In 1994, the novelist and screenwriter John Gregory Dunne, writing in The New York Review of Books , recalled a conversation with Sam Peckinpah, the hard-living director of The Getaway and The Wild Bunch . “Peckinpah once told me that the only Hollywood story worth making was one he called ‘The Third Man Through the Door,’” Mr. Dunne wrote. “There is the star, Peckinpah said, there’s the star’s consort, and then there’s the third man through the door, holding it open for the other two, the one whose face is blurred out in the publicity photographs.”
On an unseasonably warm Tuesday night in February, New York’s Third Man, Johnny Calvani, sat at a window table at Da Silvano, the downtown Elaine’s. “This is where Anna Wintour usually sits,” Mr. Calvani said in his gravel-toned machine-gun voice, as his restless eyes scanned the media-friendly crowd around him. The actor and director Danny DeVito was dining in the other room, a gaggle of models was squeezed like a set of coat hangers in one corner, and a quartet of New York Times men cooled their heels on the sidewalk.
Wiry and animated, with a prominent nose and improbably flared sideburns, the 51-year-old Mr. Calvani has been many things in his life- shmatte merchant, would-be rock singer, stand-up comedian-but famous is not one of them. Yet among a certain group of hard-partying celebrities and the nightclubs and restaurants (such as Da Silvano) that cater to them, Mr. Calvani enjoys an almost regal cachet.
For decades, Mr. Calvani has been the go-to guy for any fun-starved, testosterone-charged celebrity seeking a lost weekend-or week-in The City That Never Sleeps. When Mr. Calvani’s good friend, actor Jack Nicholson-or actor Warren Beatty, producer Robert Evans or aspiring lounge lizard and Dole Pineapple heir Justin Murdock-has plans on the Right Coast, he gets on the horn with Mr. Calvani to ensure that a little entertainment is waiting when he gets there.
“He’s the crown prince of joie de vivre ,” Mr. Nicholson told The Observer .
A talent for fun doesn’t pay the bills, however, and while Mr. Calvani has repeatedly pursued careers beneath the spotlight, he has often struggled with the concept of a day job. Mr. Calvani has enjoyed flush times as well as precarious ones, and he’s always kept his friends abreast of his situation by giving himself nicknames that reflect his financial status. In the 90’s, friends said, he was more often “Johnny Baked Beans” than “Johnny Caviar.”
Now beluga days are on the horizon, and Mr. Calvani’s reputation as the spry Crypt Keeper of New York nightlife may have something to do with it. Last fall, fashion executives Larry Stemmerman and Andy Hilfiger-Mr. Calvani has known Mr. Stemmerman and Mr. Hilfiger’s older brother, designer Tommy Hilfiger, for 30 years-tapped him to head up the sales division for the J. Lo clothing line, multitasking pop star Jennifer Lopez’s bid to extend her diva-next-door appeal to jeans, tank tops and baby-pink velour hoodies.
Before and often during his dalliances with the performing arts, Mr. Calvani made a living-and sometimes a killing-selling fashion, and apparently he still had the touch. Andy Hilfiger credited Mr. Calvani with being a big part of the line’s early success: “The buyers come in from Chicago, and Johnny says, ‘You wanna go to Lotus?’” he said.
Mr. Calvani also brought a certain energy level to the J. Lo offices. “Just today, Johnny comes into my office, asks me what music I’m playing. It’s an all-live Rolling Stones disc,” Mr. Hilfiger said. “He jumps up and starts dancing on my desk.”
The success of Ms. Lopez’s line has enabled Mr. Calvani to trade in the less-than-groovy Upper West Side apartment he shared with a male buddy for a chi-chi Gramercy Park pad, complete with lead-paned windows, roof terrace and a key to the park. “Can you believe the co-op board let me in this fucking place?” he said after a tour not long ago.
And in an ironic twist, Mr. Calvani’s even getting a measure of belated celebrity himself. The makers of Jones Soda-brightly colored beverages aimed at skateboarders-have resurrected Mr. Calvani’s long-defunct rock-star persona, Johnny Lightning, to use on their packaging this spring.
Mr. Calvani is not given to introspection, and thus was not inclined to discuss how his recent spate of good fortune has changed his life. “I’m fortunate I didn’t die going to Vietnam when I was 18″ was all Mr. Calvani, a combat veteran, would say.
But Mr. Calvani’s buddies, who have logged many hours trolling Fun City in his company, said his moment in the sun is overdue.
