My friend Jamie Gillis died last Friday after a long struggle with cancer. He was an actor and legend in the sex film business whom I've written about over the years the way most movie critics write about Meryl Streep. They broke the mold with this guy.
Gillis grew up in the City, one of six kids with a father who was known as "The Mayor of the Roseland Ballroom." He graduated from Columbia University in 1970.
He was a classical repertory actor, scrounging extra money as a cabbie, when he answered an ad in the Village Voice for a movie gig that turned out to a casting call for porn loops— the kind of tiny movies that used to be shown in peep shows.
Gillis went on to act in the most important movies that were ever made in American erotic cinema — Radley Metzger titles like The Opening of Misty Beethoven— and his unforgettable roles in the films by the late director Richard Mahler, Midnight Heat being most notable.
("Mahler" was a pseudoynym for famous horror director Roger Watkins. It's frustrating that there are no video clips of Watkins' erotic work online. When I've shown clips of Jamie from the original Midnight Heat to theaterical audiences, the audience falls silent holding their breath).
Twenty years into his career, Gillis originated what came to be called "gonzo porn," simultaneously (and accidentally) pioneering the reality show genre. He teamed up with one of his favorite actresses, Rene Morgan, plus photographer Duck Dumont and a chauffered car— and cruised San Francisco's North Beach to find someone who'd be willing to have sex on camera, right on the spot. Much easer said than done. It was called On the Prowl.
I interviewed Jamie two years ago in NYC, for my podcast on Audible.com. When Gillis arrived for our interview he sheepishly admitted to the engineering staff that he turning sixty-four. My producer, a pro inured to "star-power," grabbed me aside and said, "I can't believe it! He's incredible!"
The man had a timeless sex appeal. More than that— this capacity to get to something intimate with strangers that you couldn't shrug off.
Beyond that, he was a great conversationalist. I can't tell you how sad I am I won't see Jamie and sit in his beautiful garden next time I'm in NYC. Jamie was a piece of the City's history you won't see again. He died way too early— yet he outlived most of his contemporaries.
Below is a partial transcript (darn it) of one of our interviews, and an audio excerpt. It is all too brief, and I hope you can listen to the entire hour long interview.
Full Audio Interview: Link
Jamie and I started off by talking about the last time we'd seen each other in person. We were at a Christmas party at the O'Farrell theater — owned by the late Jim and Artie Mitchell.
We reminisced about a mutual friend who partied with us there — Lisa Thatcher, a formidable (but now long-retired) porn star in New York during Jamie's early days in the business.
Susie Bright: If you remember, when we saw Lisa Thatcher at Jim and Art's Christmas party, you told me something like, "Not everybody is right for this business. Lisa was."
And like myself, Lisa is now middle-aged. If you saw her on the street going to the grocery store now, you wouldn't say, "OMG, it's a porn star." And yet she still has this sort of glimmer in the eye. What did you mean when you said that to me?
Jamie Gillis: She wasn't just some innocent kid, you know? She knew exactly what she was getting into. She loved all kinds of sex, so she was never, in any sense, a victim of the business. And I think she did well in the business.
The seventies were some pretty raunchy days in New York. But you'd go someplace and there would be a line of guys trying to get to touch her. I'd never seen that big a line. And she loved it! She told me that one of the things that got her excited was the hunger of the guys who got to spend one or two minutes with her. She would relate to that kind of hunger that they felt. And she loved that. It turned her on.
SB: What do you notice about a performer who doesn't belong in the business?
JG: Well, they're not happy. They're doing it for the attention or maybe for affection that they haven't gotten from their families, or whatever. It's a sad story when they're not that interested in the sex — they just want to be noticed. They'll put up with the sex but you can see they're not there. They don't want to be there and they're trying not to be there. They're just saying, "Look at me. Hold me. Love me."
And, you know, you do get attention if you're a porn performer. “We're concerned about you, and we'll send a car for you” — all that stuff — you know? So it can feel good, but with disastrous results for people who don't really belong in porn.
When Porn Wasn’t a Business Yet
SB: You got started in the business in the early '70s, I think.
JG: '71. There wasn't even a business. It was a dirty basement.
SB: I was about to say, it wasn't so much a business. It was a fly-by-night thing happening in a counterculture.
