Radioman: ‘Robin Williams said, ‘We must be Siamese twins’’

The Times

October 9, 2012


In the documentary Radioman, the title character — a formerly homeless New Yorker who travels around the city on his battered red 1972 Schwinn bicycle becoming friendly with celebrities filming movies — appears quite the dude.

Radioman, 62, “but I feel 35”, hovers around the “craft service tables” of food on outdoor sets, mapping the city through film permits on lampposts and gossip. “This man’s a cultural institution,” says Tom Hanks. “You get on a first-name basis with Radio, you know you’ve made it.” George Clooney: “No one shoots in New York and doesn’t know who Radioman is.”

“It’s great seeing him, he’s one of the fixtures of New York,” says Robin Williams, whom Radioman resembles, in terms of looks and his ability to segue into a battery of accents.

Radioman was born Craig Castaldo, but “hates” his name; he calls himself Schwartz if he has to, “because I don’t look Italian, I look Jewish”. He is known as “Radioman” because his signature look is to wear a radio around his neck. He has a recurring cameo role in the US television series 30 Rock.

Sting rightly observes he “is like a character from Waiting For Godot” and the film shows us the sadder side of Radioman’s life: he tries and fails to get into Oscars parties; Anne Hathaway opens her limousine window only long enough to say she cannot speak to him. He shouts “Penélope” at a car containing Penélope Cruz and dances to the song and dance routines of the Oscars highlights show in a grotty hotel. “Being on East and West Coasts makes it look like I really care,” he says, looking at the Oscars paparazzi. “They just want some dirt. I’m here ’cos I worked with them before.”

Only Jude Law and Clooney actually engage Radioman in proper, two-way conversation. Robert Downey Jr wanly asks if he has the signed pictures he wanted. Meryl Streep may feel genuine affection towards him (“we’ve been together for 30 years”), but the question nags that if these celebrities all adore him so much why have none helped him out of penury? Sure, you think, they love him as a “colourful personality”, but there is a physical and mental frailty to Radioman: he needs much more than their indulgent praise.

When we meet, Radioman seems to have been taking lessons from his celeb-buddies: he’s 55 minutes late. He is wearing jeans and an anorak, has a scruffy grey beard, twinkling eyes and suddenly, in the middle of a sentence, will seem pained, look away, stop talking. He looks and smells like he lives rough but seeks neither sympathy nor pity; he’s a sharp, rollicking raconteur who swears fruitily.

As well as visiting film sets, “Radio” has been an extra in “100-something movies”, including Enchanted, Godzilla and Wall Street 2: “They don’t need many takes to get it right,” he says. He makes money doing roles and selling autographs. His Brooklyn apartment may look like a cockroach-infested junkyard, but his cherished objects, such as a boombox given to him by Steven Spielberg, are “sacred”.

Radioman grew up in Brooklyn; his father was a machinist and labourer, his mother a model “who never made it” in the theatre. He says he was a “pretty happy kid”. He lived with his parents until his twenties, but didn’t want to move with them to Florida so lived on the streets, including beneath Penn Station. He says: “Below track 17, amazingly enough you can hear the trains, but only a bit and that far down even the rats are friendly.”

He got a job at the US post office but for years drank beer “all day: Busch, Michelob and Budweiser. It was my escape. It felt like it gave me the strength of Popeye or Superman. Being homeless means being invisible: people don’t see you as human any more. It was a very lonely, dismal existence.”

Radioman’s film-set life began when the TV detective series The Equalizer, starring Edward Woodward, filmed around him in the street when he was helping a newspaper seller. One day he offered a fellow “bum” some beer. It was Bruce Willis shooting The Bonfire of the Vanities. “ ‘You’re acting homeless like you’re in a cartoon’, I told him.” A few months later, “I was in Central Park and saw fire coming from what looked like a dragon and met Robin Williams filming The Fisher King. ‘Who are you?’ I said. ‘We must be Siamese twins,’ he said, ‘we look alike and talk alike.’ I told him, ‘You’re playing homeless but this isn’t the way you should be doing it.’ I brought him to meet the guys and they took to him straight away.”

After bad-mouthing a policewoman, Radioman was placed in Bellevue Hospital Centre for two months and treated for alcoholism, which was so awful, “I thought, ‘To hell with this, I’m clean.’ ” He has been sober for 16 years.

He was married “for about seven years, but it didn’t work out too well”. His favourite celebrities are Russell Crowe and Whoopi Goldberg (“who’s always treated me nice”), as well as Clooney (“You wouldn’t expect a guy with that much money, fame and good looks not to be a prick”) and Pierce Brosnan who gave him his James Bond 007 watch, which he still has, scuffed and without straps. Helen Mirren “just loves me, I don’t know why. I’ve just been at the Toronto International Film festival where Dustin Hoffman invited me to his premiere. Johnny Depp says (and he growls Depp-like), ‘Radioman’s my idol man. I’ve known him for so long. He’s so cool.’ ”

His contribution to the documentary earnt him, “just meals and stuff,” according to a spokeswoman. “Nothing has been agreed” in terms of him receiving money if the movie does well. If it does, the producers would come “to some kind of arrangement with him, they would see him right”.

Does he ever feel patronised? “Oh I dunno, maybe in a way. I am just being myself. That’s why they respect me. I treat them as people, not stars.” The documentary could make him a star. “I don’t know what will happen,” he says. “I’m comfortable in my own shoes. I don’t want to blow up into a billionaire. All that money in my pocket and I’d probably be like Howard Hughes.” Materially he may have nothing, but he’s determined to live the life he has crafted for himself as exotically as possible.

Radioman doesn’t like all stars, especially “that asshole” Sean Penn: “I will say without remorse that guy is a real whore. I asked for his autograph and he said he wasn’t in the mood. ‘I don’t do that shit’.

“Lauren Bacall was a real bitch. I was riding my bicycle outside the Dakota (the apartment block where John Lennon lived) when this little old woman walking a shih tzu shouts, ‘Get off the f***ing sidewalk, there are no bikes on the goddamn sidewalk.’ I turn around, it’s Lauren Bacall. ‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ I say. ‘You should be,’ she says. ‘You can go f*** yourself,’ I say.”

But on he cycles; Radioman has just visited the Long Island set of Noah, directed by Darren Aronofsky and starring Crowe. His bike is laden with bags containing pictures to autograph, food and soda cups.

Tilda Swinton says Radioman has a “complete understanding of the feeling of community and companionship cinema can provide”. Probably the truest appraisal comes from Whoopi Goldberg. “Everyone may not dig it or understand it, but would I want him to become someone else? No.”