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Heeeeeeeeere's Joey!

Two years in Hollywood haven't been kind to Joey Buttafuoco, but with a new haircut and a talk show (okay, on public access), he's putting his reputation through rehab.

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Straddling his Harley and flashing a grin as big as the Ritz, Joey Buttafuoco cruises down the Sunset Strip. A red bandanna is tied to his neck. The fringe on his leather jacket flutters in the slipstream like wet linguine. Landmarks in the background recede one by one. The Rainbow, the Roxy, Gazarri’s . . . Suddenly, there it is: the Whisky, in all its high-voltage splendor. tonight joey buttafuoco, shouts the marquee outside the famous rock-and-roll club. Hunched over the handlebars, Buttafuoco bobs his head to a garage-band guitar riff. The lyrics are an exercise in economy, just two words: “Jo-ey / Joey Buttafuoco / Jo-ey / Joey Buttafuoco . . .” This is Buttafuoco’s theme song. From Buttafuoco’s new TV talk show. Make that Buttafuoco’s public-access TV show. That’s right: In the Greater Los Angeles area, The Joey Buttafuoco Show has premium time slots (Thursdays and sometimes Sundays at 11:30 p.m.) on channel 77. How many kooks in Hollywood want to be on at 11:30? Plenty. Imagine: Letterman and Leno break for a commercial, and a slew of restless viewers surf right into Buttafuoco’s backyard. That’s the theory, anyway. Buttafuoco is also buying screen time in Chicago and New York, hoping that a major cable network will come calling.

In the host’s own words, his 30-minute show is a forum for those who have “been screwed by their lawyers, screwed by society, screwed by the judicial system.” On his Charlie Rose-like set, Buttafuoco channels Phil Donahue’s buttery feel-your-pain sincerity and Andrew Dice Clay’s swagger. Hollywood call girl and author of You’ll Never Make Love in This Town Again Liza Greer dishes her supposed lesbian affair with Vanna White (Buttafuoco: “Do you smile when you see Wheel of Fortune?”). He fawns over a near-comatose Jan-Michael Vincent -- “Air Wolf was one of my favorite shows,” he gushes. When Vincent discusses his propensity for car crashes, Buttafuoco hands him his body-shop business card. Divine Brown deconstructs the most important trick of her life (Buttafuoco can’t resist: “I know the boulevard. I know what can happen”). He makes kissy-face with wife Mary Jo, who confesses she’d like to have a sitdown with Amy Fisher -- for “closure.” Joey’s stock comment: “It’s a beautiful thing.”

Asked his professional opinion, Brian Unger, an on-air correspondent for Comedy Central’s The Daily Show says, “He’s a poor man’s Jay Leno. Utterly plastic. It is so fake, it’s brilliant. Joey has clearly studied the masters, especially Barbara.” Yvette Vega, senior producer of Charlie Rose, isn’t too worried: “I think the show poses very little threat to Charlie.”

Like the Baldwin brothers and Jerry Seinfeld before him, Joey Buttafuoco has ditched Massapequa for Hollywood. This was not a capricious act committed by a man in the meaty fist of a midlife crisis. Sherri Spillane -- ex-Vegas showgirl, ex-wife of pulp-fiction writer Mickey Spillane, latter-day agent at the Ruth Webb Talent Agency -- told Joey she could get him into pictures. Spillane is a protégée of Ruth Webb, a seventysomething former cabaret crooner who founded the agency in New York in 1963. It quickly gained a reputation for representing child performers and fading celebrities. Ten years later, Webb relocated to Los Angeles and carved out a niche finding dinner-theater gigs for aging B- and C-list talent. Former clients include Yvonne DeCarlo (Lily Munster), Dawn Wells (Mary Ann of Gilligan’s Island), and Mickey Rooney, a 23-year client she’s now suing for unpaid Sugar Babies fees.