So on top of the sex, you had this attitude: "This is our generation doing something different than anybody else would do." Even though it wasn't explicitly political, in the sense that some of the rock and roll was — it was of the time, like smoking pot or dropping acid.
It had that vibe: "We hang together because we have some kind of consciousness, and we're also making some bucks and getting our rocks off." But then you had this complete change in technology in the business, and now there's nothing countercultural about the scene — nothing "outlaw" about it.
JG: It's no longer counterculture. The counter is gone. "Hey, Ma! We're cultcha now!"
SB: Did this change depress you at all? You came from this era where you could be a freak or an intellectual, or you could have some cinematic or theatrical background, and you could fit in.
Whereas now it's more like, "What do you mean? I'm busy, I have this many minutes to make this many dollars before my next real estate seminar." Was that change hard to cope with?
JG: In a way. It's sort of sad to see sex be a business.
SB: You didn't do it for free before...
SB: ...but there was just something else going on.
JG: But then, we don't want to get too romantic about this. I got into the business just looking for part-time work. I wasn't making any money acting so I was looking for a part-time job to support myself. But it did feel good, and it became a social thing. We were excited about what we were doing. It was kind of fun. (Laughs)
SB: I got interested in doing porn and being a porn critic in a sort of revolutionary spirit. I have zero interest in going to the AVN awards or some business seminar, or making some cookie-cutter movie with people who wouldn't know a filmic moment if it fell on top of them. It pisses me off! I get a little cranky about it.
JG: Well, people are making money and doing what they want. But I did get disgusted with the business around '89. I'd been in it for a long time. That's when I started doing that gonzo stuff, because the scripts were so stupid. So I thought — we'll just take a girl out to the streets…
SB: See what might happen.
JG: ...get her fucked. Yeah.
SB: For those people who don't know, what is “gonzo porn”? What did you want gonzo to be?
JG: All I wanted to do was just go out into the streets and meet people. Bring a girl out – maybe to a dirty bookstore or something — and just "throw her to the wolves."
SB: A lot of people will think everyone jumped at the chance. But of course, they didn't! There was a lot of tension. People were afraid of being conned, or that it wasn't real, or that she would cut their balls off in some crazy... There's this tension that they don't know if they can trust you with their nuts.
JG: It's a very unusual offer. Sure!
SB: (Laughing) Yes it is!
JG: I remember I was hanging out with Long Jean Silver and she said, "Let's go find some boys!" She wanted a group of boys to fuck. But we had a hard time finding them!
We'd go up and I'd say, "Hey, you guys want to come back to our place?" They'd run! Finally, we found a group of seven. I said, "We're not taking seven. We're taking three. And I told her, "Pick three that you like the most."
There were two sailors that we picked up early on for a film we made. And I got a call from the Navy. One of the guys was in the brig because he did this movie.
So I said, "What do you mean, one of the guys is in the brig because they did this movie?" (laughter) And it wasn't even the guy that did the fucking! It was the other guy.
So the guy's lawyer told me, "Well, they want to get rid of him, so they're using this as an excuse."
So I said, "You tell the Navy that if they use this as an excuse to get rid of this guy, I'm going to call the press and tell them that he didn't even do anything in this movie, and the Navy's just trying to screw him. Because they're leaving alone the guy who actually did the fucking. So tell the Navy it's going to be on the front page of the Chronicle.
So the lawyer said, "OK, thanks." He called me back a half hour later and said, "Thanks a lot. He's out. Everything's fine." That was the only time in my life I had any sense of what real power was.
SB: The classic report from most men about doing porn is that they think they'll have a giant dick on TV, but when the camera is on them, they're just sweating bullets. Did you ever have one of those shy moments back when you were a little lamb?
JG: Never. I was a duck to water. I mean, to me it was like — wow! Even though it wasn't good money back then, it was like — "Thirty bucks to fuck a pretty girl!" I couldn't believe it.
I don't know if it was because I was a sex freak or because of my acting training. I didn't care if anyone was there. I would just concentrate on what I was there to do. It wasn't hard to do that.
SB: I've heard that it might be hard for men who were in the business to have relationships. Mike Horner told me that.
