If, by chance, you’re unfamiliar with the name Joe Dallesandro, you likely know his image, which has been ubiquitous in pop culture for more than four decades. His muscular physique, chiseled features and flowing tawny locks made him a popular photographic model, while his uninhibited and often fully-nude turns in a trilogy of films (1968’s Flesh, 1970’s Trash and 1972’s Heat) produced by Andy Warhol and directed by Paul Morrissey established “Little Joe” as an instant and enduring iconic sex symbol to gay men around the world. His sensual film work inspired Lou Reed to devote a verse in his anthem “Walk on the Wild Side,” and his likeness was used on the cover of The Smiths’ debut album and infamously on the front of the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers record. Over the years Dallesandro continued to work in front of the camera with many notable directors including Louis Malle, Jacques Rivette and John Waters. Today, Dallesandro, now 67, lives a somewhat less heady existence with wife Kim in Hollywood, where they manage an apartment building while working on Joe’s memoir. To show appreciation for his devoted gay fan base and to help troubled LGBT youth, Dallesandro has donated personal memorabilia and signed photos to raise funds for The Trevor Project, which provides assistance for suicidal queer teens. “He epitomized a special time and place in our culture,” says Phil Tarley, curator of the auction and event which takes place in Hollywood February 6. “Back then to be out was to be an outlaw and who would’t want to fantasize about being in an outlaw gang with ‘Little Joe’ Dallesandro.” Tarley notes that Joe was warm and generous in wanting to support the organization and the amazing things that they do. You can bid on the silent auction here.
Dallesandro spoke with Queerty about why he’s working with The Trevor Project, saying goodbye to costar Holly Woodlawn and whether Lou Reed’s lyrics are factual.
Queerty: You’ve donated photos that will be auctioned at a benefit this weekend for The Trevor Project, where you’ll also be the guest of honor. How did you become involved with the organization?
They asked me. My wife keeps me updated with organizations like this and this is a really great one. We put together come photo collages. It’s good for people to have something like this to turn to. Fortunately, no one in my life has suffered like this, but I think the work they do is very important.
You have grandchildren now. What are some of the lessons you’ve learned over the years that you try to impart to them and other young people?
Well, my grandchildren aren’t old enough to have any problems right now. I was just with my grandson two days ago. He’s eight years old. Life to him is great and a video game. He’s as happy as can be. We’re going to spend some more time together this summer. He and his pops are going to come out to be with me for a little bit. For young people, I’ve always believed we should have someone we can talk to. I know lots of runaways. I was one of those kids who thought he was grown up at 15. You’re not at that age, but I thought I was an adult. So I know how we can get out there and run around with a lot of wrong information. Lots of people need help and people with the right information to give them.
Along with Billy Name, Brigid Polk, Jane Holzer and Viva, you’re among the last surviving Warhol superstars. To what do you attribute your longevity?
I made Paul Morrissey my mentor and I listened to what he’d tell me. He warned me about the fame and about the press. He told me that if I was going to believe all the beautiful things people said about me, I had to believe all the ugly things, too. I just made that my truth. People can feel how they feel about who I portray on screen. That has nothing to do with who I am as a person. I don’t have to fall into that trap. I watched a lot of people with the Warhol group fall into that thing about being “superstars.” I just looked at what they were doing and said they were “stupidstars.” [Laughs]
You were also busy raising a family. I presume that responsibility helped keep you somewhat grounded.
Pretty much, yes. That’s the thing that keeps everybody grounded. When you have children you have to make sure they’re all right. Yeah, they helped keep me grounded.
I’m a big admirer of the trilogy of films you made with Paul. I think they were both ahead of their time in terms of your matter-of-fact nudity and viewed today they offer riveting snapshots into a bygone era.
I did two types of films. The Warhol films were a lot different from Paul’s trilogy. They still were Warhol films because Andy did show up and would participate int he sense that he’d pay for us to make them. They were Andy Warhol films because back then if I had any problem with the nudity… Back then Paul would tell me it called for some nudity. I’d ask him why and he’d say, “Joe, these aren’t sleazy films. These are films that will one day be shown in museums. These are Andy Warhol films. These are art movies, Joe!” I had to trust that what he was telling me was the truth. And the fact is, these movies have had a long walk. I thought they’d disappear, but they’re still here.
How did you first come to the attention of Warhol and Paul Morrissey?
I think everybody knows this story. It’s the story of the famous Campbell’s soup. This guy was famous for Campbell’s soup and I wanted to go down there and get a bowl of soup. I loved that soup. They told me this guy was shooting a movie down there. When I got down there and watched what they were doing I thought it was a home movie. This was not a real movie. It looked like a home movie to me. They didn’t have any soup, the bastards. [Laughs] When they asked me to do a small role in one of the films, I said sure I’ll do it. That was a 24 hour movie that Andy was shooting but it was cut down into a shorter film before it was released in the 24 hour film. It was shown only once in its entirety. When they cut it down it was a film called The Loves of Ondine and that was my first movie with the Warhol people. When Paul approached me at the end of the shot, he said I need you to sign this release. I started laughing. I said, “For what? You’re not going to release this movie. It’s just for you guys.” He said, “No, no, this is a real movie.” I just laughed and signed the release because I couldn’t believe it. I told him I’d keep an eye out for it. I turned out to be wrong about it all, but the soup I got burned on.
