In the 1960s, Andy Warhol said that in the future everyone would be famous for 15 minutes, and artists have been pursuing their tick of the clock with ferocity ever since. In Allen Midgette’s case, the minutes pursued him.
It’s not easy hooking up with the actor most widely known as Warhol’s official impersonator—he has no phone or internet access and he doesn’t drive. His studio apartment is a miniscule cube bathed in blinding morning light. A variety of well-tended plants bask in the space, and the room is tidy. Furniture is minimal—in a corner, a tripled-over mattress shrouded in Southwestern linens constitutes a bed. A tiny table with two chairs doubles as dining and lounge. The kitchen is filled more with artwork than appliances. The mat in front of the apartment door across the hall says No Smoking.
Midgette lights up a cigarette after inviting me in, beginning the story about his life as a movie star in Italy and his years as a Warhol “Superstar.” I listen intently for four hours as he chain-smokes. He seems conflicted, even disgusted, at the turn of events that constitute his career. Though he considers his Italian films to be his best work, he is haunted by a past that won’t die—that of being Andy Warhol.
Warhol was almost as famous for using people as he was for his Campbell’s Soup cans—rarely was anyone compensated, monetarily or otherwise. Midgette couldn’t afford an agent or manager to help him, and he used the Warhol persona to get money where he could. “I helped Andy become recognized, but he helped me to remain unrecognized,” scoffs Midgette. He intends to go public with his story soon.
New Jersey-born Midgette planned to be a commercial artist but had no formal training. He chose to study acting in New York City instead, though classes only taught him to be more neurotic about acting. His first audition was with Jerome Robbins for the role of Tony in the film West Side Story
. (He was ultimately cast as an extra.) Johnny Nicholson, owner of the Café Nicholson, offered him a ticket to Italy, and he decided to take the adventure.
Through friends, Midgette met poets and writers in Italy, including 21-year-old Bernardo Bertolucci, assistant to writer/filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini. Bertolucci, making his first film from Pasolini’s script for The Grim Reaper
, cast Midgette as a soldier after seeing a photo of him. Midgette later appeared in Bertolucci’s Before the Revolution
. One of the few American actors to work in the Italian Neo-Realist film movement, Midgette explains that, “Italian filmmaking is very exciting. You’re embracing the culture at the same time you’re acting. You become one of them. Everybody’s extremely friendly, and there’s none of the star-system thing. There aren’t any attitudes.”
Returning to the US in 1963, he landed a job at Arthur’s Discotheque, a high-profile establishment visited by every star imaginable—The Supremes, Sophia Loren, and, eventually, Warhol, who was anxious to cast Midgette in his films. “Andy told me he’d seen Before the Revolution
35 times,” Midgette says. “[But] I wasn’t interested in working with Andy. I’d gone to a party at his place and I wasn’t interested in people who wear dark sunglasses at night indoors. So, I said I was very busy, which is a complete lie because I’ve never been that busy. Usually when a director asked me to be in a movie, I was excited and trying to please. With Andy, I didn’t feel that way. I questioned him: What is your approach? What are you trying to say?”
He made it difficult for Warhol, whose compliments didn’t work on the cynical Midgette. He refused to be frivolous about acting for the sake of becoming popular. “It’s possible to be an actor without losing your humanity,” he says. “There was nothing about Andy that gave me the idea that it was going to be warm and friendly.” Midgette told the artist he would think about it, and eventually called Warhol at his studio, The Factory. There, Warhol, surrounded by his Superstars, encouraged Midgette to take a ride to Philadelphia to visit the mansion of Tabasco heir Henry McIlhenny. Thus began Midgette’s involvement with the famous Factory scene, which brought characters such as Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, and Velvet Underground chanteuse Nico to the forefront of the 1960s art world.
“I could tell by the limousine ride that these people were stilted when it came to conversation,” says Midgette. “There’s no chitchat, we’re not talking about theories of theater or filmmaking. It’s all about who’s the big Superstar and who’s going to cut down the rest, burn them to ashes.” Midgette relays long but humorous stories about the two movies made in Philadelphia—one was poolside at a penthouse; another at the Museum of Art, where he climbed onto an ancient Egyptian sphinx while wearing nothing but a loincloth. Midgette was mostly shot down or ignored by the other Superstars. “It always returned to a bitchy statement. It was always about the quick kill, make a retort. One day I just said, ‘Well, that’s it for me.’ Andy and I always got along very well, but we never formed a bond.”
Once, when Warhol was heading to the Cannes Film Festival with his entourage, he offered to pay Midgette’s way to the festival to repay him for his acting. But Midgette didn’t want to be seen as just a “Warhol Superstar” at a festival that had shown some of his prize-winning Italian films. Warhol offered him a painting, but he wasn’t interested. “I didn’t like his art that much, so I said, just give me $500, because I want to go to Haight-Ashbury.” Warhol and Nico later showed up in San Francisco wanting to film Midgette again. Neither Midgette nor his roommates were interested. In 1967, Warhol asked Midgette to impersonate him at a University of Rochester lecture. Reluctantly, Midgette applied hairspray, talcum powder, and whitish makeup for the event. Warhol passed along his leather jacket and sunglasses, and Midgette was accompanied by Paul Morrissey, Warhol’s assistant.
