Joseph J. Spagnuolo was born on October 28, 1936 in Manhattan, New York City at his family’s apartment on 2nd Avenue. Spinell was a tough guy on and off screen all his life. During his teen years, while still in high school, he acted in various plays on the New York stage, on and off Broadway, eventually earning a place in Joe Papp’s Shakespeare Festival Theater. In 1960, he parlayed his stage work into a performing contract for MGM, where it was suggested that he change his name to Joe Spinell to make his name easier to pronounce. For nine years, Spinell worked with the group, which was also known as the Theater of the Forgotten, which also put on plays in prisons for the inmates. His minimal salary for his stage work forced him to hold down other jobs to make ends meet. Those jobs included working as a taxi driver, a post office clerk, and a liquor store clerk during Christmas holidays.
In 1972, Spinell was first noticed when he appeared in his first movie role, a small, uncredited speaking part in The Godfather (1972), the right film for a tough, mean-looking Italian with a New York City accent. After his success, he became a familiar character actor who appeared in violent urban movies where he was usually cast as vicious thugs or seedy gang leaders. In both Godfather movies he played the hit man Willy Cici. In Rocky (1976), the first of several films he made with Sylvester Stallone, he played the loan shark Gazzo who employs Rocky as a collector.
His best (or worst) or most disgusting role is probably the one for which is his best remembered: the rare starring role of Frank Zito in Maniac (1980), a serial killer who kills women and uses their scalps to dress up female mannequins he keeps in his apartment. After Maniac (1980), Spinell continued acting with big-name Hollywood and independent movie directors, usually playing villainous thugs in small to medium roles.
During the last years of his life, Spinell’s choice of projects became increasingly suspect; for example, imprisoned serial killer John Wayne Gacy wanted Spinell to play him in a movie. But with Maniac (1980) still on his mind, Spinell always wanted to do a sequel to the movie and with New York filmmaker Buddy Giovinazzo, they shot a 10-minute promo reel in 1986 titled Mr. Robbie, which was to be the sequel for Maniac (1980). After a few years of hard work and searching, Spinell found financing for the sequel. But just as preproduction was to begin, Joe Spinell suddenly passed away in his apartment in Sunnyside, Queens, New York on January 13, 1989, at age 52, due to undetermined causes, still the subject of much speculation. Some say he died of a heart attack because of his failing health in recent months due to his heavy drinking, drug use, and the emotional turmoil resulting from his mother’s death in 1987. Others say he died from an asthma attack, or that he bled to death from an accidental (or deliberate) cut since he was a hemophiliac.
Spinnel left behind an impressive body of film work that stands as a testament to his talent and unique screen presence as a character actor. He is survived by an ex-wife, a daughter, two brothers and a sister.
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