Dana Kennedy
February 09, 1996 AT 05:00 AM EST

Five years ago last month, Joseph Vasquez, the son of two heroin addicts from the South Bronx, won honors at the Sundance Film Festival for Hangin’ With the Homeboys, a comic coming-of-age movie that he wrote and directed. ”We were hugging and dancing with each other in a circle at the celebratory party afterward,” recalls Janet Grillo, a former executive at New Line Cinema who helped the movie get made. ”It was like the world was Joe’s oyster.”

It was not. Hollywood’s infatuation with inner-city chic was about to collide with a damaged soul — someone for whom mean streets were not just a movie but real life. In December, Vasquez died of AIDS-related complications in San Diego at age 33, penniless and in the throes of severe mental illness — his dream of becoming a major movie director and screenwriter in ruins.

Vasquez began his downward spiral shortly after the release of Homeboys, which many thought would be his springboard to bigger movies. Instead, he made only one more film, 1994’s little-seen Manhattan Merengue (it has only been shown in festivals). He turned down more commercial Hollywood projects and began suffering from severe manic depression, which had apparently dogged him in milder form for years. He started to believe he was Jesus Christ and was hospitalized several times.

After Vasquez died, some of his associates mourned him as a casualty of fast-track, big-time filmmaking, victimized for his refusal to sell out. Others, who had hoped Vasquez would be the next Spike Lee, say he seemed determined to alienate the people who could help him get ahead. Did Hollywood hang the homeboy, or did Joseph Vasquez, a troubled man with a tough background, simply self-destruct?

”I remember the day they were brought to me — it was two days before Kennedy died,” says Bertha Vazquez, 79, seated on a plastic-covered couch in her small apartment in East Harlem, surrounded by framed photographs of her grandson Joseph and his two older brothers. ”Tito and Tony were 6 and 4, but Joe… Joe was barely 10 months old.”

Joseph Vasquez and his brothers were given to Bertha on a cold November day in the South Bronx by a friend of Dolores Vasquez, their mother. They came with hardly any clothes; Joseph was covered with just a blanket. Both Dolores and Joseph’s father, Fermin, were using heroin. ”I went there once and the older boys were in the street unsupervised,” says Mrs. Vazquez. ”Joe was in his crib with a soiled diaper while his mother and her friends sat around in the living room.”

Dolores Vasquez disappeared not long after Bertha, Joseph’s paternal grandmother, began caring for the boys. She moved to San Diego with another man and had two more sons. Dolores saw Joseph only rarely after that. (Joseph’s father, who saw his sons occasionally, died of a drug overdose in 1985.)

Despite such a bleak beginning, Vasquez thrived in his grandmother’s home. When he was 12, he got hold of a relative’s Super-8 camera and began what would become a lifelong obsession. ”He used himself and his little friends as actors,” says Mrs. Vazquez. ”I brought him a projector one Christmas. Every Saturday he’d show his movies to the other kids. He always said he wanted to be a director.”

Although his favorite uncle died of AIDS in 1986 and a beloved cousin committed suicide at age 13, friends and family say Vasquez seemed to rise above his family tragedies, earning a filmmaking degree from the City College of New York in 1983. He lived at home with Bertha (who moved to East Harlem in 1985) and the two remained close. ”He was the flower of the family,” says Michael Lieber, a movie producer who befriended Vasquez during the last five years of his life. ”He was the one who had everything going for him.”

Yet the trauma of Vasquez’s early years apparently haunted him. ”It was like there was always something he was depressed about,” says Bertha Vazquez. ”I think it was his mother. When I referred to Dolores as his mother, he’d say, ‘No, she’s not my mother, you’re my mother.’ He was very angry that she left and then had two other boys. He’d say, ‘How come she’s with them and not with us?’ I didn’t really know what to tell him.”

When Michael Schweitzer first met Joseph Vasquez in 1986, they were both working at a postproduction facility in Manhattan, putting the finishing touches on Quaker Oats ads. ”You could tell he was ambitious,” says Schweitzer, now a film editor. ”He’d stay there all night, cutting his own film.” A few years after Schweitzer left, Vasquez asked him to edit The Bronx War, a film he’d made in 1989 that was shown at a few film festivals and caught the attention of New Line Cinema.

When New Line, and specifically Janet Grillo, became interested in Vasquez, he quickly produced a draft of the screenplay that Schweitzer says ”had been in his head for years.” It was Hangin’ With the Homeboys, a semiautobiographical tale of one night in the life of four South Bronx buddies — and Vasquez wrote it in three days, going without sleep. ”Back when we didn’t realize he was crazy, we thought, ‘Wow!”’ says Michael Lieber. ”To see this guy whip out a great script like that was impressive. He was very creative and vibrant, like a lot of manic people can be.”

New Line put up a budget of $1.9 million (Vasquez got six figures to write and direct) and the movie went into production in August 1990. By all accounts, Vasquez, while on the Homeboys set, didn’t seem any more temperamental than most directors. ”He made rude comments to women and he could be a little abrupt,” says actor Nestor Serrano, who played Vinny. ”But it was clear he was really talented. And everything went okay until he got cut.”

While taking the subway to the set in northern Manhattan one morning, Vasquez was knifed by a homeless man who slashed him from his forehead down the side of his nose. ”After the slashing, he completely changed,” says Schweitzer. Vasquez had acting ambitions (he originally wrote Serrano’s part in Homeboys for himself) but he felt the scar ended those hopes. Serrano says Vasquez became ”intolerable” on the set, picking fights with the cast and crew.