The turning point for Webb came six years ago when Sherri Spillane had the idea to develop a scandal division within the agency. Spillane had her epiphany watching the Tonya Harding controversy unfold: Infamy, when managed correctly, can be leveraged into lucrative television appearances and product endorsements. This was familiar territory for Spillane, who had dated Sammy Davis Jr. while still married to her husband, at a time when interracial relationships -- not to mention interracial extramarital affairs -- were taboo. She also appeared nude on the cover of one of her husband’s Mike Hammer books.

After the Olympics, Spillane signed Harding almost immediately. John Wayne Bobbitt was next. Then, in the wake of the Amy Fisher case, the “Long Island Lothario” boarded the bandwagon. Other passengers have included Gennifer Flowers, Tammy Faye Bakker, Kato Kaelin, Divine Brown, and one of the division’s top money-earners to date, Randal Tamayei, a bus mechanic who bears a striking resemblance to Judge Lance Ito.

Spillane insists that when you’re talking about scandal, it pays to think big. She helped Brown pull down nearly $300,000 from interviews, public appearances, and TV commercials. She envisions an international chain of Scandal Cafés. Imagine John Wayne Bobbitt’s sutures, Amy Fisher’s beeper, or Monica Lewinsky’s copy of Leaves of Grass preserved under Plexiglas.

After Buttafuoco signed with Ruth Webb, the agency did a mass mailing to more than 1,000 casting directors and producers. With no results to show for its effort, the agency took a radical course of action. In the April 9, 1996, issue of Daily Variety, Spillane purchased a full-page ad. The promo featured a bare-chested Buttafuoco spilling out of ripped acid-washed jeans and sporting a fake spiderweb tattoo.

“Joey’s ad in Variety was absolute genius,” recalls one studio executive. “There he was, half naked and leering like some sort of deranged porn star. It was a running joke at Morton’s for weeks.” Some questioned the wisdom of taking such a hard-line, anti-industry stance. “I don’t think the part about Joey needing ‘high rubber boots to protect him from the snakes’ endeared him to many producers,” says one CAA agent.

Buttafuoco did get booked as a guest on the syndicated Fox game show called Liars. Billed as a “relationship show,” the series was canceled soon after it debuted. There was also a lead role offered in an Off Broadway production of Kiss Me Kate. But Buttafuoco passed. “I don’t wear tights,” he says adamantly. He did portray a bodyguard in HBO’s Perversions of Science, a half-hour Tales From the Crypt-type drama starring Paul Williams and David Leisure, the guy who played Joe Isuzu. (Buttafuoco’s total screen time: less than two minutes.) Yet to come is The Godson, a Godfather rip-off and major theatrical release starring Rodney Dangerfield and Dom DeLuise. Buttafuoco plays Guppy, a character described in the film’s treatment as “a bumbling putz with a pinkie ring.”

Joey Buttafuoco pulls up to valet parking at the Rainbow Bar & Grill in his mint-condition 1978 Lincoln Continental, a hulking mass of high-gloss burgundy paint and polished chrome. In this town’s image-conscious society, where you pretty much are what you drive, such an automobile might give people the wrong idea. Quentin Tarantino driving a ‘78 Lincoln would be one thing -- ironic, an homage to blaxploitation films. But Joey Buttafuoco driving a ‘78 Lincoln? That’s something else entirely.

Extricating himself from behind the wheel, he walks to the passenger side and opens the door for Sherri Spillane. Buttafuoco may be a convicted rapist, but nobody can say he isn’t a gentleman. He tosses the keys to a red-vested Hispanic youth and flashes some teeth. His Davidoff cigar, wedged firmly in his jowl, doesn’t budge.

The Rainbow is a popular haunt favored by young people, particularly musicians and their groupies. This is terra firma for Buttafuoco. He used to work in the disco upstairs as a weekend bouncer. “I was a manager, not a bouncer,” he insists, describing his duties thus: “If you had a problem, you made it go away.”

Here at the Rainbow, he is among friends. He enters the restaurant glad-handing customers and waitresses, handing out flyers to promote his new cable-television show. The flyer shows 5-year-old Joey in a park on Long Island, dressed in chinos, windbreaker, and skipper’s hat. The photo is black-and-white. Very grainy. The message is clear: Joey’s not the big, bad wolf.