“It’s weird to jump into a role where you’re playing somebody in real life,” he says, “Explaining your art and you really don’t know anything about the person. I’d never studied Warhol’s past because I wasn’t even interested in his present.” At the lecture, Midgette sat with his back to the audience, watching the film. “I’d never seen this movie that I was supposed to have made and was now going to talk about,” he recalls. “The movie was called…I forget…it was a very stupid movie. So, the movie ends and I go to the podium for a question-and-answer session. The first question was, ‘Mr. Warhol, are you gay?’ And I said, no. And the whole place was silent.”
Midgette laughs and lights up another cigarette, the tiny studio now filled with smoke. “Then somebody said, ‘Why do you wear so much makeup?’ And I said, ‘Oh, I never think about it.’ And it went on kinda like that. One student stood up and said, ‘Mr. Warhol, when I saw that movie I thought it was a piece of shit, but after hearing you talk about it, I think it’s great.’” After the lecture, Midgette was interviewed by a TV crew and coerced into attending a cocktail party where there were to be people who’d met Warhol in the past. No one there knew the difference. Warhol later asked him to go on a college tour as his impersonator and Midgette flew out to various universities. One day, he didn’t put the makeup on. “I didn’t feel like it,” he says. “I thought, What difference does it make? That’s when they suddenly began to sense something in the air.” After the tour, Midgette read in Newsweek and Time that he’d been found out. The scam was over, but his role as Warhol has been called the greatest hoax of the 20th century. Midgette returned to Italy to act in more Bertolucci films, including 1900
, in which he plays a vagabond; the film also features early appearances by Robert De Niro and Gerard Depardieu. Back in the US in the early ’70s, he was asked again by Warhol to be in a scene in one of his scriptless films, this time with David Bowie. The young performer prophesied that he would become the first drag rock star, yet Midgette didn’t know who Bowie was and was put off by his arrogance. Coincidentally, Bowie was cast as Warhol years later in the film Basquiat.
After Warhol’s death in 1987, films about his life began to surface. So, donning the well-known fright wig, Midgette resurrected the Warhol character on the streets of New York City. “Everybody freaks,” he says, “Even the street people, half drunk and leaning against the wall. They go, ‘Yeah! Campbell’s Soup!’ There were all kinds of reactions, from people really loving it to people not liking it at all. That’s fine, because that’s the way it was with Andy, trust me. People either liked him or didn’t.” Midgette went to the Limelight nightclub dressed as Warhol one evening donning a Levi’s jacket on the back of which he had painted Warhol’s image. Soon after the appearance, the Wall Street Journal proclaimed, “Andy Warhol is dead, but don’t be surprised if you run into him at a party.”
Since Midgette was now an actor playing a painter, he thought he’d fill out the character by producing Warhol imitations, which he showed at galleries through 1988. The paintings sold; one was even mistaken for a real Warhol by the head of the Museum of the City of San Francisco. Invited to an auction of Warhol’s work at Southeby’s, Midgette was mobbed by journalists and asked to leave by security, who were angry that he was dressed as Warhol. He later auditioned for the part of Warhol in Oliver Stone’s film The Doors
. “[Stone] said I looked like Andy from the disco era and he was taking notes about my wig. He wanted me to come back as a younger [1960s] Andy. Andy was never ‘younger.’ Some people are younger when they’re older, at moments. They’re youthful, open, innocent. That’s not the way Andy was.” In observing the evolution of Warhol’s look over the years, it almost appears that Warhol had begun to copy Midgette’s fright wig and dark eyebrows. Midgette brings out the jacket he painted for his appearances as Warhol—it’s covered with famous images—soup cans, Lifesavers candy, Marilyn Monroe. He shows me acrylic paintings; many are skilled Warhol spoofs—Marilyns, Maos, flowers, and a particularly vivid painting of Warhol. Most of them bear a warning: “This is not a Warhol.” In contrast to the Warhol knockoffs, he’s also painted landscapes of lighthouses that almost look like photographs. He also shows me leather work that he learned living at a commune; today he produces handmade leather dresses. Midgette grew tired of New York and “all the bullshit,” and moved to Woodstock nearly 20 years ago to be near friends. His last film was Caldo Soffocante
) (1991), in which he plays Warhol. At present, he’s painting, but his biggest project is the book he’s currently writing, titled I Was Andy Warhol. “I’m letting people know who I am, not ‘He looks like Andy Warhol.’” In the book, which doesn’t yet have a publisher, he plans to reveal the details of his career and his interactions with Andy, and to clear up misrepresentations from various publications. “I am the inconvenient truth,” he states. “The Andy Warhol Foundation doesn’t like me.” Most of Warhol’s movies are now being prepared for release on DVD through the Whitney Museum; heretofore, they’ve only been shown in art houses. “They’ve been working on them for eight years. Certain movies have been completed, but they’re not being released yet. Perhaps they would like all [the Superstars] to die first.”
After the interview, I offer Midgette a ride into town. As we open the door to leave, the cigarette smoke also exits. I point to the No Smoking mat across the hall and laugh. “I know,” he says. “Isn’t that great?”
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