Joyce Nizzari: Pin-up Girl of Wongo
Interview by Mike Barnum
Much of the female cast of Wild Women of Wongo were culled from local Miami modeling agencies, some of whom had been working with famed pin-up photographer Bunny Yeager. Born on May 20, in the Bronx section of New York, and moving to sunny Florida when she was just 3 years old, Joyce Nizzari became one of Bunny’s most favored models. Her modeling work not only helped her get cast as one lovely ladies of Wongo, but also led her to become one of the most popular centerfolds to appear in Playboy magazine. Appearing as Miss December, 1958 she helped warm the blood of many a heterosexual male during the cold war era. And although she really didn’t consider herself an actress, Joyce managed to make appearances in films and television with some regularity throughout the late 50s and early 60s including roles alongside people like Frank Sinatra, Keenan Wynn, Gene Barry, Natalie Wood, and others – names that many starlets would have killed to work with. Films such as A Hole in the Head (1959), Pajama Party (1964) The Great Race (1965), and Nevada Smith (1966), and television work on popular shows like The Beverly Hillbillies and Burke’s Law were all enhanced by Joyce’s beauty, even if her lines were often kept to a minimum.
Joyce married actor Jack Hogan in 1967 and they had two children together. They divorced in the 1980s. She lived in Hawaii for several years, returning to Los Angeles in the late 1990s. She was kind enough to chat with me about her work as an actress in this interview from 2002.
Mike Barnum: It was your modeling work led to your being cast in Wild Women of Wongo, is that correct?
Joyce Nizzari: I had been modeling for Bunny Yeager and I think it was through her that I either heard about a casting call or she directed me to the place that was casting. I think somehow she was involved in it. I had started modeling for her at about age 16, and I was 17 or 18 when I did the film.
MB: Was this your first acting experience as an actress?
JN: Yes, I think it was the first time I was that close to the actual filming of a movie.
MB: Do you recall any of the other cast members.
JN: There was a girl named Val Phillips. She was a red-head and she was well known in Miami because she was a very popular model. She had gone to New York and was apparently doing quite well as a model there, too. She played one of the leads. Steve [Klisanin] I vaguely remember, and I believe he was a Mr. Universe. Also there was a young man who was saying he was Johnny Weissmuller’s son, which turned out not to be true. I am sure that they didn’t scavenge through the acting schools for the cast! (laughs) Except for some of the leads, I don’t think anybody really had any acting experience; I know I sure didn’t. And I don’t remember that we had many lines, anyway. It was usually sort of a group thing, “Ok, all of you are going to get into the canoes and paddle over to there now” or “Ok, all of you paddle onto shore now.” So, in my memory, there wasn’t a lot of serious direction to the group of us girls.
Joyce with Kenneth Vitulli in WILD WOMEN OF WONGO
MB: Were you disappointed at not having more prominent role in the film, something with more lines?
JN: Oh, no, no, no, I wasn’t disappointed at all! (laughs) It was my first experience in anything like that and I hadn’t been aiming to become an actress. It was just fun to me. I mean, they fed us and we were in the sun all day. They were probably long days. and I am sure it was hot and boring some of the time, but generally it was a good time. I had fun and my family even came to visit when we were working on the beach, as my family used to go to that beach a lot. Really, all I remember is that it was fun. I can remember a snake in one scene, however, and I think somebody had to climb up a tree and have a scene with that snake; one of the guys did.
MB: Yes, that is the scene where Ed Fury is hiding up in a tree to keep from being captured by the Wongo women and he comes face to face with a large snake.
JN: Yes. The girls were being very squeamish and squealy about it. It was a pretty big snake, and I think it might have been a boa constrictor. I just know it was a very large snake.
MB: When you saw the completed film, how do you think it turned out?
JN: You know what, I never got to see it! I finally saw it recently, and I still haven’t seen all of it. Hef (Hugh Hefner) himself had his secretary get a “surprise” copy of Wild Women of Wongo for me.
Joyce with Hugh Hefner c. 1958
MB: Shortly after appearing in Wild Women of Wongo you did a layout for Playboy. Was this as a result of being in the movie?
JN: No. I had met Hugh Hefner, also through Bunny Yeager, when I was almost 18, so first I did a cover for Playboy [July 1958 issue] and then about 5 months later I did the playmate thing.
