The Rise and Fall and Rise of Harry Reems: A DVD Verdict Interview
Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky
September 20th, 2005
Before the 1970s, pornographic films tended to be single reel affairs—usually called loops—in which a plot situation, disguised usually as an "educational film," lasted just long enough for everyone to strip off their clothes and do the nasty. Porn theaters, many run by the mob, would string together endless chains of short sex movies, so that raincoated patrons could slip in and out as the mood suited them. But by the late 1960s, sexual content in exploitation cinema and art cinema (thank you Russ Meyer and I Am Curious (Yellow)!) had reached the point where the empathic flow of narrative and the objectively clinical camera of pornography were starting to come together. The time was ripe for the porn feature.
Enter the first male superstar of the porn industry. Born Herb Streicher, a nice Jewish boy from the Bronx, Harry Reems became a household name thanks to the most notorious film of the 1970s. Deep Throat was not a bold social statement. It was a farce, a silly extended riff on the classic "white coated doctor" premise, with Linda Lovelace as a desperate young woman who discovers her clitoris is in her throat.
Harry Reems, her campy costar and the original "Dr. Feelgood," was famous for his luscious mustache and his ability to ride the wave of porn popularity to the doors of Hollywood, where he palled around with mainstream movie stars. Then the hammer fell. Reems found himself caught in the middle of a government crackdown on mob involvement in the porn industry. Years of alcoholism, frustration, and self-destruction followed. Finally, Reems dried out and settled in Park City, Utah. He goes to church, has a family, and sells real estate. He has also refused to talk publicly about his experiences—until documentary filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, creators of Inside Deep Throat, drew him out of the closet to discuss the film that brought hardcore sex to America's dinner table.
Today's Harry Reems is friendly, generous, and full of great stories. What was meant as a short interview ran twice its planned length, as Harry talked freely about his adventures over the last 40 years. Here are the highlights of our chat.
Mike: Well, I want to begin with the basic question—you've probably gotten asked this a million times before. How did you get involved initially in the adult film industry?
Harry: Well, I was an actor, doing off and off-off Broadway in New York City. I was with the National Shakespeare Company at the time and paid about $78 a week on an Actor's Equity association. So a fellow actor told me where I could pick up a hundred bucks for an hour's work, I went and did it, and I never looked back.
Mike: Well, there are so many actors struggling to get work. You take it where you can get it.
Harry: Exactly. Well, those early porn stag films—and that's what they were in the late '60s, black and white—I didn't consider them to be acting. They were strictly exploitation, and I got paid a hundred bucks. Sometimes two movies a day!
Mike: In Deep Throat, you were playing a standard loop character, the "white coat doctor."
Harry: Well, after I Am Curious (Yellow) sort of challenged the existing obscenity laws back in 1967 and was found to have socially redeeming value, everybody had a doctor in their feature length films. And I always played the doctor, because I had acting background. If you were having problems with sex, having problems with oral sex, here's how you do it—and it would cut to a stag film that was shot four years earlier. And that was the way the feature films started in the late '60s, and when Deep Throat came along, it was a spoof on what we used to call the "white coaters." It was a burlesque comedy and was spoofing the "white coaters" and had no socially redeeming value. It was a groundbreaker in that sense.
Mike: Do you recall your reaction when you heard Woodward and Bernstein referring to their White House informant as "Deep Throat?"
Harry: I got a chuckle out of that.
Mike: It struck me at that moment that this was when it was pretty clear that there was no way to erase that film from history. It was going to be in every history book from now on.
Harry: That's correct. Not just as a film that broke cinematic rules, but as the big blockbuster it was, it became cocktail conversation and debate for a lot of the more prestigious magazines. It became "porno chic." That's what the New York Times dubbed it in 1972.
Mike: Now, Deep Throat was one of the first adult films marketed in mainstream theaters and then on video tape, which was a new medium at the time. Why do you think the social climate was right for the film to mark a transition in the way adult films were marketed?