After Homeboys was completed, he grew more erratic. Serrano says Vasquez spoke before preview screenings of Homeboys and would say something outrageous each time. ”When we had the premiere in New York, he got up and said, ‘I want to thank the people at New Line because they have the best drugs,”’ says Serrano. ”He never even touched drugs! He was trying to get attention, be like Spike Lee and say the wrong thing at the right time. But it came out ugly.”

Grillo was disappointed when he scorned her suggestions that he direct a House Party sequel. But she points out that nobody knew then that Vasquez, who had a history of promiscuity, was HIV-positive. (All those interviewed for this story say Vasquez did not use drugs.) He apparently told almost no one. ”He was enormously self-destructive,” Grillo says. ”He felt he had to project this inner-city gangsta kid persona. In fact, he was a gentle, soulful kind of person. But none of us knew that his meter was running. That may have been why he alienated people.”

For two years, it looked as though Vasquez might never get another film made. There was talk of a Hangin’ sequel and projects with TriStar and Disney. Then he was asked to direct Manhattan Merengue in Puerto Rico in 1994. Though the low-budget film was never released, Vasquez thought it was going to be a hit. In late 1994, he moved with his girlfriend to a one-bedroom apartment in Hollywood, where he called up friends like Schweitzer and Lieber, predicting the movie would make millions — a delusion that signaled a severe attack of mania. Three days later, Lieber got a call from the manager of Vasquez’s apartment building, saying Vasquez was running naked through the halls proclaiming himself Jesus Christ. The police came and took him to Los Angeles County hospital in restraints.

From that point on, says Lieber, ”he went into a really serious decline.” A hospital psychiatrist recommended Vasquez remain hospitalized for several months, but he wanted to leave, and state law made it impossible to force him to stay. ”The really tragic thing about manic people is that they think they’ve never felt better in their life,” says Lieber. ”We tried to help him and we couldn’t.”

After Vasquez left the hospital, his mental condition worsened. He and his girlfriend, whom Lieber says does not want to talk about him publicly, spent Christmas 1994 with his mother in San Diego. But he returned after a few days to his L.A. apartment, at which time his girlfriend left him. Schweitzer says Vasquez had a cocker spaniel, and his apartment was filled with dog excrement.

Still often insisting he was Jesus Christ, Vasquez used the last of his money for Homeboys and Manhattan Merengue and rented a house in the Hollywood Hills. He then recruited homeless people, including prostitutes whom he called his ”wives” and a 15-year-old pregnant girl, to live with him (and several pit bulls) on mattresses scattered throughout the house. ”Imagine kind of a benign Charles Manson,” says Lieber. ”That’s what that place was like.”

Incredibly, Vasquez still wanted to make movies — in particular a horror film he wrote called Devil in the Hellhouse in which he planned to play a serial killer. He was able to raise some money with the help of producer Michael Spielberg and some old contacts and managed to shoot a few days’ worth of film in March 1995. ”It was utterly insane,” says Lieber. ”Joe bought a gun. I called up the L.A. film commission warning them that there was a manic guy waving a gun playing a serial killer on this set.”

A day or two later, the crew — shaken by Vasquez’s manic bouts — deserted the project, and the set shut down. Lieber got a call from Vasquez and ”it was obvious he had crashed. He had suddenly come down very hard.” Lieber says Vasquez sounded sane for the first time since he had been hospitalized. ”He said, ‘What am I doing [in this house] with all these crazy people? I’m afraid of them.’ He was amazed at the power of his mental illness — he said it was like being possessed by an awful disease.”

Depressed again, his health deteriorating, his money gone, he had nowhere to go.

But there was one person who could take him in.

”I had so much guilt about all of them,” says Dolores Vasquez, now 60 and living in a housing project one block from the Mexican border in San Ysidro, Calif., ”that I consider it a gift from God that I got to spend Joe’s last months with him.”

Dolores Vasquez, who says she kicked heroin in 1971, understood Joseph’s reluctance to become friendly with her as an adult; she too had been abandoned by her mother and given to her paternal grandmother to raise. But she welcomed the chance to care for her sick son when he asked to move in with her last April.

Mrs. Vasquez has lived alone in recent years, working as a salesclerk at a clothing boutique. Bertha Vazquez calls her ”a completely different person now. She’s wonderful.” But much of Dolores Vasquez’s time with her son was difficult. When Joseph moved in, she often came home to find him weeping. She says she took him to a mental health clinic and insisted he take his medication, though Joseph was opposed to taking any kind of drugs. He took lithium for manic depression only briefly and refused AZT treatments. ”He’d say, ‘Why bother? I’m dying anyway,”’ says Mrs. Vasquez.

Often, Vasquez would become dehydrated from diarrhea and land in the hospital. There, his mother would give him sponge baths and feed him baby food. And it was during this time that Mrs. Vasquez and her son worked out their past. ”He wanted to know why I did what I did,” says Mrs. Vasquez. ”I told him I was on drugs then. I told him I never knew my mother. I told him I was sorry.”

Vasquez died in the hospital early in the morning of Dec. 16. His brother Tony was at his bedside; his mother had gone home a few hours before. After his death, Tony and Tito went through Joseph’s belongings and found a letter addressed to Dolores in a box. ”He said he wanted me to know that he had forgiven his dad and me and he loved us,” says Mrs. Vasquez. ”We read it at the funeral.”

Dolores Vasquez says her son was upbeat toward the end. ”He said he’d always wanted to make movies and travel and be famous,” she says, ”and he seemed to feel he’d had a pretty good shot at it.” His old friend Janet Grillo agrees. ”I’ll take that moment at Sundance to my grave with me — it was thrilling,” she says. ”At the time, I thought Homeboys was just the beginning. Now that I know how hard Joe’s life was, I see that it was actually a miracle and a triumph that he made the movie at all.”

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