by Lee Sobel (9/18/20)
Pia Zadora starred in some crazy movies. In Butterfly she seduces her father (or so we think) and in The Lonely Lady she is raped by Ray Liotta with a garden hose. You think that’s wild? Her personal life is an even more incredible story. But amazingly she’s sailed right through and remained a star, no matter how much show biz tried to drag her down. The rumor that her wealthy husband bought a then-unknown Pia the Golden Globe Award for 1982’s New Star of the Year, sent shockwaves through the industry. How dare she do that? seemed to be the response. Critics seemed to go into attack mode against her. Vincent Canby in the New York Times called her acting “spectacularly inept,” yet she never shed a tear over that. She seems to have a great sense of humor about it all and that only makes you love her more.
Pia Alfreda Schipani was born on May 4, 1956 in Hoboken, New Jersey. She began acting as a kid on Broadway and she made one movie at age 8, Santa Claus Conquers The Martians (1964), now a camp classic thanks to Mystery Science Theater 3000. From there her life and career occasionally paralleled each other. For instance, in her movies Butterfly and The Lonely Lady she plays opposite older men who will do anything to make her happy (or get her). In real life, the 17 year old Zadora married 39 year old billionaire Meshulam Riklis who would do anything to support his wife’s ambitions of being a movie star.
I personally feel that Pia Zadora did not get a fair shake. Her acting in Butterfly is great — she is vulnerable, sexy and sympathetic. The fact that the movie’s theme is incest is, well, pretty damn awkward. I think the producers of the movie could have handled that theme better and all the money and talent you threw at the screen (Orson Welles is in the movie for one thing) was never going to make this movie easily digested by the masses. If you can get past that and some of the convoluted directions the plot goes into, then it’s a fun movie with beautiful cinematography and a wonderful Ennio Morricone soundtrack. Butterfly is based on the book The Butterfly by James M. Cain and at the time in the early 80’s he was something of a hot commodity.
The remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981) based on the Cain novel starred Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, a steamy movie that perhaps the makers of Butterfly were hoping they would have as big an impact, except that Postman had big stars and no incest theme.
In 1988 Pia Zadora appeared in the John Waters movie Hairspray, which showed us that Pia has a sense of humor about herself. Waters has long been a fan of Pia’s, including writing a chapter about her in his book Crackpot. By that time her career had veered away from movies and she was focused on an impressive singing career, touring with none other than the Chairman of the Board, Mr. Frank Sinatra. So there, Hollywood! Her personal life has had as many peaks and valleys as her career.
She’s been married three times, has three children, at one time lived in a famous Hollywood mansion that she tore down because it may have been haunted, she’s been arrested, stalked by her second husband, married a Las Vegas cop that handled her report on her second husband, and was seriously injured in a golf cart-related accident. As she agreed with me when I interviewed her, “You can’t make this shit up!” It’s no wonder John Waters is still fascinated by her — nobody’s had a life story like Pia!
Lee Sobel: How are you doing since your injury in 2014?
Pia Zadora: You mean my infamous golf cart accident? That was a pretty tough one. My ankle was crushed. I had to have pins and plates put in and I have slight vertigo and ringing in my ear because I fell on the right side of my head. Other than that, I’m alive and I’m functioning.
Lee Sobel: I’ve watched a lot of interviews with you and you always seem so unfazed by some of the nasty things that people have said about you. In an interview in 2015 that John Waters gave The Hollywood Reporter he said that he told you,
“Stop being nice! You’ve been a good sport long enough.” So are you ready to get mad?
Pia Zadora: I have a different way of dealing with things and if I didn’t have this I wouldn’t even be here to talk about it, after all the crap I’ve been through. Some things bother me and some things I just walk away from. It’s not that I’m nice; trust me, I’m not that nice. I can be a bitch.
Lee Sobel: I was just thinking that you need to get back into movies and play someone really bitchy and evil!
Pia Zadora: I can get really pissy and say “fuck you” and I do that at Piero’s (Las Vegas restaurant where Pia was performing regularly prior to the pandemic) and people enjoy me being like a female Don Rickles. But when people insult me, I just take it in stride and I don’t want to give anybody the credit for getting me upset.
Lee Sobel: Let’s go back to the beginning. You started performing at a young age. How did other kids at school treat you?