“Nobody deserves success more than Johnny,” said former Barneys-scion-turned-fashion-consultant Gene Pressman, who has known Mr. Calvani since the Studio 54 era. “He’s waited a long time for this.”
“I love to see him do well,” Mr. Nicholson said, his famous drawl several degrees mellower on the phone than it is in on screen. “Put a penny in his pocket.”
At Da Silvano, Mr. Calvani was apparently feeling entitled enough to bust owner Silvano Marchetto’s chops a little.
“This pizza’s cold,” Mr. Calvani said, gesturing disdainfully at the pizzetta the table had been offered as an amuse gueule .
“What do you expect? You never shut up since you got here,” the shrewd-eyed Mr. Marchetto replied in his staccato English.
“Ah, get us a warm one, will ya?” Mr. Calvani said in a hoarse rasp that was testimony to both his Staten Island roots and countless nights spent in smoke-choked V.I.P. rooms.
Joining Mr. Calvani at the table was lithe, red-haired, 23-year-old Annabel Vartanian. To be sure, Mr. Calvani has had a colorful dating history, but in Ms. Vartanian, he said, he had found true love.
Ms. Vartanian sported a star-shaped tattoo on her bare midriff, a design chosen during an on-air consultation with the radio personality Howard Stern. She said she was named after her parents’ favorite nightclub, Annabel’s in London. Those same parents, Mr. Calvani said, owned an estate in New Jersey and a place on Fisher’s Island in Connecticut. “The real one,” he confided. “Not the one in Miami.”
As Ms. Vartanian talked of her experience with Mr. Stern, Mr. Calvani looked on proudly. Then he took a bite of his sea bream and pronounced it “so good you could snort it.”
Mr. Calvani looked happy, but slightly bored. For a guy with his energy, dinner at Da Silvano amounted to a slow night. To see him in his element is to see him when Mr. Nicholson or another of his high-profile friends flies into town.
“When someone comes to New York from Los Angeles, Jack tells them to call Johnny if you want to have a good time,” Mr. Calvani said, referring to himself in the third person. “Because Johnny doesn’t wait. If Johnny has to wait, Johnny does not go.”
One of the reasons the velvet ropes always part for Mr. Calvani is that he’s been a fixture at every late-night hot spot from Studio 54 to Pangaea-a longer time span than the ages of many current club owners. “He’s a New York icon,” said Mark Baker, a co-owner of the meatpacking-district nightclub Lotus. “In terms of street credibility, he was the don when I first got here 20 years ago, and he still is today.”
When Mr. Calvani is pulling escort duty, he makes sure that the nightclub of the moment has been alerted, that the Cristal is on ice, and that the party favors have been lined up.
Occasionally, he personally sees to it that the sausage is on the grill.
One afternoon in 1995, Mr. Beatty, the actor, director and Friend of Jack, called Mr. Calvani from the Carlyle Hotel. At the time, Mr. Calvani was living in a cottage house on Greenwich Avenue and had just fired up the backyard barbecue. He persuaded Mr. Beatty to jump in a cab and join a group of friends that included former gossip columnist A.J. Benza. With any other host, there might have been a certain professional froideur between the movie star and the hack, but not with Mr. Calvani. “I think they ended up sharing the last bite of sausage from the same fork,” he recalled.
Mr. Calvani met Mr. Beatty through Mr. Nicholson, whom he has known since the late 70’s. He first encountered the Rayban-favoring star in the bar of the Hotel Jerome in Aspen. Mr. Calvani was with a boisterous group of friends, more après than ski, that included entrepreneur Alan Finkelstein and Esme Marshall, a model whom, Mr. Calvani recalled, was “top-shelf back in those days.”
Before long, “Jack was talking to the girl we walked in with,” Mr. Calvani said. “You know Jack.”
The actor and the garmento hit it off right away. They have a way of cracking each other up. One day, for example, Mr. Calvani complimented Mr. Nicholson on his ability to wear a brown suit. Brown is a rough color, Mr. Calvani told him. You had to be really handsome to get away with brown. So now every time Mr. Nicholson dons a brown suit in Mr. Calvani’s presence, he’ll cock an eyebrow and say, “Do you know how good-looking you have to be to wear brown?”
“Only when Jacks says it, in his voice, everybody cracks up,” Mr. Calvani said.
