why I wound up where I wound up,” says Joe, still sounding vaguely incredulous about his fate. “I walked into that place and everything changed. It wasn’t until Paul and Andy came into my life that I got what you might call ‘direction’. It was only then that I started to know what I wanted to do with my life. If I hadn’t met them I’d probably have ended up in prison because I kept making the same mistakes over and over again. When I got connected with Paul and Andy I got some good direction.”
On Warhol he is concise: “I’m not sure what Andy thought of me because he never told me to my face. I’ve said in the past that I think he was actually scared of me. That’s why he had me working at the Factory as security. I was at the Factory every day for five years. I would answer the door and let people in and then, after Andy was shot, I was there all the time. There weren’t many people who spent many hours of the day with him but one of those was my brother Bobby, who was his chauffeur and drove him around all day long for six or seven years. He would sit in the car with Andy then come home and tell me about all the conversations they’d had. I mean, I only ever said three or four words to Andy when we were together: ‘Thank you’ when he gave me a cheque, ‘Good morning’ when he came in, ‘Good night’ when he left and that was about it.”
In 1968, after shooting the rarely screened Lonesome Cowboys (a camp, Western romp about a group of gay cowboys in a one-woman town), Joe became the centre of Warhol’s attention and the star of one his most famous movie experiments. In a stroke of genius typecasting, Flesh was the non-conformist tale of Joe, a handsome hustler working to earn money for his girlfriend’s abortion. Confused? Probably not as much as the cast, who famously improvised their lines over two weekends of filming and took only the scantest direction from Morrissey. Self-conscious yet surprisingly tender, it’s the film that would make Dallesandro an underground icon. “He forever changed male sexuality in the cinema,” says director John Waters. Indeed, Flesh exposed Joe in a manner that seems almost shocking by today’s ridiculously prudish standards. On his unabashed full-frontal nudity he is surprisingly sanguine: ”Paul Morrissey told me, ‘Joe, you do these movies now and they’ll be with you for the rest of your life. You may think it’s porno – that you shouldn’t take your clothes off – but take them off anyway, because this is art!’ ”
There’s no rhyme or reason why I wound up where I wound up
Two years later Trash found Joe playing the role of a down-and-out junkie whose heroin addiction has rendered him impotent. Although the critics’ favourite, once again the film is little more than a eulogy to Dallesandro’s prize features and leaves nothing for the boy to do, save walk around naked, stick blunt syringes into his arm and look immaculately wasted. Everyone in Trash, man or woman, wants to have sex with Joe, but he’s so smacked out there’s little joy for anyone.
Completing the famous trilogy, 1971 saw him cast in the Sunset Boulevard parody Heat as an out-of-work ex-child star in the grips of an ageing actress played by Sylvia Miles. Typecast once more as the beautiful hustler, he is nonetheless a much-improved performer here, at the peak of his shiny-maned beauty. But instead of moving on to better things, Joe stayed loyal to Morrissey and deadpanned his way through two further horror spoofs, Flesh For Frankenstein and Blood For Dracula.
What does he think, looking back on those films? “Well I’ve not watched them in almost 30 years so I don’t know what to make of them,” he snorts. “There’s a part of them that will remain with me as always being very silly in the way we did them and there’s a part of me that understands that they’ll always be around because of [Andy] being an artist. Who can say how good they really are?”
By rights, he should be bitter about his part in all the Warhol films – not only were conditions poor but the actors were paid a pittance, even when the movies became eventual mainstream hits. When they weren’t shooting, Joe was even relegated to the role of Factory security and handyman. Nevertheless, he is gracious about his contributions, always insisting that without the artist’s attention he would never had been a star in the first place. “If I hear someone say ‘hey there’s Joe Dallesandro, he was part of that whole Warhol group’, I’m really kind of happy. I knew how important Andy was to everything, even when I was going through it.”
His association with Warhol and the underground art scene certainly put him on the map. Not only did he grace the cover of Rolling Stone, he is the generous penis straining the zip on the Warhol-designed Sticky Fingers LP. Without Hollywood agents and PR spin, Joeís carefree nudity and laid-back personality came to embody the free-spirited look of the early 1970s. A decade later, even Morrissey paid tribute to Dallesandro’s beauty, using a still from Flesh on the sleeve of The Smiths’ eponymous first album.
It’s a long time since Joe was considered one of the world’s most beautiful men, but his liquid hair and boxer’s torso remain a timeless image. The photographer Francesco Scavullo once declared him to be ‘In the top 10 men I ever shot’, while a smitten Tennessee Williams once fainted with desire in his arms, such was the indelible charm. Joe was also the actor who made the great Hollywood director George Cukor sit up and accept that playing a junkie in an indie flick could be considered art. He may not be a household name but, beyond anything, this unassuming man was the number-one counter-cultural heartthrob of his day. “I don’t know what to say about that,’ he says, almost inaudibly. “I’ve never considered myself good looking, I just had some good pictures taken. I’m short and stocky, what’s the big deal? I mean, who can really define beauty?”