Harry: I think it was in the right place at the right time. I'm a hippie from the early and mid '60s. There was so much social revolution in the mid 60s, not to mention Kennedy's assassination, and the women's movement, and the black rights' movement, and the Freedom of Information Act, the sexual revolution. There was so much social change going on in the 60s. We all grew up with a sort of 50s morality. We were all taught that sex was shameful and something you saved for procreation. So when the sexual revolution started its path in the late 60s, it was a natural progression. Deep Throat caught the attention of major celebrities, political figures, and entertainers. It met with such legal impediments everywhere it went that the government actually started all the uproar about it and made it as popular as it was.
Mike: The government's prosecution of the case sent your personal life into a real tailspin: the alcoholism, trouble with the police, and a lot of other problems. Why do you think the government singled you out in particular during their legal assault on the movie?
Harry: Mike, I still don't have an answer to that question. I was put on trial with eight members of the Columbo family for interstate transport of obscene materials. They held me responsible for distribution, when it really should have been an organized crime trial. It should never have been prosecuted as an obscenity trial. There was no definition at the obscenity trial under the existing obscenity laws. There was a very difficult time identifying local community standards, identifying obscenity itself, socially redeeming value—these were the tests under the existing obscenity laws back then. I was tried retroactively under some earlier, more confining obscenity laws. So I was the first artist of any kind prosecuted by the federal government—and remain that to this day. It was the broadest use of the conspiracy laws in the history of the United States—and remains that today. The laws were applied to me retroactively. And Linda Lovelace and the director-producer, Jerry Damiano, were witnesses for the government against me! And I still can't figure that one out.
Mike: That must have been very difficult.
Harry: To watch them point the finger at me. I hold no resentment toward either one of them: if I were offered immunity against the eight members of the Columbo family, I would have taken it too. But I wasn't offered it. And I don't know what the strategy was. Because it was a dictate right out of Nixon's office, on White House stationary, to prosecute pornography to the fullest extent, to draw attention away from Watergate. That memo was known all around the place. But why an actor is a question no one is still willing to answer today.
Mike: I wanted to talk to you about a more pleasant memory, and I'm not sure many people ask you about this: your follow-up film with Gerard Damiano, Devil in Miss Jones.
Harry: I was production manager on that film, as well as the actor. If you look at Deep Throat, Herb Streicher [Harry's birth name] is the lighting director. Devil in Miss Jones, Herb Streicher is the production manager. Producers don't use my real name, because I was in all the various acting unions and didn't want to get suspended or fined. So the first time I used the name Harry Reems was on the movie Deep Throat. But Devil in Miss Jones. I actually had another indictment against me in Memphis, Tennessee. When I got sentenced to five years, they were about to start another trial, with the same members of the Mafioso family for Devil in Miss Jones. They put that on the backburner until they saw who won the White House. And fortunately, Jimmy Carter won, and one of his first acts was to overturn the conviction against me and dismiss the indictment against me for Devil in Miss Jones. There were three sets of indictments for three different films.
Mike: I always thought Devil in Miss Jones was a more artistically daring film. It's almost like an existential play with sex.
Harry: Well, what I told Damiano when I saw the twelve-page script, I said this is a steal. It's Sartre's No Exit. And he didn't even know what that was. And it's very subjective as to which one has more value. The pretense was we'll sell porno as entertainment. But actually, in the late '60s and early 70s, they didn't have VHS or Betamax yet, so everything went to theaters. And eventually, it got up to about 1,500 screens that you could play these movies. But this is not a form of entertainment. This is a form of voyeurism, a sex aid. And that's where it belongs now, in the privacy of the home. It's really subjective when you say Devil in Miss Jones had a more artistic, a more creative approach to it. There's a lot of people that don't like that dry material, but they like a burlesque comedy. So which one is better? I can't answer the question. Which one did I enjoy more? I probably enjoyed Devil in Miss Jones more. I had more involvement behind the cameras.