Pia Zadora: I went to a parochial school in Forest Hills, Queens. When Santa Claus Conquers the Martians premiered, the press and photographers came to my school and the nuns made a big deal of me. I’d go out on the road for three months in a show and I’d come back and because I had tutors on the road which was required, the nuns would show me off. Other kids would be mean and put gum in my hair standing on line and pick on me, but I wasn’t in school that much since I was in shows. I had one close friend back then named Maureen and I am still friends with her to this day.
Lee Sobel: Thanks to Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Comedy Central, your movie Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964) has become well known since the 1990s.
Pia Zadora: I think that was only because of me. Because by that point I was well known and they could exploit that. Other than that, it’s just a cute movie, nothing that special.
Lee Sobel: You were eight years old when you made it. Do you have any memories of making the movie?
Pia Zadora: Yes, we shot a lot of scenes in Santa’s toy factory and I got to keep all the dolls. The green makeup was weird and the helmet and all that; it felt a bit awkward the whole time. It was a job and I got paid really well. A lot of kids wanted that part but hey, it was mine!
Lee Sobel: I loved you in Butterfly but some of the reviews were pretty nasty.
Pia Zadora: Somebody described me as Brigitte Bardot through a garbage compactor or something like that.
Lee Sobel: What comes to mind when you remember Butterfly?
Pia Zadora: The character I played, Kady, was stubborn and wanted what she wanted and that was a part of me. And I named my first born daughter Kady too. Everything I did as Kady felt right and real and I wouldn’t have wanted to overthink it. I think the movie was special and every moment in that movie I was me.
Lee Sobel: How did you like working with Stacy Keach? I thought the two of you were great together in Butterfly.
Pia Zadora: It was hard in the beginning because he was really coked out a lot. I was the only one who could talk to him, so the director would send me in the morning to get him out of his trailer and we kind of bonded on that and would drink a lot of coffee. His focus and intensity as an actor was incredible. You’re really only good an actor as the people you are around — you know, Stacy Keach, Orson Welles…
Lee Sobel: Ed McMahon…
Pia Zadora: Shut the fuck up.
Lee Sobel: What was the idea behind putting him in the movie?
Pia Zadora: I have no idea. That was the director Matt Cimber’s idea. Sure was ridiculous though.
Lee Sobel: And Bob Mackie designed your costumes in Butterfly.
Pia Zadora: He designed that “nude” dress — it just looked like beads hanging off my skin. And then he later designed all my performance gowns. Jose Eber cut my hair in Butterfly — he did Farrah Fawcett and Liz Taylor — and he’s been cutting my hair for 35 years and is one of my good friends.
Lee Sobel: I thought your acting in Butterfly was really good — you were not overstated and you played the part convincingly. That said, you allowed yourself to be physically exploited by doing nudity in this and The Lonely Lady and you also posed in Playboy and Oui magazines. Were you concerned that people would judge you for that and not allow you to get your due for your acting? And how do you feel about that now, looking back?
Pia Zadora: I don’t like to look back. I wasn’t consciously aware of what I was doing at that time. I was given roles to do and I was told what to do and how to do it. I did what I did and it worked for me. I wasn’t Meryl Streep. I just felt that the role was me and I was Kady. And then I got back to singing and got my credibility back. And Johnny Carson apologized to me because I can actually sing. But nobody would have cared about that if I wasn’t “Pia Zadora” by that point.
Lee Sobel: You could not make Butterfly today – no way would a movie that eroticizes incest fly anymore. Back then, did any fundamentalist groups get upset about the movie?
Pia Zadora: There was some awkwardness when we were promoting it but the only place we had a real problem was in Salt lake City with the Mormons.
Lee Sobel: You and your first husband Meshulam Riklis denied “buying the Golden Globe” but you have to admit that if that did happen, that kind of power is pretty impressive. What did you think about the backlash that happened when you won the award in 1982?
Pia Zadora: Fuck ’em. As many times as they want to take it back, it’s still on my desk.
Lee Sobel: When you made The Lonely Lady (1983), I thought your co-star Lloyd Bochner was an odd choice since he mostly did TV and was not a movie star. Also he was not physically sexy even though you had to do love scenes with him — I mean couldn’t they have shaved his hairy back? It looked like you were making love to the Wolf Man.
