Wilmington’s Oscar-Winner Shines in Act Three

Joe Feury can now add ‘celebrated artist’ to his long list of talents.

Photo by Jonathan Pozniak

Five days a week, Joe Feury takes the subway from Manhattan’s Upper West Side to an artist’s loft in Tribeca, where he rents space from his cousin. There, he paints and draws for up to nine hours at a stretch. “I’m constantly working,” he says as he sharpens a pencil with a small blade. “You get involved and you’re focused and the hours just go by.” He’s always been like this: goal-oriented, restless, relentless. “I’m a work breed, not a show breed. I’m a producer. I produce.”

Despite taking up painting seriously only two years ago, at the age of 72, Feury has shown at one of Manhattan’s top galleries, and such show-business luminaries as Michael Douglas, Alan Alda and Joy Behar own his work. Granted, they are all his personal friends, but it never hurts to have talent and connections. A conversation with Feury will touch down on many topics (with more than a few F-bombs dropped along the way), from dinners at Hollywood hot spots to partying in Malibu with Mikey Douglas to Gloria Steinem’s 80th birthday party: “Lee said, ‘Draw something for her. It would be nice.’”

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“Lee” is the legendary actor and director Lee Grant, Feury’s wife of almost 50 years. They live in a palatial apartment filled with art and family photographs; Feury’s twin sister, Phyllis, lives with them, running the household and preparing excellent Italian food. Aside from stellar Hollywood careers, Feury and Grant were a formidable producing/directing team in New York, creating films for Lifetime and HBO. Their documentary “Down and Out in America” won an Oscar in 1986. In 2006, Feury produced “Baghdad ER,” a harrowing look at military surgeons in Iraq that won four Emmys and a Peabody. 

So Joe knows from success. But art is a taskmaster who likes to remind him that he’s got a lot to learn. Take, for example, his latest work, a large still life of a vase of sunflowers sitting on a table, which is covered by a crazy quilt. A hand enters from the side of the painting, holding two sunflowers, as if to put them in the vase. It’s a fist, really, and fists are notoriously difficult to draw—all those fingers, scrunched together. Feury needs to finish the piece for a show at The Art Students League of New York, where he takes classes, but he can’t get the hand right. He swipes his iPad, looking at photos he took of his hand, wondering where he went wrong. 

“It looks … dead,” he says, and shakes his shiny, shaven head. He claims, only half jokingly, that he aspires “to be Picasso!” and with his hairless pate and age-defying vigor, he sort of resembles the Spanish genius. (Yet unlike Picasso, Feury is a nice guy—empathic, respectful of women, generous to a fault—so the comparison ends there.) With oils he can rework an image again and again, but watercolor is unforgiving, and mistakes are hard to cover. A lot of artists—even Picasso, maybe—might scrap the piece and start over. 

Left to right: Joe Feury and Lee Grant; Feury stands by his work, “Four Joeys”; Feury and Wendy Shalen

Not Joe Feury. “Give up” is not in his vocabulary. This is the same guy who, as a dancer in the early ’60s, auditioned for “My Fair Lady.” Every time he got dismissed he went backstage, changed clothes, and came back out to re-audition, pretending to be someone else. Four times he did this until the director caught on. “He came up on the stage, pointed at me, and said, ‘Get him out of here!’” 

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Back then he was still Joey Fioretti, from the Little Italy section of Wilmington, trying to make it on Broadway. He should’ve followed in his father’s footsteps, but that didn’t work out. “I graduated high school in 1957 and went to work as a plumber. That’s what my father was, that’s what I was raised to be. The first day on the job I said, ‘This is for the rest of my life? You’ve gotta be jokin’ me.’” He took his first ballet lesson at 18 in pursuit of a girl; she slipped away, but dancing stuck. Only two years earlier, he’d beaten polio. Feury is no stranger to adversity. He’s written three screenplays despite being dyslexic, and now has immersed himself in the art of color and shading, despite a mild case of colorblindness, which makes the vibrant crazy quilt in the watercolor all the more amazing. 

