Web Series Brings Bygone Era to Life
By Fred Pollard
Ever wonder what became of Laverne De Fazio’s nemesis, Rosie? Blair’s handicapped cousin from The Facts of Life? That adorably annoying tattletale, Cindy Brady?
They are all alive and well….the actors, anyway, in Michael Vaccaro’s web series, “Child of the ‘70s.”
Vaccaro, who also plays the lead role, tells the story of an Italian boy from the Bronx who starts a new life chasing the American dream. Along the way, he meets a mittful of colorful characters, some of whom are played by television and movie personalities from the 1970s and ’80s.
In many ways, the east and west coasts are two different worlds, and Vaccaro uses his own past experience with culture shock as his onscreen character, Carlo, makes the move from New York to California.
“I grew up in The Bronx,” he tells me during our interview. “I’m Italian, so my family is loud and obnoxious, and we ate a lot. You remember Woody Allen’s family in ‘Annie Hall’? That’s my family, except they were Jewish.”
Carlo’s mother, Anna Perdente isVaccaro’s mother, he says. In the same fashion, Vaccaro himself worked as a personal assistant to movie actresses, much like Ann Walker’s (“Sordid Lives”) character, so “Child of the ‘70s” really does mirror his own experiences.
“I have had the idea for many years, and had always wanted to pitch it as a sitcom,” he said. “It started out being a mash-up of my own life story and homage to my favorite TV show of all time, ‘Rhoda,’ but then it sort of took off in its own direction. Working with my co-writer Terrence Moss was an amazing experience. The show started to have a life of its own.”
When it came to casting, I had to ask the obvious. Cindy Brady (Susan Olsen). “Sordid Lives’” LaVonda (Ann Walker). Television’s “Angie” (Donna Pescow). Geri from “The Facts of Life” (Geri Jewell). The list goes on. How did Michael assemble so many iconic “retro TV” personalities?
“(Laughs). I just asked them,” he says. “Everyone said yes, so this is my dream cast! I found Ann Walker, Geri Jewell and Susan Olsen through mutual friends. I’ve been friends with Carole Ita White (‘Big Rosie’ from ‘Laverne and Shirley’) and (Academy Awards writer and ‘Hollywood Squares’ star) Bruce Vilanch for years. I had them all in mind as I was writing, and thankfully everything worked out.
“With Geri, I thought it was such a funny idea, her playing herself. On ‘The Facts of Life,’ she played Geri, and on ‘Deadwood,’ she played Jewel, so I loved the idea of her now playing ‘Geri Jewell.’ Susan is amazing, and now one of the greatest people in my life. She was introduced to me by Sheena Metal, an L.A. talk radio legend and great friend who is also in the show, playing Susan’s girlfriend.”
When you think of 70s television, you can’t help but think of the eye candy, such as Mark Spitz’s Olympic medal-adorned hairy chest or Farrah Fawcett’s famous “nipple poster.”
For Vaccaro’s modernized version, gay porn stars just seemed the way to go.
“When I was casting the role of my new love interest, I saw a picture of Leo Forte online. I didn’t know who he was, but I KNEW that he had to play the part, and that turned out to be a great decision. I tracked him down, offered him the part, and he immediately said yes. I think we have great onscreen chemistry. I love working with him, and he has become a dear, dear friend. I love that he’s in my life. He is a super special guy.
“The same is true for Johnny Hazzard. I knew him slightly through a friend, and when I asked him to join the cast, he said yes, and he’s fantastic. We’ll be seeing a lot more of him in season three.”
Leo Forte was an up-and-…er…”cumming” star in the world of adult film when “Child of the ‘70s” came calling.
“I was on board almost instantly,” Leo told me. “I was looking for my next challenge to keep me on my toes. Other than everyone keeping their clothes on, there are few differences between porn and acting. Either one is all about delivering a performance, be it as real or as close to real as you can get with it.”
The (admittedly twisted) mind behind “Child of the ‘70s” credits its roots to bad nostalgia television, weekly excursions to Broadway musicals with his mother, and a deep desire to perform.
“I was in love with the theatre,” Vaccaro said. “I saw everything, and listened to all the original cast recordings. When I was a teenager, I got a recording contract and did some demos, but unfortunately nothing ever happened with them.”
A modeling career followed (“Mostly so I could surround myself with half-naked men.”), as did a singing performance in Robert Altman’s “Rich Kids,” a stint on NBC’s “Another World” (“A terrific learning experience for me.”), and two CDs, “Archangel” and “Wait For Him,” still available at CDBaby.com and iTunes.
“I am disappointed in the younger generation of gays right now. They seem so complacent and uninterested in our history. It makes me sad…maybe I’m just used to fighting, but for me same-sex marriage is very important. I was married to (my partner) Antonio, and sadly he got very sick and passed away. The only reason I was even allowed in the room in the ICU and make decisions for him at the end was because I had a certificate saying that I was legally his husband. At the very end, he felt safe and loved, and got to spend the last moments of his life with the person he loved the most. We should all have that right.”
Pride in who you are and what you deserve permeates much of this light-hearted comedy series with an undercurrent of solemnity and hope.
“I think coming out is super important,” Michael says. “The more people come out, the easier it is for everyone else. If a popular actor or singer came out, and helped just one teenager feel better about him or herself, then it’s totally worth it.”
Calling the series his “baby,” Vaccaro actually started a production company (“Under The Counter”), raised financing, co-wrote the scripts, and assembled the cast himself.
“I have put so much of myself into it, and there were so many other people involved,” he said. “I had created a family, and I was profoundly moved by the response and all the support and love.
“It’s the most fun I’ve ever had on a set; every day, I’m surrounded by people that I love. They are all tremendously talented and funny and warm. It’s a family, for sure.”
The first two seasons of “Child of the ‘70s” currently are available on YouTube. For season three, which begins filming this fall, Vaccaro says even more recognizable guest stars are in store, including Alison Arngrim (‘Nasty’ Nellie Oleson from ‘Little House on the Prairie’), Lynne Marie Stewart (Miss Yvonne from ‘Pee-wee’s Playhouse,’ who will continue to replace Donna Pascow as Carlo’s mother), and gay adult film star Mike Dreyden.
Vaccaro says raising money for the series is always a challenge, and he welcomes any support, emotional as well as financial.