To get famous, you have to leave Spokane. But more often than not, you can wind up almost famous, which is where we find Spokane native John Gaetano. After years in Hollywood as a bit-part actor and aspiring screenwriter, he's been back in Spokane for more than a decade now.
Despite never getting his big break, he's got a lot of great stories and even a self-published novel to show for it. But his book is not all about Hollywood; it's about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Friends who know him best say his stories from the movies might make a better book, but they understand that the death of JFK affected Gaetano deeply, as it did so many Americans. Gaetano, however, isn't letting go: He's a proud conspiracy theorist who doesn't buy the official explanation that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.
"Since I was 11 years old, I've been following Kennedy's assassination," says Gaetano. (Now 52, he turned 11 a month before the president was murdered.) "I ask myself, 'Am I obsessed?' No, I'm not obsessed, but people just seem to tell me things."
Gaetano says that throughout his years in Hollywood, it was well known that he was investigating the assassination, and many people (whom he won't name) shared all kinds of crucial information with him about the case. But America the Beautiful isn't a nonfiction book vetted by a major publishing house for facts, and it features all the shortcomings and excesses associated with many self-published books -- including factual errors and too many exclamation points. So it was wise to write it as a novel -- that way, Gaetano can blend his "Hitchcockian" plot with passages detailing his theories about what happened to JFK.
It's a dense concoction, but his message is heartfelt: "God gave us the gift to forget bad things," he writes in the book, "but the memory of certain events will continue to haunt us because many people are not satisfied with the final verdict of what others told us was their version of the truth."
I know, you're thinking, "OK already! Who does he think killed JFK?" That's what I wanted to know, too. But the story starts with his adventures in Hollywood.
Gaetano, who grew up in the old Finch House in Browne's Addition, wound up in Hawaii after graduating from Lewis and Clark High School in 1971. He was a copy boy for CBS News, but got his big break when he was cast for a small part in an episode of Hawaii Five-O. Gaetano was a handsome Italian kid, and even though his scene was cut, he decided to move to Southern California to work in the movies. His next break would come when he broke into a set -- literally.
"Within 10 months [of moving from Hawaii], I ended up sneaking on the 20th-Century Fox lot," Gaetano recalls. "I wanted to meet Mel Brooks, and he was making a movie called Silent Movie. So I went to a stage there -- I just kind of went in the background where nobody could see me -- and I was watching. I got to see Marty Feldman and Dom Deluise and Sid Caesar, and Ann Bancroft was going to come in that day, and she was Mel Brooks' wife. I was just in awe of all this. Then Mel Brooks noticed me, and he pointed at me and this guy started to come toward me, and I ran. I ran out of that set and onto the lot and he says, 'Stop!' So I stopped, and he said, 'What are you running for?' I said I didn't think I was supposed to be there. He says, 'Mel Brooks wants you to get in there and get in costume.' I didn't say anything and just said, 'OK.' I put this uniform on that they had, and finally he came up to me and said, 'The actor that's supposed to be playing this is here' -- like, 'What are you doing here?' And I said, 'Oh I'm so sorry, I'm really so sorry. I'll get out of this outfit.' And he says, 'No, can you put something else on. We're going to use you for something else.' So I spent the next week working on Mel Brooks' film."
Gaetano's career as an extra had begun, but it wasn't what he wanted. He was a student of cinema, and he dreamed about becoming a writer and director. At the same time, he was a reporter for the Glendale News Press, which served an area where many actors lived. On his beat, he interviewed a variety of famous directors, including Frank Capra, Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks.
Later, Gaetano intersected with film history when he played a few bit parts in Grease. "My biggest scene was 'Summer Nights' with Olivia, where the girls are in the lunchroom and the guys are out in the bleachers. I'm the only guy with the girls in that sequence." (He wears an apron and cleans up lunch tables in the background. He also appears in the drive-in scene and later at the dance contest.)
Then Gaetano got to work with Steven Spielberg on 1941, again in a kind of don't-blink-or-you'll-miss-it part. But he did get to meet -- and, he says, save the life of -- John Belushi.
"John fell off the wing of this plane head first [a scene that is in the movie]," says Gaetano, who played a solider who gets pushed by Belushi in the scene. "Apparently this was the coldest night in L.A. since 1800 and something, and we started shooting at 1 o'clock in the morning. I knew that John was going to fall; he was dancing on the wing. I think he was trying to keep warm plus goofing off, but there was dew on the wing. And he did slip, and I braced myself and he fell halfway on me, but he still hit the ground with a thud. He was out maybe a few seconds and then he woke up, and he was embarrassed. And Spielberg says, 'All right, this is a wrap.' But we had just started shooting. John was just like, 'Naah, let's just keep shooting.' Spielberg said, 'Really?' And the cameras started to roll. As soon as he said 'Action,' John fell to the ground. So now Spielberg says 'All right, go home.' And they took him right away to the emergency."
Gaetano worked on other films and on TV, too, including The Blues Brothers, Coming Home, The Muppet Movie, Kojak, The Rockford Files and Battlestar Galactica. But by this time he was trying to make the jump to screenwriting and even directing. Unfortunately, nobody ever picked up his screenplay Pawns -- a kind of Deliverance meets The Manchurian Candidate set in the Pacific Northwest. And despite shooting a couple of short films, his career never quite went the way he'd hoped.
So instead, he moved home and wrote America the Beautiful, summing up his 35-year investigation of the Kennedy assassination. If you spend an afternoon with Gaetano, you'll see how it all seems to make perfect sense to him -- how everything from Lee Harvey Oswald to John Hinckley and from Vietnam to Iraq is interconnected. (Seems a bit far-fetched to me, but it makes a hell of a story.)
At least Gaetano is right that there are a lot of weird things about the Kennedy assassination -- things that never made sense to a lot of perceptive Americans. Whether his explanation is accurate, I don't know, but in pursuing what might be the greatest mystery of the 20th century, he's at least picked a fertile subject.
Gaetano's skepticism starts with the so-called "magic bullet" that, according to the Warren Commission, caused seven separate wounds and emerged nearly unscathed to be matched to the gun linked to Lee Harvey Oswald. And he's equally fixated on the oddly timed meeting that took place outside Dallas on the night before the assassination that included J. Edgar Hoover, Richard Nixon and a bevy of Texas oilmen.
And there's your punchline. While Oliver Stone seems to think Kennedy was killed for planning to bail out of Vietnam, Gaetano believes Kennedy was killed over oil, which he sees as the common thread that runs through these past 40 years. New England wouldn't run this country, under Gaetano's theory, Texas would. And if it doesn't quite add up (even though this past election seems to confirm it yet again), hey, it's just a novel.
Like any conspiracy theorist, Gaetano is a bit of an eccentric, but he knows a lot about John F. Kennedy -- and maybe even more about the movies. And there's something admirable about a guy who continues to push his book (which first came out in 2001) on a nation that seems only lightly bothered by a war in Iraq, let alone a crime committed more than 40 years ago. For a book that hovers around No. 1,400,000 on the Amazon.com sales rankings, he continues to schedule readings and signings all over the city -- even in California -- as a way to pass on his story to younger generations. He's still hoping to attract the attention of a national publishing house. Maybe he'll get famous yet.
Publication date: 1/06/04