On a Monday afternoon in Manhattan, four days before Christmas 1980, the Second Avenue Deli is at it's most full. Conversations are lucid bouncing from wall to wall, which is a near shrine to the actress Molly Picon. There is a queue forming and soon patrons are like the infamous pastrami sandwiches, squeezed and shuffled between the bread. In between people who are running back to their jobs on lunch hour there are others ready to spend an hour or two at the Kosher deli. When Abe the owner directs to the table right by the window looking out onto a cold snap east 10th that their hot Matzah ball soup is on its way, the bill payer and regular is happy. "Hey Al you're saying the right words, you're singing the song." Al gives a knowing glance, but the ever busy deli as he knows is only as good as his last customer, the day is young.
Touching base around Gramercy and flying past the hustling down by Korea Park, Herald Square is awash with the charm yet utter commerserlism of the
christmas season. Macy's dominates, with it's doors ever swinging to the backdrop of shoppers. Tourists and locals alike are swamped by the neon lights and the ever reminding pressure that christmas is less than one hundred hours away. Looking up and straight ahead past the snow which has been swept up by the sidewalks and down west 36th street, a sharp right taking you up Fashion Avenue and then merging into 7th Avenue lies Times Square. Quite possibly the most famous 'square' in the whole of America.
From Queens to the Bronx shoppers are here in their droves, ducking the sea of yellow taxis and taking advantage of the ever overflowing roads to jaywalk their way across the slush and sleet. Swinging left and less than a mile away is Broadway- running parallel to 42nd street, cramped full of hustlers, prostitutes, pimps and downright sleaze. Theaters proudly advertising the newest blockbuster straight out of Hollywood, standing side by side by obscure low budget porn/horror films that ought to come with a free shower at end credits.
On Broadway, 1481 to be exact is the Rialto Theatre, four floors up is a working TV studio. Three doors down and to the right is the 'green room'. A room reserved for guests, that will appear on a televised taping of The Joe Franklin Show. Inside the room actor Joe Spinell is making himself comfortable in a brown leather chair. He is informed that showtime will be in less than ten minutes, he gets up from the chair and stands in front of a mirror the size of a door. He could well be at the Second Ave Deli or with the crowds around Fashion Avenue, or taking in a low budget horror on 42nd street, not to mention checking out the 'girls'. But in this moment he is here and he is comfortable, indeed there is no where else he would rather be. A natural talker now having the opportunity to be on prime time television. He is relaxed, excited and happy.
The Joe Franklin Show started back in 1951, and thus Franklin became known as the first chat show host in history. Franklin known in his heyday as 'The king of Nostalgia' was perhaps the only talk show host that would have on his show some of the most recognizable faces on the planet and have sit with them a struggling New York artist, or a poet who wrote in and wanted to be on the show. Because of this Franklin's show was regarded as something unique, almost surreal. His viewers who became incredibly loyal were reminded daily that Franklin was a celluloid nightcap. A throwback at least to a much more innocent day. In fact, because of Franklin's laid back attitude guests would be eager to appear on his show. Actors who infamously gave interviews once in a blue moon, appeared and reappeared including Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra- the latter coming back no less than four times.
The call was made, and Joe Spinell made his way up to the platform that would host the show. Joe would have a quarter of an hour to promote his latest feature, Maniac. But he would not be on his own. As par for the course Franklin would cram in as many guests as he could muster in his hour segment. Having ten or so guests spread over the show would be the norm. Today would not be different. The musician Freddy Cole, brother of Nat King Cole is closest to Franklin, Joe is by Cole's side and to Joe's right are stage actors Catherine Cox and Michael Rupert. Joe had let his hair grow out since finishing Maniac. Drapped in a dark grey suit, a white shirt invaded by a deep red tie and heavy glasses, Joe was on form shooting off in all directions people that he had worked with and respected. In those fifteen minutes Joe would mention Frank Sinatra, his "good friends" Al Pacino and Robert de Niro, Robert Redford ( who he had worked with on Brubaker) another good friend in Stacy Keach and comments on Sylvester Stallone as "He's the greatest". Joe quotes such diverse historical figures as William Shakespeare and Ethel Barrymore, much to the genuine amazement of both Rupert and Cox. And then without a second's thought and a little firm help from Franklin goes back to talking about his low budget horror film Maniac.
As the interview takes shape Franklin seems genuinely transfixed by Joe's casual demeanour. On a few occasions whilst Rupert and Cox are talking, Franklin cuts them off and ask's Joe's opinion, be it on tipping or reading out his film resume, he always wanted to know what Joe thought. At one point Franklin even produces a press release of the film with the word Maniac dripped in blood red on the front and with a proud fathers smile turns to Joe and says, "There you are, Joe Spinell right at the top of the list, you've gotta be happy with that." Joe smiles.
Though Joe is evidenly happy and relaxed to be on the show his mood changes ever so slightly when Franklin asks Rupert sitting furthest from Joe his opinion on horror movies. Rupert replies that whilst he likes them he's not too keen on the violence that can be portrayed in them. "There's more violence on TV news than there is in the movies," snaps back Joe in his distinct lower Manhattan tone. To which Rupert declares that he doesn't watch TV. Cox sitting inbetween Rupert and Joe does not escape his humour. When she mentions that she was born and raised in Ohio. Though the camera is fixed on Cox's face we hear laughter. "Joe finds that funny," says Cox who is clearly at best perplexed by Joe's laughing. "It's not the most exciting place to be," replies Joe before explaining that it was in Ohio where he filmed Brubaker with Robert Redford. Feeling an uncomfortable moment between himself and Cox, Joe adds, "But the food is pretty good in Ohio." Returning Joe's serve with venom, Cox shoots back "The food is good...." Changing states perhaps to make Cox feel better, Joe reminds the guests and the nation that beef in Montana tastes like shoe leather."
When put back on the subject of his latest movie, Joe is honest enough. "If you don't like horror films, don't come and see it." Franklin wraps up the show by telling Cole who has sat there most of the time in silence that he has a voice like blue velvet, before turning to Joe and asking him where his whereabouts are. Asking first and presuming by Joe's impressive film resume and his Hollywood friends that Joe lives in California, Joe proudly replies "No I live with my mother in Sunnyside, Queens." "Oh," replies Franklin, for a split second sounding surprised that a 44 year old successful actor would be living with his mother. "I did live in California," says Joe, "I called it the Hollywood syndrome, make it, lose it, forget it- I'm back home!" As assured as the big man would ever be.
With retakes the show was wrapped up in a few hours and Joe didn't escape the building without indulging in a few complimentary drinks. In hindsight the show had been a success for Joe and Maniac given the furore that would envelope the film in a few days time. There would be no confrontational talk about the films subject matter on this show, just Franklin doing what he does best, and helping plug the movie. By the time Joe left the building he could have gone to the Garden to watch that nights Ice Hockey match between the New York Rangers and Calgary Flames. Where if he had chosen, could have witnessed Brad Marsh and Ed Hospeder kick the seven shits out of one another- he probably would have appreciated that. Instead under a darkening bruising New York sky, where snow was predicted, Joe hailed for a cab. The wind lashed around one last time as the cab pulled up, and at that moment all Joe wanted to do was talk Joe Franklin with his mother, in Sunnyside.