Piero Heliczer was a key figure in the underground film movement in New York of the 1960s. Born in Italy, he initially broke into films after winning a talent contest at the age of four for the "most typical-looking Italian child." Heliczer played under the name of Pier Giorgio Heliczer in the two least-known commercial Italian films, typecast as the "cute fascist kid" during World War II. Tragically, when he was only seven years old, his father, a resistance fighter, was executed by Nazis allied with Mussolini. According to Heliczer's own account, he worked as an extra in Vittorio de Sica's masterwork Ladri di Biciclette (The Bicycle Thief, 1948), although this has yet to be verified. Heliczer's mother was not fond of Italian neorealism and its depiction of impoverished and dirty children, and decided to immigrate to the United States with her son sometime in the late '40s rather than attempt to further his career as a child actor. Heliczer graduated from high school in the top of his class and entered Harvard in 1955. He dropped out after two years and moved to Paris, where he established his imprint The Dead Language Press, mostly publishing his own literary works, but ultimately printing those of other authors, including Anselm Hollo, Gregory Corso, and The Beautiful Book of filmmaker Jack Smith. Heliczer's poetry was published with a fair amount of frequency in a variety of journals beside his own through about 1970.
Heliczer lived in London from 1960-1961 and, during that time, made his first film in collaboration with fledgling British filmmaker Jeff Keen (The Autumn Feast ). Back in New York in 1962, Heliczer fell in with the crowd that was buzzing around Andy Warhol's Factory, appearing as an actor in Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures and in several of Warhol's films. Heliczer had obtained his own camera by 1964 and began to make films in standard 8 mm, the smallest and least expensive of home-movie gauges. Although he sometimes blew his films up to 16 mm, Heliczer was one of only a few underground filmmakers in New York at the time to work with so-called "regular 8" as his primary tool. His films are similar to Smith's in their inspired lunacy, primitive technical quality, heavy doses of anti-Catholic sentiment, and alternative sexuality. Heliczer's film Satisfaction so enraged one moviegoer at the Filmmaker's Cinematheque in 1965 that he knocked the projector over and attacked a couple of his fellow patrons.
Heliczer usually shot his films silent and added sound on tape; in fact, his "screen adaptation" of William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch in 1968 is "a film for tape recorder, no projector needed." But, in some instances, Heliczer used live musicians to provide a soundtrack to his films, and one ad hoc group playing behind the screen at a Heliczer installation entitled The Launching of the Dream Weapon in early 1965 changed its name later that year to the Velvet Underground. In November, Heliczer had the Velvet Underground perform on the set of his film Venus in Furs and this shooting was filmed by a CBS News crew for an episode of Walter Cronkite Presents entitled "The Making of an Underground Film," which was, in part, a profile of Piero Heliczer and turned out to be the only network television exposure for both the band and the filmmaker.
A significant turning point in the life of Heliczer was when he was awarded a considerable sum of money from the Italian government as reparation for the murder of his father. He gave much of the money away to friends, but he held on to enough to try and establish a filmmaker's cooperative in Paris along the lines of the one already operating in New York. He also bought a tumble-down property in nearby Preaux du Perche in Normandy. The cooperative idea was not a success, and, by the mid-'70s, Heliczer was living on a houseboat moored in an Amsterdam harbor. Vandals sank the boat, and this precipitated a long period of homelessness for the filmmaker, who ultimately wound up living on the streets of New York. By 1984, he had managed to make it back to Normandy and spent his remaining years running a small bookshop. In July 1993, the 56-year-old filmmaker was killed when his moped was crushed from behind by a truck. Heliczer made about 17 films which are now either lost or held in a variety of places, and no more than a third of them are in circulation. His publications are equally rare; for some pamphlets, there are no known extant copies. In 2001, poet Gerard Malagna was able to assemble what was retrievable of Heliczer's literary works into a handsome volume entitled A Purchase in the White Botanica. Hopefully, a similar treatment of his films will not be far behind.