There’s a popular John Waters quote in which he said you changed male sexuality in the movies forever. Was there any discussion while making Flesh and Trash that they were groundbreaking?
It was mentioned. I had to believe what they told me. When I went to Europe and did Frankenstein and Dracula, which were the last two I did with the Warhol people, I decided those would be the last movies I would do with them. I had a couple of films I was already signed to make in Italy so I decided I wouldn’t make art films anymore, I’d only make shoot -em ups. I did a lot of those silly films in Italy. My manager at the time reminded me that since people expected me to do those kind of films I needed to continue so France was my place to work with art directors. I got to work with a lot of great directors. There was Louis Malle, Serge Gainsbourg, Jacques Rivette, who just passed away. It’s an interesting list.
You inspired a verse in “Walk on the Wild Side.” Did you know Lou Reed was writing about you before the song was released?
Here’s how that went. Here’s the story from the maestro Paul Morrissey, who has become a real angry man in his old age. Back in the day when Lou had left the Velvet Underground and wanted to continue his career and write some songs, he couldn’t think of any material to write about. Paul suggested he write a song about the people in the Factory. He went to a couple of the films we were in. He saw Flesh and from that he wrote lyrics that are supposed to identify who I am. It had nothing to do with who I am. He’d never met me. We’d never spoken. For me. the savior was the line “and the colored girls go doo doo doo…” It had a great chorus.
You were one of the last people with Holly Woodlawn before she passed away in December. What were your final moments with her like?
I’ve been with a lot of people who’ve passed away so when I was with Holly she was taking her last breath. I recognized it right away. I was able to say a prayer and wish her on her way to a heavenly spot. Hopefully, everything that hurt her down here will never follow her anywhere else. We hope to do a nice memorial to her. It’s going to happen. We’ll see.
It’s been a watershed year for transgender people. How do you think your colleagues like Holly and Candy would fare if they were coming up today?
I think they’d be much happier people. I believe fear and anger cause people to get cancer. I don’t know exactly how Candy passed away but I heard she’d been eaten up. How much of that can we contribute to the pain she had from outside sources? I just think that the way things are today, it’s much easier for people to deal with than back then. But we had a lot of fun back in those days. People came from all around trying to do the Warhol thing. It was great that Paul put people like Candy and Holly in his films. Andy loved to talk to them. It’s not like my life led to my hanging out with people like Candy and Holly. I got to see them on the sets of these movies. What I had going for me is I’m a very friendly and nice guy. I made them feel very comfortable while improvising a movie. Holly could talk really fast. She was going to take control and not let anybody else talk. It was a good thing.
You posed for a series of nude photographs while you were still a minor. How do you prevent those photos from being distributed now?
The way I fight against it, well there’s not much I can do except remind my fans that I was really very, very young when these were taken. I shouldn’t have had myself in that position, but I was. I believe children should be protected. I wouldn’t want that to happen to my son. I didn’t have that kind of protection. I wasn’t looking for it because I thought I was all grown up. One thing led to another that made me feel abused. I’m going to write about it in this book I started.
I’m glad to know you’re finally working on a memoir. What’s your life like these days?
I stopped acting a long time ago. As a building manager, I have 90 tenants and I interact with all of them on a regular basis. It’s difficult working with young people. It really is. Except I have some celebrity to me so they at least take a moment to listen to what I say. There used to be a lot of older people living here, but they’ve died off over the years and now there are a lot of young people. When I started working here about 80 percent of the doors were broken. People here are poor. That’s why they pay such low rent. They don’t have money to go live anywhere else. If there’s no one here to give them the spare key when they lock themselves out, they kick their doors down. It’s not like they can afford to call a locksmith. As a manager I’ve been here and am available to the people. They call me at all hours of the day and night to get back into their rooms.
As someone who’s emblematic of a more hedonistic time, what are your thoughts on the state of the country and the upcoming presidential election?
I don’t watch the news. When I was young, I’m from the Woodstock era, I thought by the time that I was this age everything would be different. I thought everyone that was like me back then would be all grown up and running things and things would be different. They’re not. It’s worse with churches and the way people are. There’s still a lot of people who are not able to deal with other people’s choices. I think it’s no one’s business what choices other people make. Everybody should be free and allow people to have what they need in their lives.
Your life seems to have been largely informed by serendipity. How much of your success over the years do you attribute to ambition and how much to being in the right place at the right time?
All of it was being in the right place. I was not an ambitious person who wanted to be an actor. I showed up and thought of acting as a job I liked doing. I never thought of it as “let me see if I can get this role over this other person.” If someone else was up for the same part as me, I’d say let them have fun with it. I’d only do films that people really wanted me to be in. It wasn’t me being so ambitious and probably I did a lot of really stupid films. I had fun doing them, though. Every time I did one it felt very natural to me. They could never work me too hard. I don’t care if the day was 16 hours long. It was always just what I was meant to do. I only stopped doing it because I felt casting people and agents were too disrespectful to the actors. I had to let it go. I don’t like to be angry about anything so when I find myself getting angry, it’s time for me to let it go.
For more information on the auction and tickets to the Trevor Project benefit, go here.