“He obviously is able to mix washes and see values, but I haven’t quite figured out how he does it,” says Wendy Shalen, his first drawing teacher at The Art Students League. She calls Feury’s progress “extraordinary. … He likes to jump in with these very large ideas about what he wants to accomplish, and he’ll work on it for hours. He absolutely wants to do original, strong, heartfelt work, work that’s not ordinary, no matter what.”

Feury takes a ruler and starts making lines in the background. Wallpaper? “No, just stripes.” The studio’s owner, Michael Langenstein, wanders in. A noted minimalist who draws perfect circles freehand, Langenstein is married to Feury’s cousin, and they live here together. Feury calls him his “sensei.” They discuss the problematic hand, and the lines Feury’s been drawing in the background. “It looks good, Joey,” Langenstein says. “But I forget to tell you, real artists don’t use rulers.”

Left: Joe Feury with Eli Wallach | Right:Joe Feury with longtime friend Ron Rifkin

Feury is relentless in love as well as art. He met Lee Grant on a musical touring version of “Ninotchka” in the early ’60s. Grant was in her early 30s, still blacklisted for refusing to name her then-husband, screenwriter Arthur Manoff, as a Communist in 1957. Hollywood jobs dried up, so she took anything she could get, including summer stock. She was the lead on “Ninotchka.” Joey Fioretti was 13 years younger, a dancer with a full head of black curls, endless Italian charm and a car. He drove Grant and her young daughter from town to town. “It took two weeks to seduce her,” he says with typical candor. “We’ve been together ever since.”

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Grant recalls that she was the artist when they met: “I painted to get stuff out of my system. He was this kid coming over and trying to make love to me, so I handed him a canvas and a brush and said, ‘Here, paint, leave me alone!’ And he did something that was so interesting I stopped painting. His image was original, and mine was formulaic.” 

“Lee thinks I’m gifted,” Feury confirms. “She’s stunned by what I do. I surprised everybody—except myself.”

Michael (“Mikey”) Douglas, a friend for 40 years, calls Feury “amazing … He gets very single-minded and very passionate. I find it really inspirational—how, in the third act of your life, you can master and accomplish an art form at any age.” 

The couple later moved to Los Angeles, where Grant reclaimed her career, culminating with a best supporting actress Oscar for “Shampoo.” Feury dabbled in acting—he changed his name to sound less Italian—before starting a commercial production company. But art was an interest, even back then. In 1966, inspired by an artist friend, he began to draw and paint with acrylics. Barney Rosenzweig, legendary producer of such TV classics as “Cagney & Lacey” (he married its co-star, Sharon Gless), remembers Feury painting in his Malibu home. “He was pretty good, very enthusiastic about it, and I liked a lot of the stuff that he did. He had his work hanging on the wall. I kept waiting for him to give me one, and he never did.”

Left: Feury with Michael Douglas | Right: Feury, then 14, poses with two of his friends from Little Italy: Richie Zambanini and Verino Pettinaro. All three are still best friends

Feury and Grant relocated to New York City in the 1980s (Grant was born Lyova Haskell Rosenthal in the upper reaches of Manhattan). He produced and she directed, mostly for television: movies like “Nobody’s Child” starring Marlo Thomas and Lifetime’s “Intimate Portraits” series.

They collaborated on several HBO documentaries, most notably “Down and Out in America,” which won the Oscar for Best Documentary in 1986. But the business had changed; a new guard had come to town. Feury wrote three screenplays, and found himself “sitting around waiting for someone to read the scripts. … I couldn’t get anybody to read anything. I thought, ‘What the f— am I doing this for?’ So I started to draw.”

Sherry Camhy, another of his drawing teachers at The Art Students League, remembers him as a handful at first.