Mike: Now the porn industry has become almost chic again. Several stars have written memoirs. There was a documentary [Porn Star] on Ron Jeremy, who borrowed a lot of his shtick from what you were doing—he seems to have appropriated that comical personality.
Harry: He's ubiquitous. He's all over the place. If there's a camera there, he'll show up. Whereas, I stayed away from the press for twenty years until this documentary.
Mike: Why have you stayed away from the press for so long?
Harry: After the trial ended, and the conviction was overturned in 1976, I was afraid I was going to get indicted again. So I stayed away from porno from 1976 until about 1982. During that time, I had moved to L.A., I had made some friends in the entertainment industry, and I was trying to make a transition. Indeed, I was offered the role of the coach in Grease by Alan Carr and Paramount Studios. I had a contract signed, and about ten days prior to shooting, Paramount called me and said, sorry, but we're losing playdates in the more conservative geographic regions and so we're going to replace you, but we'll pay off the contract. The writing was on the wall then. I knew I wasn't going to be able to make any kind of real transition. So I went back and did another porn film in 1982, for a lot of money. And then from 1982 to 1985 continued to do them. But I didn't have the same enthusiasm. I wasn't the same happy-go-lucky, fun guy. I had been battered and bashed by the federal government, which led me to drugs and led me to alcohol. And so the drugs and the alcohol took over my life. From 1982 until 1989, I was a falling down, blackout drinker, either in jail or in psych wards or hospitals, panhandling in the streets. I was living behind a dumpster in Malibu. And 1989, I got clean and sober. I found a 12-step program, made a recovery, learned how to put God in my life, learned how to give rather than take. What I learned about myself was that being a public figure was not healthy for me. That there's too much enticement, so I steered clear of a public life and went into private life.
Mike: In the documentary, you look great. You seem like you're really comfortable with yourself.
Harry: Oh, I love myself now. I never felt like I fit in, and I do now. I'm happily married now, over 15 years. I have a very successful real estate brokerage I own in Park City, Utah. And life is very good to me. I had really no interest in doing any press unless it was a story of redemption. The directors [Bailey and Barbato] pursued me for well over a year, and they told me the story they wanted to tell. And the story they wanted to tell about me was a story of redemption. And so I jumped aboard. The DVD is not about the history of Deep Throat. It really is about the social and cultural change in American, from the '60s to the present. And if you look at the White House, there really is no change whatsoever. It goes from a conservative Nixon to a conservative Bush. Let me give you an example of change in America. Last week, I started to do this campaign for the release of the DVD. I was in Memphis, Tennessee [site of Harry's trial in 1976], staying in a very conservative, landmark hotel, and right in my hotel room, I could rent Deep Throat, the original hardcore version.
Mike: So it's all come full circle again.
Harry: And where it's going to go, time will tell. It was $11.99 to rent Deep Throat in Memphis. It cost $5.99 to rent The Longest Yard, the Adam Sandler movie that just came out. That tells you a lot about the change in America, either the acceptance or a blasé attitude toward explicit sex on film.
Mike: And the technologization and commercialization of it, that it's such a commodity that it's gone from a mob operation to such a huge industry.
Harry: The actors and actresses are very well paid today. That wasn't the case in my day. But I don't regret the past. If I knew I was going to be the same person I am today as a result of going through all this history that I went through, especially the recovery program, I'd do it in a heartbeat, just to be the person I am today.
Mike: I was just going to ask you about that. If you had the opportunity to go back and meet yourself in Miami in 1971, just before putting on that white coat and walking out on set, what would you say to yourself?
Harry: I probably would have done the same thing all over again, especially knowing I would be as comfortable today in my skin as I am.
Mike: Your life has been an adventure, and there's even more adventures to come.
Harry: I think there are. I think there are.
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