Joe Spinell was born Joseph J. Spagnuolo on October 28th 1936 in Manhattan.  After working in theater for a bit and even having a stint as a contracted player at MGM he finally came into his own. His niche was as one of Hollywood’s most popular tough guy characters actors – his specialties were the seedy NY thug, the underworld heavies, sometimes the seasoned cynical cop -- which meant lots of work in the cop and mafia craze of the 70s. His many film roles in this vein were Willie Cicci in ‘The Godfather’ Part I & 2, loan shark Tony Gazzo in the first two ‘Rocky’ movies, ‘Taxi Driver’, DiSimone in ‘Cruising’, ‘Paradise Alley, ‘Vigilante’, ‘The One Man Jury’, ‘Brubaker’, ‘Charles Lipsky in Frank Sinatra’s last starring role in a film ‘The First Deadly Sin’, Nick in ‘Farewell My Lovely’, Spider in ‘Sorcerer’, Toredano in ‘The Seven Ups’, Munato in ‘Nighthawks’, etc.

He was also quite adept at comedic versions of that same role…as Manetti in ‘Night Shift’, ‘Melvin and Howard’, ‘Losin’ It’, ‘National Lampoon Goes to the Movies’, ‘Married to the Mob’, ‘The Pick-Up Artist’, etc. He also broached the horror genre in several features like ‘Out of the Darkness’ and the 1979 TV Movie ‘Vampire’ with Jason Miller, Kathryn Harrold, Jessica Walter, and E.G. Marshall. On of my favorites of his (though atypical) is the cheapie space classic ‘Starcrash’. In the 1979 flick Spinell plays villain Count Zarth Arn with a cast that also includes Caroline Munroe, Christopher Plummer, Marjoe Gortner, and David Hasselhoff (!!).

However, as his first starring role Joe Spinell chose something very different – writing, and acting as executive producer in William Lustig’s ‘Maniac’. His performance in the film is amazing! Frank Zito is unsympathetic, horrific, and so damn real – a 1981 precursor to the gritty ‘Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer’. Frank liked to scalp women and put the bloody flesh-lined wigs on the mannequins in his apartment where he also kept an assortment of dolls – many in birdcages! Zito eventually gets his when the mannequins in his apartment come to life and twist off his head – even if it’s eventually revealed as a hallucination.

This is creepy with a capital ‘C’ and ‘Maniac’ stands out even 24 years later as one of the goriest films around. It features multiple butcherings, scalpings, assorted violence, and a unforgettable shotgun scene where Tom Savini (as “Disco Boy”) has his head blown off through a windshield in S-L-O-W motion from SIX different angles…if you think you’ve seen it all…this one will make you think again. Savini definitely out does himself in FX department.

As Zito, Spinell is so believable -- which is especially creepy given the fact that he wrote and produced. How realistic was his portrayal? Well…reportedly John Wayne Gacy wanted Spinell to play him in a movie! Supposedly to heighten his performance as Zito, Spinell would go without sleep for long stretches and then get wasted in order to give him that filthy, sloppy edge.

Maniac’ is 88 of the most disturbing minutes ever captured on film. The $48,000 gore-fest was banned in The Phillipines, censored in Britain, and just too downright disturbing for anything near a mainstream audience. The supporting cast includes Caroline Munroe as a fashion photographer, but this is Spinell’s show all the way. As a bit of trivia: ‘Maniac’ was one of the first films to use Dolby Stereo.

With the taste of blood still in his mouth, Spinell starred as stalker supreme Vinny Durand in ‘The Last Horror Film’ which is set against a backdrop of the Cannes Film Festival. Jana Bates (Caroline Munroe, yet AGAIN!) is at Cannes to promote her film and accept an award for her performance in ‘Scream’ (yep, that’s the title of the fictional movie and this was done in 1982!) Crazy NY cabbie Vinny has followed her and wants Jana to star in his film ‘The Loves of Dracula’. Spinell was no doubt giggling to himself when he gives Vinny’s speech about the “excess of gore in today’s cinema”. He even becomes violently ill at a film he considers too bloody. Determined to get to her, Vinny proceeds to off Jana’s entourage one-by-one in a myriad of ways until only she remains. Once again – Spinell is amazing – this time as the psychotic fan brimming with delusions.

Spinell was a supposed alcoholic and drug abuser in real life who died in his Sunnyside, Queens, NY apartment on January 13th, 1989 at the age of 52. Officially his death is listed as a “heart attack” but speculation runs deep to a more lurid ending. From several sources it has been reported that asthmatic Spinell, also a hemophiliac, bled to death after hitting his head in a drunken fall. Ironically, he had written the story, was set to produce, and had found backing for the sequel to his most notorious role. It was to be called ‘Maniac 2: Mr. Robbie’.