“So Joey came into class, and he asked a lot of questions. My first thought was, ‘Oh, no, this is going to be a difficult student.’” She discovered that all those questions were designed to fill a bottomless well of curiosity, and they became friends. Feury did 78 drawings in six months—delicate line drawings of plants, kitchens, fruit with the grocery-store sticker—and collected them, along with a few older ones, into a book titled “Artworks of Joseph Fioretti.” 

Joy Behar, their neighbor on the Upper West Side, hangs two of the pieces in her Hamptons house, a still life and a nude. “He’s a very creative person, and I think he’s writing his Act Three,” she says. “He has an artistic sensibility, so it’s natural. And he threw himself into it whole hog. He’s like Van Gogh, all over the place, only without the mental illness!”

Feury signs his works, not with his Hollywood name, but as Joey Fioretti, the kid from Wilmington. Camhy believes he is searching for an inner authenticity. “At a certain point, he decided he was going to be different, to establish a whole new way of being. So that’s what he did. Joey was evolving into the person he really always wanted to be.”

Still, the guy who spent his life around actors and directors is still there. When his signature work, a self-portrait in pastels called “Four Joeys,” hung in a show at the famous Forum Gallery, he invited all his celebrity friends and later transported them by car up to his place for dinner. “My only mistake was not having klieg lights and a red carpet!” And he still can’t help calling the shots once in a while. He tells the story of a life drawing class, where the model was “just a chunk of meat standing up there. I said to the teacher, ‘Let me talk to him.’ I said, ‘All right, here’s what’s going on in your head.’” Feury painted a scenario where the model took a train from Boston to New York to discuss wedding plans with his fiancée. Instead, he finds her in bed with another guy. “And I pointed to a guy in class—him!—and asked, ‘What’s your reaction? Angry? Hurt?’ Afterward he sat in that chair, and he was alive.” 

Clearly life is a work of art for Feury, full of friends, family and fame. While he toils away in the studio, Grant is at their apartment finishing up her memoirs, due out this summer from Penguin. “I said to Lee the other day, ‘You know, honey, it’s the first time in our lives that our work life is in our hands. We don’t have to wait for someone to hire us; we don’t have to develop a script and try to sell it. We have don’t have to worry about money.’”

Still, he has worries, mostly about aging. While Feury insists he doesn’t look 74—this is true, he looks 20 years younger—mortality weighs on his mind. Another work in progress, his first oil painting, hangs on a wall by a bank of windows. It depicts Feury in a straitjacket, standing in what seems to be a mental asylum. Paint peels off the walls, and an old suitcase sits on the floor behind him as he stares dolefully out of frame. He calls it “a metaphor for where I am right now”—trapped by time and mortality, despite his many blessings. 

As for the troublesome watercolor, it turned out well. In the finished product, the hand is gone. He made it disappear—not an easy task with watercolor. The vase bursts with sunflowers, and the stripes behind look like wallpaper. Two small black-and-white photos sit on the table, two hang on the wall. They are replicas of ones Feury has at home: There’s Lee, his entire family at a restaurant, and he and the actor Ron Rifkin, a good friend. In the fourth, taken when he was 14 years old, Feury leans against a wall with two of his friends from Little Italy: Richie Zambanini and Verino Pettinaro. All three are still best friends.

“I never dreamed Joey would be so successful at whatever he tried,” says Pettinaro, a developer who built half of Wilmington. Now he’s retired and living in Florida. “He tackles something and stays on course and makes it work. When we were kids, we didn’t think about the future. We got in a lot of trouble when we were young, loitering on the corner, stuff like that. We used to play cards at night, poker. He was not a good card player. You’ve got to have a knack for it. That’s why Joey amazes me. I didn’t know he had a knack for painting. I’m very proud of Joey. He took himself and made something of himself and then went to a different career and did something good there, too. Now he’s back to being Joey Fioretti. I think his art’s more important to him than his Academy Award. I think he loves his art. I think he fell in love with it.”  

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