JG: Mike is the male version of somebody who shouldn't be in the business. He's too sweet for it. You know what I mean?
SB: Well, I don’t agree with you about Mike, but I want to hear what you have to say about the dilemma he describes. He told me, "If I'm fucking somebody all day at work, and I come home, and someone's all needy and saying, "I want you to fuck me now, because I'm your girlfriend and I need you to show that same enthusiasm for me.'"
And he said, "It's too much. I can't do that."
And I said, "Well, what if you hook up with someone in the sex business? Maybe they'll feel the same way. Maybe they'd also come home from a hard day of being fucked, and they don't need you to turn on, or turn off."
But he said, "Oh, I can't win. I've tried a lot of different things." He really wanted to have a girlfriend the way other people have girlfriends.
JG: But this is even true in the "legitimate" Hollywood. If you're a guy, you get on the set and you're working with the most beautiful woman in the world. Maybe your wife or girlfriend at home is just as pretty, but still, this is fresh meat. You know? And they're all over the place — not just the actresses, but there are the extras. But Mike has a point. You can't live with somebody "straight" in the sex business. Of course it doesn't work. How could it?
I've had relationships with girls in the industry, and that seemed to work out OK, because we were both sex nuts. You know? But a "normal" girl? How can somebody even think about that?
SB: Did you ever feel like you wanted a romance or a domesticity that you couldn't have, or was your attitude just, "No thank you"?
JG: At the time when I got into the business, I was with a girl who saw me as this nice Jewish boy. I came out of college. I was acting. I was a mime. I was a good boy. (Laughter)
SB: You still are.
JG: Yeah, I still am. But all of a sudden I started fucking all these strangers. Somebody once said that a man is as faithful as his options. That's how it is.
So all of the sudden, I didn't even have to go out and look for the girls. They were thrown at me. And I was getting paid for it. So it's like, you've got this really wonderful woman at home. But on the other hand, you've got this other great stuff happening too. And if you're in your twenties, that great stuff is gonna win out… or maybe in your thirties and your forties, even. You know?
SB: (Laughs) Okay, well let's go to the fifties.
JG: Fifties? I don't know. (Laughs)
Is All Porn Queer?
SB: Whenever I read official descriptions of your film career, they'll say, (solemnly) "Jamie Gillis — who never denied his bisexuality!"
JG: Oh… I saw that on Wikipedia.
SB: I love that phrase — "who never denies it." (Laughter) And it's not like you've ever been the grand marshal of the bisexual float in the gay parade.
But you also haven't had this issue that some guys have where they think their career rests on a certain kind of perception that they're straight. I always think that's such a facade. If you're in the sex business, and you're fucking around other people all day long — the notion that you are some kind of "Kinsey 0" is a joke. You can't be. Because you're dealing with other people's dicks and cunts all day long. You better be comfortable with people's bodies.
Anyway, how come you haven't been smeared by it?
JG: Well, I think the entire porn business is just fag-ridden. (Laughter)
Including the customers! I mean, it's all about dick! It's all about dick, and watching dick come. Look at the dick squirt. See Dick. See Dick squirt.
I've always had this funny image of myself as a straight guy who just happens to have more fag sex than any fag I know. Because when I was coming up, gays were the only ones that were really sexually crazy.
Before there was a Plato's Retreat, there was a place called Continental Baths. It was the exact same location. And I used to go to the Continental Baths, because that's where you could have crazy, wild sex! Nobody else was doing that.
And I remember walking around that fucking place thinking, "If only there was a heterosexual place like this. Wouldn't that be amazing?"
And I didn't even dream that it would happen — but it did, like about two years later, with Plato's Retreat. It was this straight place with all these hundreds of girls going there.
In my ideal world, if you were walking down the street, there'd be a place where you could just touch people. There would be a grope club.
JG: No, not "Oh my god." Maybe "Thank god!"
SB: (Laughs) But you're supposed to feel guilt and despair and compare yourself to everyone else. How come you didn't?
JG: I guess I always sort of liked sex — almost any kind. It was a big treat! There's this Woody Allen line about how bisexuals have it better because they have twice as many opportunities for a date on Saturday night.
And I remember thinking the same thing when I was eleven, before Woody Allen said it. I thought that as a kid! It was before I had any kind of sexual contact. It seemed like a reasonable attitude to me.