Pia Zadora: Lloyd was a pretty big TV star and he actually was that character. You want to say, What the hell is she doing with him? But that movie was very reflective of what I was going through because just like my character Jerilee who was trying to make it as a screenwriter, I saw the big picture and I wanted to be successful in my own career.
Lee Sobel: But didn’t you have approval over casting?
Pia Zadora: Not at all. It was Universal Pictures. But I love Ray Liotta who was in the movie. I wasn’t a big star. I was lucky to get the part.
Lee Sobel: It’s been written that your husband Rik bankrolled the movie which I find confusing.
Pia Zadora: No he didn’t. It was a Universal movie. He did finance Butterfly and Nevada Heat (aka Fake-Out; 1982).
Lee Sobel: In Voyage of the Rock Aliens, Fake-Out and Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult (1994) did those movies appeal to you because you got to sing in them? Also in Voyage you play sort of an Annette Funicello type of character. Were you thinking this would change your image by playing a more wholesome character?
Pia Zadora: With Voyage they were going for a musical comedy type of thing like Grease and they used some of the songs I had recorded like “When the Rain Begins to Fall” which was a hit song I did with Jermaine Jackson. So yes it was fun to integrate that part of what I did with the acting.
Lee Sobel: Hairspray was only 4 years after starring in The Lonely Lady for Universal Pictures. Did it feel like a step down to play such a small role in an independent film like Hairspray? You had that great line: “Let’s get naked and smoke!”
Pia Zadora: No, because John had wanted me to play Deborah Harry’s daughter in the movie, the prom queen bitch. At the time I was touring that summer all over the country with Frank Sinatra. My manager turned it down because we had booked all these dates. I said I could come in for a couple of days and do a cameo. So he said, you’ll be a beatnik. I said, “Beatnik? I’m a sheltered girl from Queens. I don’t know from beatniks.” So I went down there and he gave me a copy of Howl and Ric Ocasek was there and I was a beatnik.
Lee Sobel: Can you tell me what it was like to work with Sinatra?
Pia Zadora: He said, “You’re not gonna sing this rock ‘n roll shit.” You don’t say no to him. I had wanted to reorganize my career and do something that people could accept me for which was my singing, and he enabled me to do that. He arranged for Nelson Riddle to do the Pia and Phil (1985) album with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and me. Sinatra was a perfectionist. Before going on stage he wouldn’t talk to anybody but he would come to me, hold my hands, look right in my eyes and give me a three word pep talk: “Don’t screw up.” And that’s where I learned to always make sure I was perfect because that’s the way he wanted it. He would kid me and tell people because I was half Polish and half Italian that I was Polish from the neck up and Italian from the neck down. Then he’d make me an offer I couldn’t refuse. I joke now that he would have said something like I’m so dumb that Lori Loughlin couldn’t get me into college.
Lee Sobel: At some point your life slowed down after being such a whirlwind for so long. What was that like?
Pia Zadora: My life was constantly in motion and I had the kids, but music really became where I refocused my career. Then things slowed down after I did a six month stint in late ’94 on Broadway in Gershwin’s Crazy For You. I married Jonathan in ’95 and that’s when I wanted to start my new life. I was able to shift gears pretty well – I wanted a more normal life. I got pregnant the following year and had my son Jordan in ’97. Jordan was special needs and I had to completely restructure my parenting and I wanted him to have all the therapy and stuff that he needed. My other kids were ten and twelve at the time so I stopped working and focused on the kids. I never expected to start working again. But when I moved to Las Vegas I started singing again and I thought, “I can do this.” By that point Jordan was sixteen years old and he was out of the woods and I needed to give him a little independence. I started singing in the Vegas hotels and did the circuit here until I found my niche which was Pia’s Place at Piero’s restaurant. I could have my own cabaret like Liza does and have the best musicians in town and do all the old Sinatra stuff. I was there for seven years and it made me so happy. I stopped in March because of the pandemic but I’m still happy so that’s the good part.
Lee Sobel: Andy Warhol painted your portrait, right?
