The Barry Levinson-directed new HBO biopic, You Don’t Know Jack, about Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the infamous pathologist who administered lethal injections to 130 willing and terminally ill patients, was shot on site at Queens’ most famous Hollywood diner.
Al Pacino, who plays Dr. Kevorkian, was at the diner and gave a couple of lucky onlookers autographs and handshakes.
Although having Pacino at the diner was exciting, the diner’s co-owner, Nick Diamantis, said it is nothing new for the diner, which was built in 1935 and renovated in 1965.
The Clinton Diner has been featured in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, starring Robert De Niro in 1990. Philip Seymour Hoffman was there on set in February, and just last week a film called the Gonzo Files with Zoë Kravitz was shot there.
Diamantis, who is an aspiring actor himself, claims to have been in Law and Order, Salt (with Angelina Jolie), and a couple of episodes of Gossip Girl.
He said having films shoot on location at his diner has become almost routine.
“We’re proud, especially to have Pacino here,” Diamantis said, “but it’s part of business.”
Although it’s all business for this diner frozen in time, for locals being in films come with other perks besides just getting paid and 15-seconds of fame.
“I’m happy because it’s used in films. One day this diner may not be here,” Diamantis said. “But it will always be here in film.”
“The Clinton Diner is the real deal and has not been significantly changed since the 60's,” said Julian Ruhe, the Location Scout/Assistant for the biopic. “It is like stepping back in time. It's a place that most scouts know about and keep in the back of their mind for a shoot like this.”
For this particular shoot, which is set in the 1980’s, the diner and Maspeth’s industrial area is exactly what the producers needed to make the scene work.
Although the scene was set in Detroit and they changed the name of the diner to Motor Drive, and Maspeth and Rust Streets were changed to Lockhardt Street and Pontiac Terrace, respectively, the diner with its red-vinyl booths was the exact look the film’s producers were looking for.
“We were trying to find a classic diner that could be anywhere in the country,” Ruhe said. “Clinton Diner is the classic American diner and it is very spacious, which is an important part of any filming location.”
The location of a scene can only do so much, however. Talent and writing also play a large role.
Tina Vanessa Smith, a 48-year-old who has been acting since she was five and was a waitress in the diner scene, said the scene filmed at the diner actually carries cinematic weight.
“It’s a powerful scene because he’s [Pacino] Dr. Kevorkian. It’s controversial dialogue. He’s saying people should die any way they choose, especially painlessly,” Smith said.
Adam Mazer, the movie’s writer, said that everything went as he envisioned. After the shoot Mazer said, “Pacino is really owning his role.”
It also turned out to be a particularly good day for the fans.
Frank Tantillo, from Middle Village, who has a hobby, or obsession, of waiting for celebrities at the morning shows in Manhattan five days a week, got two autographs on pictures of Pacino from The Godfather and Scarface movies.
He said he has collected 4,000 pictures with celebrities and just as many autographs. After he got Pacino’s autographs, Tantillo had a magic glow about his face only celebrities give people. He was smiling and dripping with sweat from the hot day.
“He’s a terrific actor,” Tantillo said, “but I’ve been here waiting for two hours in the hot sun.”
Another fan who was able to stop Pacino on his way to his car, was 60-year-old José Camacho, who works at the car repair center across the street from the diner.
“Pacino, I’m from the Bronx too!” Camacho yelled to the star. Pacino, who was born in the Bronx, stopped and shook José’s hand and gave him an autograph on a piece of paper that read: “To Joe from the Bronx.”
Huffing from running across the street to talk to the actor and smiling with satisfaction, Camacho said, “he looked like he was pleased to see someone from the Bronx, someone from his own neighborhood, it made my day.”