The Mayor of Roseland Ballroom
SB: Has your family been shocked by what you do? Did you have to negotiate this with them?
JG: It was hardly a problem. My family always recognized that I was a little different.
SB: Why do you think that is?
JG: Cause I was always a little different. (Laughs)
Once my mother saw me on television — that sort of legitimized it a little bit for her. And she would read The Daily News or whatever and see my name in advertisements. My older sister told me, "You know, she has clippings."
My father became a pain in the ass because I made the mistake of getting him a girl once. My parents were separated, so I got him a beautiful young girl. I think it was for his birthday or something.
SB: And you had reason to believe your dad had a strong sexual interest in...
JG: Oh, absolutely. He was always interested in women. They used to call him “The Mayor of Roseland Ballroom.” His legend was that he had danced and kissed every woman who came there.
So I knew this would work out and he'd be very happy. But the problem was — until he died, I could not talk to him without him saying "Do you know any more girls?"
So every once in a while, I had to throw him another hunk of meat.
SB: So the lesson is — do not procure for members of your family?
JG: Don't procure for your father. It's a pain in the ass.
SB: Do you have kids? I mean, how do you deal with it...
JG: I have one child who's practically older than I am. I was a virgin when I was seduced by an older woman.
And then she got pregnant. It was a plan — she wanted the child. I told her, "If you have that child, I will never see you again."
And she said, "Well, I don't expect to see you anyway. I'm going to have the child." So that's how that was.
But I must say, I'm now delighted that I had this child, because it sort of takes that edge off of wondering what that's like. There is this human being out there and I'm glad that she's around now.
But it took me about nine years before I even acknowledged her. It was only because I didn't want to be a bad father. I wasn't prepared. I didn't want to end up like my own father, who had six children because that's what you did in those days.
When I’m 64...
SB: As you get older, does the sizzle endure?
JG: It never ends. I remember — there used to be an old Jewish dominatrix in New York called “Belle du Jour.” And she was popular. I would go to her place just to hang out sometimes because it was interesting. Guys would come in.
This old guy who must have been close to ninety comes in, and he goes in the back with her. And she has these black, thigh-high boots on. And he falls onto the floor, and he's lapping at her boots. And I'm thinking, "My god. It never ends." You know, you'd think when you were ninety, you'd have a little dignity. Something would change. But it doesn't! It just goes on.
SB: Do you know more about how to touch people now, than you knew ten or fifteen years ago? Actually, I don't even know how old you are…
JG: I… I… I… sort of have a spasm whenever I say how old I am. This is the worst possible year, actually, because the Beatles song keeps running through your mind.
SB: Are you sixty-four?
JG: Sixty-four. And there's nothing worse than knowing that you heard that song when you were a kid, and you were thinking — what a joke. There are sixty-four-year-old people walking around the street. And then there you are. It's ridiculous.
SB: Well, you're very honest about this, so I'd treasure anything you can tell me about being a sexual man at sixty-four.
JG: (Pause) Well, first of all, I don't feel I have to fuck everybody I meet.
SB: What a relief!
JG: Of course, also, the girls also don't feel they have to fuck me as much. But you're a little more in control, particularly if you've had as many women as I've had. You sort of know what they're like. And you can appreciate them more just for themselves. You can talk to them and have a good time. And you can just sort of look at one of them and have a good idea of what it's like to fuck that one. And you can think about that and not have to go through with it...
... audio interview continued here.
I know that Jamie's friends, his partner, siblings, and daughter— and so many people who worked with him— are missing him today. And so many people who had sex they will never forget, with Jamie, are thinking about him today.
"The essence of freedom consists in thinking you have it," is something Giacomo Casanova once wrote. But today, it reminds me of Mr. Gillis. I will miss his kiss, his embrace, his teasing, and the way he knew he could say anything to me and I would just ask... another question.
Photos: the film stills are from 1983's Midnight Heat. Seriously, try to find this movie on VHS or 16mm. Try. The recent portrait is one he gave me on that famous 64th birthday interview. Here is an obit from Ashley Spicer, which ought to be in The New York Times, but I'm not holding my breath.
To read the rest of Susie's history with old school porn, check out: