Of character actors it is often said, “I can’t remember the name, but the face is familiar.” That saying may have never been truer than in the case of Vincent Schiavelli, whose sad-eyed, hangdog features and lanky 6’6″ frame allowed him to easily move between comedic and dramatic roles, and who was regularly seen in movies and on TV for over 35 years.
Born in Brooklyn in November, 1948 to an Italian-American family, Schiavelli studied drama at New York University and was active in stage work in the late ’60s. His first screen appearance came in director Milos Forman’s English-language debut feature, the 1971 counterculture satire Taking Off, as a pot-smoking family counselor. The two must have hit it off, because the filmmaker would use Vincent in five more films, including turns as one of the hospital inmates in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975); as F. Murray Abraham‘s valet in Amadeus (1984); and as one of Woody Harrelson’s cohorts in The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996); and as a TV executive in the Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon (1999).
On the small screen, Vincent made television history when he played fashion designer Peter Panama, the first gay recurring character on a U.S. series, in the short-lived 1972 sitcom The Corner Bar. A string of guest shots around the same time let TV audiences catch the actor in such popular series as Starsky and Hutch, Charlie’s Angels, Taxi (with Kaufman), and Moonlighting, where he played opposite future first wife Allyce Beasley.
Schiavelli’s best-known movie roles may have been as Mr. Vargas, the science teacher with the hot wife (Phil Spector murder victim Lana Clarkson) who takes his class on a field trip to the morgue in 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and as the subway-haunting spectre who instructs newly deceased Patrick Swayze on how to master his otherworldly abilities in 1990’s Ghost. Readers may also remember him as an eighth-dimensional “Red Lectroid” working for alien mastermind John Lithgow in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai (1984); in Batman Returns (1992) as the machine-gun wielding organ grinder in the Penguin’s circus gang; as the torture-inclined assassin Dr. Kaufman in the James Bond actioner Tomorrow Never Dies (1997); and in the quirky 2002 comedy Death to Smoochy as a heroin-addicted former children’s show host. Vincent reprised his Vargas role on TV in 1986, in the one-season sitcom Fast Times, and made memorable appearances in series as diverse as Star Trek: The Next Generation, Melrose Place, The X-Files, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Inheriting a love of food from his grandfather, who was a cook for an Italian nobleman, Schiavelli would move back to his family’s Sicilian homeland and penned several food magazine articles and cookbooks, while continuing to work on the big and small screen, before passing away from lung cancer in December, 2005 . Oh, and his distinctive features were the result of a medical condition known as Marfan syndrome, which Schiavelli helped fight as honorary co-chairman of the National Marfan Foundation.