MB: Do most people remember you more for being a Playboy playmate or for being a Wongo woman?
JN: Playboy! (laughs)
MB: Do they ever bring up Wild Women of Wongo?
JN: Uh, no (laughs). I haven’t met anyone who has ever said anything about it, but I do remember some years ago that there was an article in People magazine about Elvira, who used to host a show of the corniest, funniest, weirdest old movies that were meant to be straight but have now become sort of cult films, and in the article it mentions Wild Women of Wongo. And that was actually the first time I had heard it mentioned outside of when we made it. As far as I had known it had disappeared long ago.
Joyce (closest to camera) battle the apemen (played by Steve Klisanin and Walter Knoch)
MB: After Wild Women of Wongo you came out to California and did quite a bit of television work.
JN: Yes. I was in The Beverly Hillbillies in a two-parter [Double Naught Jethro and Clampett’s Millions] which was a spoof on the 007 Bond films.
MB: Did you enjoy working on these shows?
JN: It was always scary for me. I wasn’t really an actress, and having to say lines on film and being the center of attention always gave me an adrenaline rush, because I didn’t really feel capable in that area. But it was still very fun and exciting and the people were nice, and I think I even got to kiss Jethro!
MB: You also made appearances on Petticoat Junction and Green Acres, two more very popular shows.
JN: Yes, they were all by the same producer.
At the Playboy club (clockwise from bottom left) Joni Mattis, Sherilee Conners, Christa Speck, Joyce Nizzari, Susie Scott, and Carrie Radison surround Hugh Hefner in 1962.
MB: And then there was Burke’s Law which starred Gene Barry and Gary Conway.
JN: There was this small group of about eight girls that they used in almost every episode, as just background party girls. I think we were paid as extras. I did have a small, one line part in an episode in which I played a women who is killed. Burke’s Law always started with a murder, and the title of each episode was always Who Killed So and So…whatever the name of the victim was. I was killed in the shower and that came about because of being a playmate. They tried to use playmates occasionally on that show. After that episode is when I became a regular “party girl” extra.
MB: You also had roles in several major films. In A Hole in the Head (1959) you played Keenan Wynn’s secretary.
JN: It was in just a couple of scenes and had only a few lines. In one scene [Keenan Wynn] is at a party and I have to keep coming up to him interrupting him while he is talking to Frank Sinatra. I am telling him that he had phone calls and that people were waiting for him. And then from that scene we all went to the racing track. I didn’t have lines in the second scene but I am sitting behind Wynn and Sinatra.
MB: Actress Joi Lansing was also in some of your scenes.
JN: I remember being sort of in awe of her because she was a serious Hollywood actress and I thought she was so very pretty. She seemed very nice and she was certainly very nice to me. I think that she may have been dating Frank Sinatra while she was working on that film.
MB: A few years later, you worked on another Frank Sinatra film Come Blow Your Horn (1963).
JN: I did indeed work on that, but my actual scenes were cut out.
MB: One very fun film that you were in was the Annette Funicello/Tommy Kirk film Pajama Party (1964).
JN: I was a dancer in that one and we had to learn some kind of routine for dancing on the beach. You can see me on the cover of the VHS tape. I am the brunette in the lower left corner of the box.
MB: Tell me about the Blake Edward’s film The Great Race.
JN: I have some great photos from that film, but I had no lines in it. I am sitting at a big round table with about eight people, including Natalie Wood, in a scene in a saloon at which Dorothy Provine is singing. I was directly across from Natalie Wood so while the camera was shooting her face, it was shooting the back of my head (laughs)!
MB: What are some other films that you had roles in?
JN: I had a few lines in Nevada Smith. I had no lines, but was in Seven Days in May (1964), in a party scene.
MB: You stayed in touch with Hugh Hefner over the years, and you continue to be involved with Playboy magazine.
JN: I’d been living in Hawaii for 23 years but every now and then, if I was coming through L.A., I would call him up or go by the mansion or something and say hello. Once, when he came to Hawaii we met at the airport to talk and say hello and he invited me to a New Years Eve party, so I jumped on a plane and went over to that. After I moved back to L.A. I started to work at the mansion as they were in need of a transcriber.