For more than two decades now, Mr. Calvani has been a member in good standing of the Jack Pack, the group of craggy, hard-living guys who congregate around the actor. The ranks include music producer Lou Adler, restaurateur Tommy Baratta (of the late, louche Marylou’s) and Mr. Finkelstein.
“You heard of The Three Amigos ?” Mr. Calvani said last November when he, Mr. Nicholson and Mr. Finkelstein were talking about spending Thanksgiving together because none of them had a girlfriend. “We’re the three losers.”
Mr. Calvani has a simple explanation for why he gets on so well with Mr. Nicholson and Mr. Beatty. “I never asked them for anything,” he said, then waited a beat. “Don’t think I didn’t think about it, though,” he snorted.
Mr. Nicholson offered another clue to the longevity of their relationship. “He’s the kind of fellow you can trust with your wife, or your girlfriend,” he said.
Mr. Calvani grew up in Staten Island, the son of an Italian-American car-dealer father and an English war-bride mother. At 18, he was drafted into the Vietnam War. He said he was scared for about 10 minutes, particularly during the Tet offensive of 1968, five days of nonstop bombing during which his barracks were blown up. After that, things got calmer and weirder.
“What was the government thinking about when they gave me, at 18, a belt with morphine, liquid speed and amyl nitrate on it?” he said, referring to the emergency medical supplies that were issued to troops in combat situations. “Did they really think I wasn’t going to experiment?”
After a year in Vietnam Mr. Calvani took an early out by enrolling at Staten Island Community College. In between classes, he worked part-time in a jeans store. After watching the clothing-company sales reps pull up in their Cadillacs and their Buick Electra 225’s, Mr. Calvani decided that pushing fabric was the life for him.
He grabbed a book of swatches and hit the road. Soon, he was part of a group of semi-legendary garmentos who wore their hair long, drove flashy cars and made millions off clothes you couldn’t light a match near. There was Stanley Buchthal, who later founded Bugle Boy, and Bobby Margoiles, who went on to start Cherokee.
Mr. Calvani’s own successes were more modest, but still memorable. During the Saturday Night Fever craze, he said he made a couple million off a John Travolta knockoff pant, “even though I couldn’t spell ‘polyester.’”
Next came a cataclysmic event in the lives of Mr. Calvani and the men of his generation: the opening of Studio 54. Much of Mr. Calvani’s notoriety stems from this era. He stayed out late. He learned to leave the polyester pants at home. He began to make famous and influential friends, such as Frank Sinatra’s stepson, Bobby Marx.
At the time, Mr. Marx was living in the singer’s suite at the Waldorf Towers, and when his stepfather was out of town, he’d let Mr. Calvani sleep over in the Chairman of the Board’s room, where even the shower doors bore the monogram “F.A.S.”
Mr. Calvani hung out with the new breed of cool cats, too. He has fond memories of Steely Dan co-founder Walter Becker’s Central Park West apartment, where, he said, Mr. Becker kept a synthesizer “the size of a Mack truck.”
And then there was the night Tony Curtis came through the window.
Mr. Calvani recalled sitting in a friend’s East 64th Street townhouse with the actress Kelly ( The Lady in Red ) LeBrock sometime in the early 80’s. “This was about 6 in the morning. The sun was just coming up,” Mr. Calvani recalled. “And I’ll never forget: Tony Curtis had a cane and an eyepatch on, and he climbed up the drainpipe of the townhouse on 64th Street and opened the window and made his entrance.”
As with many of Mr. Calvani’s stories, there is a slight disconnect to the Curtis incident. He offered no explanation as to how he came to be in a townhouse with Ms. LeBrock at the crack of dawn. Though at Da Silvano Mr. Calvani inhaled nothing stronger than a steady stream of Coca-Colas and Marlboro Reds, it’s perhaps worth mentioning that a certain amount of drug lore has attached itself to him over the years. As JohnnyBoy, Mr. Calvani makes several cameo appearances in Mr. Benza’s memoir Fame: Ain’t It a Bitch , in which he provides the former gossip columnist with various substances he calls “the shit that killed Bruce Lee.”
Mr. Calvani did not care to elaborate on this subject for The Observer , even after it was pointed out that during his stint as a nightclub stand-up-more on that later-his routines were laced with references to matters pharmaceutical. “Girls, sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll-what else you want a comic to talk about?” Mr. Calvani said.
Shortly after he turned 32, Mr. Calvani decided to become a rock star. He claimed that it was simply a pastime-“my golf”-but given that he had recently befriended Mr. Nicholson, Mr. Calvani had probably become enamored of fame.
