(Editor’s note: It was the Victorian novelist George Eliot, pen name of Mary Ann Evans, who said: “It’s never too late to be what you might’ve been.” It’s a theme of this story by WAG’s Phil Hall, who combines a gift for the unusual with his usual smooth writing. It’s about a gay man who was rejected by his family but who nonetheless found himself happy in his own company. As Pride Month concludes, we hope it inspires you to a new understanding of contentment – and compassion for others: )
Joe Mannetti is man of multiple talents – actor, writer, health care counselor, fundraiser, humanitarian and raconteur. He is refreshing in his honesty and sense of humor.
“I was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan,” he recalls. “My father was still a student at the university, He was studying to be a teacher. I was not part of the plan at that particular time. My parents were young and just making their way in the world. My mother was ‘in the family way,’ as they say. When my mother’s father found out, he told my father that he had a gun and he wanted to know what my father was going to do about his pregnant daughter. My father married my mother, and that was that. So, I was born in scandal. It set the standard for the rest of my life.”
Mannetti’s initial career focus was acting. He studied at New York’s HB Studios and found gigs in small Manhattan theaters. His first appearance before the cameras came with the 1987 independent feature “Heart,” starring Brad Davis of “Midnight Express” fame. Believing something better could be found in Hollywood, Mannetti decamped for the West Coast in 1986.
“I was 24, just fresh out of getting my B.A., and I took the plane and went out there cold,” he continues. “I didn’t know anybody, didn’t have a job waiting for me, didn’t have a place waiting for me to live. I was staying in a cheap motel with a bunch of prostitutes and drug addicts on the pier in Santa Monica. And I had no car. I was taking the bus to casting calls and auditions.”
Mannetti’s discouraging Los Angeles arrival would soon change for the better. A friend from New York connected with him and helped him find a suitable apartment while serving as an unofficial taxi for his audition calls. Mannetti would eventually buy an old used car and sign with Central Casting, which kept him busy populating the backgrounds of various productions.
“I was doing a lot of little bit parts,” he says. “I was on a couple of TV shows, playing detectives and tough guys, and then I got into some independent movies. I did a lot of work, but it was just very under the radar, because a lot of what I did was very independent, low-budget kind of cult film stuff.”
Mannetti used his spare time to pursue a master’s degree in counseling and secured work as an HIV counselor and social worker when he wasn’t seeking acting gigs. But a weekend trip to San Francisco pointed him in a new direction that he never considered.
“I was walking to the gym when an amateur photographer stopped me,” he says. “He asked me if he could take a picture of me, and I said sure. He told me how to pose and I did, and the picture came out very well. And he told me that if I’d like a copy of this – this is pre-cell phone pictures – he would get it made and give me a copy of it. And he told me to meet him at a coffee house later after my workout.”
Mannetti met the photographer later that day and was asked for permission to post it, which he provided. Mannetti then began receiving inquiries from the publishers of magazines that covered the LGBT bear community that focused on ruggedly masculine men. Mannetti began landing modeling gigs with these magazines and was encouraged to enter several contests that judged the most attractive bears.
“I won five titles, including International Mr. Daddy Bear 2009,” he says, noting that new inquiries started to percolate from pornographic film producers. And while some of his friends cautioned him that appearing in clothing-free flicks could tarnish his chances as an actor, Mannetti saw this new exposure as a stage to call attention to causes that he supported.
“I did about eight videos and, of course, that gives you a lot of notoriety,” he says. “So I used that for fundraising with all the people involved in that industry. And we raised thousands of dollars for HIV causes.”
By 2007, the U.S. economy was fraying and Mannetti found himself facing a financially perilous existence. He was eager to hang on to his Los Angeles lifestyle, but by 2010 he could not weather the recessionary storm and returned to the East Coast, settling in Connecticut because he had several family members living in the state. But it was not the reunion that he planned.
“Within one year after arriving back, I discovered my father dead in his house,” he says. “His funeral was a confirmation of what his relatives all really felt about me. ‘Go away,’ they hissed at me as I stood in front of my father’s coffin attempting to deliver his eulogy. I did, this time I did for good. I have had no contact or communication with my relatives since the funeral.”
Yet Mannetti does not find his estrangement from family to be damaging.
“My sense of being completely alone morphed into the stance of independence that I embrace more fully than ever today,” he says. “I value creative expression, but I value my alone time as well. Creativity is displayed publicly, but it is developed privately. I enjoy my solitude as much as the opportunity to express myself creatively. Both are of equal value to me.”
Mannetti continued working in health-care counseling and became a tireless fundraiser on behalf of Iris House, a Harlem-based nonprofit offering family-focused services to women of color who are HIV-positive. But to his happy surprise he discovered that he was in demand by independent creative artists eager for his input in their works.
“I was flown out to Arizona to star in an original retro horror/comedy film that received multiple awards and rave reviews on the independent film festival circuit,” he says. “I even got nominated for my performance in it, and I got to see my name above the title. I returned to New York to host and sing in a cabaret act with the Long Island Gay Men’s Chorus.”
Next on his agenda – a film about his distinctive life.
“I was recently contacted by an award-winning independent filmmaker in Los Angeles who expressed a desire to create a movie based on my life to date titled ‘Call Me Joe,’” he says.
Mannetti may not have gained the fame and fortune that many creative artists aim for, but he nonetheless feels enriched by what he accomplished.
“I have met and worked with some of the most original creative actors, cabaret performers and social activists,” he says. “I have been able to star in exactly the type of original and offbeat productions that I chose to from the very beginning. I have overcome physical challenges, and I have learned that I never stop learning. I am exactly the person who I always wanted to be.”