On his sexuality, Dallesandro has often claimed to swing both ways, but his hustling, porn work and implied gay affairs are not subjects he’s ever spoken about at length. In Michael Ferguson’s excellent biography, Little Joe Superstar, the star revealed: “I consider myself bisexual. It wasn’t that I was sexually attracted to men per se, but if you do something for a while you can acquire a taste for it.”
This aside, it was Joe’s sweet-natured normality that seduced the wider public, a demeanour sadly lacking in most of the Factory regulars. Does he ever think about the other ‘Superstars’ – Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis, Holly Woodlawn? While he survived relatively unscathed, was he aware at the time that most of them were destined for disaster? “Well, some of them died in accidents and people like Candy Darling died of something unusual,’ he says without emotion. “Holly Woodlawn is still around. I remember being told I had to accompany her over to Cannes for the festival one time and I thought: ‘why am I the one who has to take care of these people?’”
Would it be true to say that drugs and fame are rarely a good match?
“Well, that is the truth!” he laughs. “I wasn’t looking for it at all. I watched other people that went through the Factory at the same time, people like Viva and Eric Emerson and Tom Hompertz who thought what they were doing with Andy was so important and they were so full of themselves. It was good publicity for them, which they thought was wonderful. You have to understand though that publicity is just publicity. When I used to do interviews, Andy would say to me ‘just make it up Joe, you’re more interesting anyway’, and I thought that was pretty cool. I never took much notice of what people wrote or I’d have a giant ego.”
I’m not sure what Andy thought of me because he never told me to my face.I only ever said three or four words to Andy when we were together: ‘Thank you’ when he gave me a cheque, ‘Good morning’ when he came in, ‘Good night’ when he left and that was about it.
How about Walk On The Wild Side – did that also pass you by? Surely being the subject of such evocative lyrics must have been weirdly thrilling? “I thought it was kind of cool that a song had been written about the characters in those movies, but it had nothing to do with who I was. Lou had never even met me. He had no knowledge of me or who I was.”
And who were you back then, Joe? Did you know?
“I think I was an OK guy, nothing more.”
When the Warhol years petered out he moved to Europe – first to Italy where he made a series of low-budget action films, continually cast as a gun-toting hero. Later in France, a few choice parts did ensue, including a role in Louis Malle’s long-forgotten fantasy Black Moon and the Serge Gainsbourg-directed Je T’aime Moi Non Plus. Starring opposite Jane Birkin, the ever-flexible Joe plays a gay man obsessed with her boyish looks. In characteristically pervy Gainsbourg style, the underlying premise of the movie is Joe’s desire to take Birkin from behind. Mention of this plot line raises a hearty laugh. “It’s one of my favourite things I ever did, mainly because of the people I worked with who were exciting and really interesting. Those were happy times for me, but then my brother died in a freak accident and things started to fall apart. Eventually I had to come back to the States. I never thought I’d be able to work here as an actor – I always thought the Warhol things would be detrimental to me, but that wasn’t the way at all.”
In some ways the move away was precipitated by Paul Morrissey’s control freakery – the constant need to let the world know he was the one responsible for the films’ successes. “Paul always pointed out to me how important Andy was, so when I hear him talking today and having such an anger about the whole thing I just don’t get it anymore. He’s such an angry man now, Paul, wanting to let everybody know that they are HIS films and that Andy had nothing to do with them. Jeez, that makes me laugh.”
In an era of documentaries that have revived cult stars’ reputations (Candy Darling, Divine, Jobriath), surely the time is ripe for the release of his own. Unfortunately Little Joe, directed by his adopted daughter Vedra Mehagian, has never seen the light of day. “I backed away from it for a while,” he explains with a little sigh. “There are things I need permission for from Paul, so I’m going to go after him so we can promote it. I gave Paul many years and I had five per cent of all the films I did with him but I never received anything. It’s time for him to make good. A lot of people are interested in seeing Little Joe, so I’ll make it happen. I went to film festivals with it a couple of years ago and they showed the film to great applause – people really liked it. Anything that’s made about me, and has me being me in it, people are going to love. I have a lot of fans.”
Latterly, things have been quiet for this unassuming man. In the 1990s, a trickle of bit parts in TV series such as Miami Vice, plus cameos in cult films such as John Waters’ Cry Baby and Francis Ford Coppola’s Cotton Club kept the wolf from the door, but sadly a great acting career never materialised. “I just don’t like any of the phoniness that goes with it,” he says plainly. “I was never up for playing the game you have to play here – I didn’t have the ambition that goes with being an actor, it just wasn’t for me. I was always happy to work and I loved doing it, but if you wanted me in your movie I wasn’t going to go and chase it down.”
At this point a tenant in the apartment block calls to ask about the leak. Suddenly itís back to a comparatively damp reality. Before he goes though, he takes a look at the pictures shot for this story a week earlier. Relatively unscathed by age, ‘Little Joeí Dallesandro’ still cuts a mean figure, continuing to transfix the world with his iconic looks and rock’n'roll cool. For the first time today a proud smirk spreads across his face. “It was a good day for me,” he beams. “Not bad for an old guy who didn’t get much sleep.”
Grooming by Christian Marc at See Management using Bumble and Bumble
Photography assistant: Joe Daley
Digi Tech by Maxfield Hegedus