At 43, Buttafuoco is still a formidable presence, standing six feet tall and weighing almost 250 pounds. He’s put on some weight since settling in the land of egg-white omelettes and wheat-grass juice. As for the Italian Afro that once sprouted from Buttafuoco’s scalp, it’s been pruned into a neat, camera-ready coif. Gone, too, is the gold pinkie ring engraved with his father’s initials, as is the small diamond stud he once wore in his right ear. Not that Buttafuoco has sworn off jewelry. He wears no fewer than six rings on his right hand and a Hercules-size bracelet on his left wrist. Everything is silver, the kind of clanky pieces found in southwestern souvenir shops. And while he continues to wear the same black jeans, T-shirt, leather jacket, and snakeskin cowboy boots, he’s added long-sleeve shirts to the repertory, voluminous XXXL garments billowing over the T-shirts like dressing gowns -- tails untucked, front unbuttoned.

Buttafuoco and Spillane take a table on the patio, and I ask him how his day went. “Great,” he replies enthusiastically. “I just came from an audition at 20th Century Fox. It was a good reading. I just do what feels natural,” he says, as if acting were the smoothest transition in the world from banging dents out of fenders for a living. “I went into this reading today very confident. My self-esteem is good. It’s up there.”

Although he nailed the audition, he won’t reveal the name of the project. “It’s a very major film” is all he offers. “Big director, big stars. Very big. They don’t come any bigger.” Buttafuoco claims that he read for a lead role, even if all his roles up to this point have been minuscule. Things like The Underground Comedy, a Kentucky Fried Movie-style collection of skits featuring Axl Rose and Anna Nicole Smith. The first-time producers financed the project with capital raised peddling vegetable slicers.

When questions come up concerning projects mentioned occasionally in places like Cindy Adams’s New York Post column, Spillane runs interference.

What was the fate of Don’t Open My Grave, a horror film in which Buttafuoco was supposed to have landed the lead?

“Didn’t happen,” concedes Spillane.

The instructional film on how to avoid car theft?

“We’re still working on that.”

A spin-off book proposal?

Same.

And that 900-number scandal line?

“We never really got it off the ground,” says Spillane, doing a quick sidestep. “We’re going to talk about it in two weeks.” It seems cruel to ask about the workout video Buttafuoco hyped in Britain’s Sunday Telegraph.

Buttafuoco smiles. For the moment, he seems content to let Spillane supply the answers. He pauses to take a long draw on his iced tea. His oversize glass dwarfs all others in sight.

Asked how Buttafuoco ranks as an actor, on a scale of one to ten, Sherri doesn’t skip a beat: “He could be a ten.” What about right now? “About an eight and a half,” she replies. His right eyebrow arches: “Really? I was figuring around a seven.” But Spillane isn’t finished: “I say that only because he’s not doing it all the time. He’s not practicing his craft.”

All I can think of is the Perversions of Science tape I screened the night before. To say that his character is stiff as cardboard would be slandering cardboard.

What kind of things won’t he do? this is a subject that Spillane feels very passionate about. “Anything exploitive,” she says firmly. “We don’t do adult films.” Buttafuoco seconds the emotion: “I turned down a lot of money. Over $500,000 for soft-core. But I don’t do that. I’m a happily married man.” This line is delivered with an utterly straight face. Maybe Spillane is right: Maybe he really is an eight and a half.

Good friend Ron Jeremy confirms there was an offer on the table but maintains that it was strictly for hard-core ($80,000 plus a 50 percent royalty on all sales). Jeremy, the industry’s most prolific working porn actor and the auteur behind Bobbitt’s Uncut and Brown’s Doc-Hugh-Drama, respects Buttafuoco’s decision but regrets the missed chance to collaborate. “Bobbitt was difficult to work with because he has ADD, attention-deficit disorder,” Jeremy complains. “But Joey I would have really loved to direct. He’s fairly intelligent. He speaks well, and I’m sure he can memorize dialogue.”


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