Pia Zadora: Yes, he was a fan of mine. He came to all my concerts like at Carnegie Hall. We would go to the Russian Tea Room. He said, “I’d like to do you,” and I said, “Not tonight and besides you’re gay.” So he painted my portrait and I had a copy of it on the backdrop at Pia’s Place. He was very low key, very quiet but when he painted you he just absorbed you and ate you up. Like he was a blank canvas and you filled him up. He seemed almost autistic, like he was in his own zone.
Lee Sobel: Can we talk about your first husband Rik?
Pia Zadora: Sure. He’s dead. He was a big part of my life.
Lee Sobel: I’ve watched interviews with him and he was so in love with you. It was clear that you were the love of his life even after your marriage ended.
Pia Zadora: Yeah…he was a very charismatic guy. He was very strong, very much like my father wasn’t, which was one of the reasons I was so attracted to him. He offered me independence. I was a working actress and I married into wealth. I moved into the Sherry-Netherland and I had a limo waiting for me downstairs 24/7, took helicopters to private airplanes, flew around the world, but I was working most of the time. I started releasing records in Europe…because I didn’t want to be a socialite.
Lee Sobel: How long were you married?
Pia Zadora: Eighteen years, two kids. We outgrew each other. At one time he was my husband, my father, my mentor. We had a special relationship. He allowed me to move out of my parents house and grow up. I had been working since I was six years old, doing what I was told — go to auditions, do this, do that. I didn’t know how to navigate the real world. I didn’t know how to write a check or balance a check book, I was like a little puppet. So Rik did everything for me and taught me until I knew what I was doing. We were not together that much because he had businesses all over the world and I was working all over the world, so we didn’t have a typical relationship where we were together every day. We were both off doing our own thing and then we would come together and connect. We lived different lives but we respected each other. It worked until it didn’t. I think Pickfair (landmark Hollywood house) was the straw that broke the camel’s back which we bought when I made Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult. It was just ostentatious and not what I wanted. When Rik first bought Pickfair, John Waters told me I needed to rename it. He said I should call it “Prickfair” because of Pia and Rik. But I just wanted to start from scratch so after I divorced Rik I married Jonathan Kaufer and I got pregnant with my son Jordan. It was like my second coming. (laughs) And then I had a third coming after that with my third husband.
Lee Sobel: In 2012 you appeared on the TV show Celebrity Ghost Stories and said you had your mansion Pickfair demolished and rebuilt because you believed it to be haunted. Is that true?
Pia Zadora: I did not see the ghosts but my kids’ rooms were underneath the attic and they would run into my bedroom at night saying they hear women laughing and stomping around in the attic above them and they would freak out so my experience was not first hand when it comes to the ghosts. But I will tell you that…(laughs) there were termites.
Lee Sobel: You had a bit of drama in your second marriage, right?
Pia Zadora: The reason I met my third, and hopefully my last, husband, is that I was in a custody battle with my second husband. He had attacked me, pushed me down and he went into a frenzy. He was arrested and there was a restraining order against him. I took our son Jordan out of the state and went to Las Vegas for my first son’s birthday with my first ex-husband and Jonathan Kaufer came to Vegas and stalked me. He wanted to get me back to court for leaving the state with our kid. He stood on a building and took pictures of us and took pictures of my kid’s car seat. I called my Beverly Hills attorney and he said to go to the police and file a report there so they have a record of it that he did this. So I did and the report came across my now husband’s desk. He looked at it and he said, “Holy crap! Some idiot named their kid Pia Zadora?” But then he realized, this might be her. We’ve been married now 16 years. He adopted Jordan because Jonathan passed away in a car accident in 2013. My husband’s name is Michael and he looks like Alec Baldwin. He’s in the music video I released right before the pandemic.
Lee Sobel: You went to jail at one point in 2013 for allegedly abusing your son Jordan but you’ve talked about your son being special needs and that it was a big mistake and you’ve said that you were not abusing him. Is that right?
Pia Zadora: It’s not a secret. I didn’t spend the night in jail but I was held for about nine hours. I was in a cell and people kept walking back and forth and looking at me. I felt like an animal in a zoo. There was nothing I could do but make a phone call every hour. It was quiet and kind of meditative actually. I just became very peaceful which I know is a weird thing to say about being in jail. But I didn’t consider it going to jail. I considered it an audition for America’s Most Wanted.