Before Al Pacino portrayed a junkie in The Panic in Needle Park--and then a man in a relationship with a trans woman in Dog Day Afternoon--there was Joe Dallesandro, in Trash.
Before Jon Voight played a male hustler in Midnight Cowboy, there was Joe Dallesandro, in Flesh.
And before beautiful, androgynous men with long hair were photographed by Bruce Weber for the most iconic Calvin Klein ads of the 1980s and beyond, there was Joe Dallesandro, with waist-length hair and a clean-shaven, elegant face: the man legendary photographer Francesco Scavullo said was “one of the ten best” male models he ever photographed.
But before any of those events happened, Joe Dallesandro was photographed by Bob Mizer for his Athletic Model Guild, on a single day, 50 years ago. While the stills and film have been adored by many--and thought of as the start of his career in film--Dallesandro has had, at best, an uneasy association with them.
It is ironic that Joe became perhaps the most famous of Mizer’s models. Biographer and friend Michael Ferguson spoke with BMF about the iconic shoot.
“Joe wasn’t a fan of physique pictorials. Before the photo shoot, he didn’t know who Bob Mizer was,” Ferguson said.
While Dallesandro has come to terms with the pictures as part of his work history, Ferguson said, it’s an overstatement to say he is nostalgic about them.
The now-famous photo session with AMG happened in 1965 according to Joe, and 1966 in BMF’s archival records, during a three-month period Joe lived in California, after having hitchhiked from Mexico. The young street kid wasn’t at a great place in his life, and he was badly in need of money, Ferguson said. He was approached for the Mizer shoot while hanging out at a bus station.
Like many young men Mizer photographed, Joe thought the photos would be seen by very few, if they ever saw the light of day at all. Either way, he assumed they would soon be forgotten; it makes their modern-day presence a thorn in his side at times. It’s stunning to Joe that people still take any interest in them, Ferguson said. To Joe, the photos are a one-time job he was paid for, after which he moved on to other things.
However, of all Joe’s experiences with physique pictorial photography, the day he spent shooting with Bob Mizer was probably the best of the bunch, Ferguson said.
“Joe said Mizer behaved properly with him, and that the photo session went ‘as advertised,’” he explained. Unfortunately, other photographers were neither very respectful nor ethical in their treatment of Joe, he said.
It was a long day, and a productive photo session. Some 86 still photos were taken of Dallesandro by Mizer, along with an 8mm film, described in Ferguson’s biography:
“AMG Film #D-48 begins with a close-up of Joe’s face and chest as he holds a placard with his name in white letters. He manages an awkward smile and puts the sign down as the camera pulls back and reveals him oiled and shining against a black background. He pumps his arms for bicep action, then leans back on a table and tenses his stomach to display his phenomenal “six-pack,” smiling and shaking his head. He gets up and moves the table out of the way, then continues to pose and flex. He seems oblivious to the fact he is naked. While shadow-boxing, he dodges his imaginary opponent, weaving and bobbing and waiting to get in his best shot, so much so that he even waves the “other guy” off at the end. It’s an acting exercise before he was an actor. Next, he pitches imaginary baseballs, then it’s running and dancing in place, and on to a spectacular series of high-kicks in profile. He executes a complete flip dead-on to the camera, nearly losing his balance, then smiles a charming adolescent grin and wipes his forehead in movie actor’s fatigue. He lies down on the floor, but shows some difficulty deciding how best to arrange his legs, no doubt because of the awkwardness of needing to keep his genitalia on display. He finally chooses a resting posture and the camera slowly pans across his oiled and sleepy physique: a formal black and white study of a dozing Adonis. The lights go out.”
-- Michael Ferguson, Joe Dallesandro: Warhol Superstar, Underground Film Icon, Actor (2011)
The ever-humble actor has said he wonders why people ever found him attractive; he’s often been quoted describing himself as “short and stocky.” Directors Paul Morrissey and Andy Warhol saw things very differently, repeatedly casting him in their films as the object of everyone’s affections. And it was Warhol’s photo of Joe’s denim-clad crotch and legs that the Rolling Stones chose to use on their Sticky Fingers album cover. The influence of his look and style can still be seen in the editorial work of today’s top male models.
Although his onscreen persona in films that followed was that of an uninhibited free spirit, it may come as a surprise to some of his fans that Dallesandro carried Catholic guilt about nudity which persists to this day. That cultural sensibility was instilled in Joe early on, Ferguson said, even though Joe believed from a young age that one’s sexuality and sexual experience was personal, and, in his own words, “…Shouldn’t matter. It’s there for you to enjoy.”
Following his years with Warhol, the talented actor went on to make over 50 films, many in Europe, where he worked with esteemed directors including Louis Malle and Serge Gainsbourg. His role opposite the lovely Jane Birkin in Je T’Aime, Moi…Non Plus is one of his proudest. Stateside, he was directed in films by Francis Ford Coppola, John Waters, and Steven Soderbergh.
Today, Joe lives a quiet life in the Los Angeles area with his wife Kim, occasionally making appearances at special screenings and events. Ferguson maintains Joe’s website, www.joedallesandro.com, which features the most comprehensive gathering of the actor’s work, while Kim looks after his Facebook and Twitter accounts.
Fans who ask Dallesandro to autograph Mizer’s photos will sometimes get one…and sometimes not. There are some shots he refuses to sign, said Ferguson.
“…If the mood strikes him, he can even muster a certain degree of pride, of detached appreciation for a strapping young man showing off his body,” Ferguson wrote in his 2011 biography of the actor.
“…It’s the beauty of the kid and the appreciation of the form that endures. Besides, ‘that little fucker is me.’”
Bob Mizer Foundation celebrates Joe Dallesandro for his contributions to the advancement of equality through his acting work and interviews, and as an indelible cinematic icon and artist.
To learn more about Joe and his life on and off-camera, Ferguson’s 2011 biography, Joe Dallesandro: Warhol Superstar, Underground Film Icon, Actor is an essential for fans, and is available in both print and e-book forms on Amazon.com. It is a revised and expanded edition of Ferguson’s out-of-print 1998 biography Little Joe, Superstar.
[Thanks to Michael Ferguson for your interview and support in making this article possible - Bob Mizer Foundation]