Last week, once again, put Maspeth’s own Clinton Diner on the map for filmography geeks. Actually, taking that back, it’s not only film geeks alone, but also true, proud, and patriotic Maspeth citizens. The Barry Levinson-directed new HBO biopic, “You Don’t Know Jack,” about Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the infamous pathologist who administered lethal injections of euthanasia to 130 willing and terminally ill, was shot on site at Queens’ most famous diner. Al Pacino, who plays Dr. Kevorkian, was at the diner and gave a couple of lucky onlookers autographs and handshakes.
Although having Al Pacino at the diner was exciting, the co-owner with his father, Nick Diamantis, said movies are constantly being shot at this authentic 1965-renovated (built in 1935) never-been-touched-since space-age-style diner.
Clinton Diner has been featured in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas with Robert De Niro in 1990, and Philip Seymour Hoffman was there on set in February, and just last week a film called the Gonzo Files with Zoë Kravitz was shot there.
Diamantis, 35-year-old owner and aspiring actor himself (he said he is a part of the Screen Actor’s Guild), who claims to have been in Law and Order, Salt (Angelina Jolie), and a couple of episodes of Gossip Girl, said, having films constantly shot at his diner has become, “part of business.” He adds, “We’re proud, especially to have Pacino here, but it’s part of business.”
Although it’s all business for this diner frozen in time, being in film has other perks than just getting paid and 15-seconds of fame. “I’m happy because it’s used in films. One day this diner may not be here,” Diamantis said. “But it will always be here in film.”
Julian Ruhe, the Location Scout/Assistant for the biopic, applauded the sincerity of the diner’s appearance, “The Clinton Diner is the real deal and has not been significantly changed since the 60's,” Ruhe said. “It is like stepping back in time. It's a place that most scouts know about and keep in the back of their mind for a shoot like this.”
For this particular shoot, which is set in the 1980’s, the diner and Maspeth’s industrial area is exactly what the producers needed to make the scene work. Although the scene was set in Detroit and they changed the name of the diner to Motor Drive, and Maspeth and Rust Streets were changed to Lockhardt Street and Pontiac Terrace, the diner with red-vinyl booths and all was the look they were looking for. “We were trying to find a classic diner that could be anywhere in the country,” Ruhe said. “Clinton Diner is the classic American diner and it is very spacious, which is an important part of any filming location.”
However, the location of a scene can only do so much. The talent and the writing also plays a big role. Tina Vanessa Smith, a 48-year-old who has been acting since she was five and was a waitress in the diner scene said, “It’s a powerful scene because he’s [Pacino] Dr. Kevorkian. It’s controversial dialogue. He’s saying people should die any way they choose, especially painlessly.” In support of the infamous Dr. Death, she added, “It’s inhumane to let humans wither away.”
Adam Mazer, the writer of the controversial biopic, with an especially controversial name about an especially controversial subject matter, said that everything went as he envisioned. After the shoot Mazer said, “Pacino is really owning his role.”
It was a particularly good day for the producers, talent and fans. Although there was some confusion with the press, who was notified through a mass email sent by a Maspeth local and president of the Newtown Historical Society, Christina Wilkinson, were told that it was an open set, but in reality it was closed to press, reporters were shooed away and were told they could not report on this, but, mostly, it all worked out in the end.
Frank Tantillo from Middle Village, who has a hobby, or obsession, of waiting for celebrities at the morning shows in Manhattan five days a week, got two autographs on pictures of Pacino from the Godfather and Scarface. From his hobby he has collected 4,000 pictures with celebrities and just as many autographs. After he got Pacino’s autographs, Tantillo had a magic glow about his face only celebrities give people. He was smiling big and dripping with sweat from the hot day. “He’s a terrific actor, but I’ve been here waiting for two hours in the hot sun.”
Another fan who was able to stop Pacino on his way to his car, was 60-year-old José Camacho, who works at the car repair center across the street from the diner. Wearing a white guinea tee and a thick black goatee he yelled, “Attica! Attica! Pacino, I’m from the Bronx too!” Pacino, born in the Bronx, stopped and shook José’s hand and gave him an autograph on a piece of paper, “To Joe from the Bronx,” it read above the scribbily signature.
Huffing from running across the street to talk to the actor and smiling with satisfaction, Camacho said, “He looked like he was pleased to see some one from the Bronx, some one from his own neighborhood, it made my day.”
The day was a long one, starting at 5:30 a.m. and ending at 2 p.m. and everyone seemed to be lagging from the heat and the excitement of the silver screen. Tasos Vassilakis, a 72-year-old Maspeth local who sells bread to bakeries and diners, including the Clinton Diner, was there all day. Although he said he was watching the girls more than Al Pacino, he said Clinton Diner is a landmark of the working class town.
The classic American diner is usually packed with people whom all seem to be speaking different languages. And even during the shoot one could hear Greek, Spanish and Polish. “They say Maspeth is America. And it is America,” Vassilakis said describing the town as a true melting pot. “There are Germans, Poles, Greeks and Italians. Maspeth and Clinton Diner is America!”