He labored to write a hit, though he is typically modest about his talents. “The secret to my rock ‘n’ roll career was, my band was better than me-so I could just go out and be wild,” he said. The fluctuating lineup included guitarists Laurence Juber, of Wings, and Jimmy Rip, who was then a regular on Mick Jagger’s solo recordings.
Though the most memorable parts of Mr. Calvani’s act were his lightning-shaped sideburns, he never had a problem booking gigs at such places as the China Club. The owners knew he would bring a “champagne crowd,” he said. Over the years, record executives Ted Field, of Interscope fame, and Guy Oseary, who heads Madonna’s Maverick Records, stopped by to catch his high-energy shows, but they weren’t there to sign him. They were there because they liked him. They really liked him.
Behind the music, these were not Mr. Calvani’s greatest years. He was by his own admission “singing too much and not working enough.” He used to hang out in former Arista Records chief Clive Davis’ office, even though the pop-music impresario had no intention of signing him. “He told me how bad I was for at least two years straight,” Mr. Calvani said.
When money got tight, Mr. Calvani occasionally had to turn to his brother, Pauly Calvani, for financial help. Pauly had gone into a more stable profession: He owns a Staten Island junkyard-“the biggest foreign-car junkyard on the East Coast,” Johnny said.
In the mid-80’s, Mr. Calvani tried his hand at acting. He can be seen, in a bit part, alongside Mr. Nicholson in Prizzi’s Honor . Mr. Calvani played Don Corrado Prizzi’s bodyguard. He had one line. When the day came to film his scene, he said, Mr. Nicholson told him how much the film’s much-vaunted director, John Huston, liked ad libs.
So when his moment before the cameras came, Mr. Calvani threw away the script and used a line of his own design.
There was a strangled yell of “Cut!”, followed by an extended bout of coughing and emphysemic swearing by the grizzled Huston.
That was when Mr. Nicholson realized his buddy had misunderstood him.
“He likes it when I ad lib,” the actor told Mr. Calvani.
Mr. Calvani never acted again, but he still yearned to perform. Next he tried stand-up comedy. At his “comedy special” at the Roxy in Los Angeles, Rebecca Broussard, the mother of Mr. Nicholson’s children, introduced him to the crowd. The evening’s highlights were not so much his routines as his asides to audience members, who included model Janice Dickinson and Brenda Swanson, a sometime actress who recently resurfaced as a consort of producer Steve Bing. When Ms. Swanson reacted negatively to one of Mr. Calvani’s off-color jokes, he told her: “Like nobody ate you, Brenda. Give me a fucking break.”
Mr. Calvani’s rock concerts and stand-up appearances may not have won him broad industry recognition, but they were always heavily attended by beautiful women. They were, he said, “P.W.P.”, which he translated as “packed with pussy.”
One day during Fashion Week in February, Mr. Calvani was sitting at his desk in the J. Lo offices when he whipped out some snapshots. One depicted a woman that he identified as “Michael Jackson’s sister-in-law.” She was wearing a T-shirt that reads: “I survived Johnny Calvani, 1980-82.” Another was of Milica Kastner, the socialite daughter of the movie producer Elliot Kastner. It was taken at Mr. Kastner’s English estate, Runnymede, where the Magna Carta was signed.
Mr. Calvani has a lot of snapshots-many of them feature women he has dated and loved. Mr. Calvani has dated more women than he has snapshots. He said he had once squired the woman who gave former New Line Cinema movie chief Mike De Luca that very public blowjob at a party during Oscar week.
But Mr. Calvani wanted to make it clear that he has found his true love in Ms. Vartanian.
He’s ready to settle down in other ways as well, he said. The scene isn’t what it was. Some nights he feels his age. Fame by association can be a drag.
That’s why he’s glad the J. Lo gig came along. Mr. Calvani said he’s making enough to retire in three or four years-not that he’d want to. “I love this business,” he said. “It keeps me young, keeps me thin, keeps me handsome.”
It was 7:30 on a cold winter evening, and Mr. Calvani had been selling hard all day. It was a good day-a $200,000 day-and Mr. Calvani was ready to go home for a quiet dinner with Ms. Vartanian.
But first he had to return a phone call. Bob Evans was in New York for a screening of the documentary about his life, The Kid Stays in the Picture . “I’m going to take care of him while he’s in town,” Mr. Calvani said, dialing the number.
Originally published: New York Observer, May 6, 2002