Taken from the September issue of Dazed & Confused:
When Harry Reems died in March in Salt Lake City, Utah, at the age of 65, it wasn’t his years spent selling property that earned him obituaries around the world. Long before converting to Christianity and becoming a realtor, Reems starred alongside Linda Lovelace in one of the most notorious hardcore sex films of all time, Deep Throat (1972), and became the only American actor ever to be convicted of obscenity. His death occurred just two months after the Sundance premiere of a new biopic about the film’s orally gifted leading lady.
Before the new film, Lovelace, was screened, Reems told reporters that he hoped it would be accurate, and that he was angry no one involved had contacted him when they were doing research. If he had viewed Lovelace before dying, he would have understood why. Constructed as two narratives offering opposing versions of the same events, the film essentially takes the line of Linda Lovelace’s third autobiography, Ordeal (1980), in which she claimed that far from enjoying the work that made her famous (as her previous two books had claimed), she had in fact been coerced into performing by her abusive manager-husband, Chuck Traynor, sometimes at gunpoint. “When you see the movie Deep Throat, you are watching me being raped,” she testified before an inquiry into the sex industry in 1986.
Although Lovelace took a polygraph test for the book (she passed), Reems was sceptical about some of her shocking revelations, and wasn’t afraid to say so. He’d had his own struggles and demons to contend with because of Deep Throat – including court troubles, alcoholism, penury and homelessness – which may have coloured his opinion of his former co-star. Even so, he seemed more like a man at peace with his past than someone with an axe to grind when he spoke to Dazed in one of his last big interviews. “I wouldn’t change a thing if I had it to do all over again,” he said over the phone from Park City. “Having gone through all those things I went through has made me the person I am today. And I’m proud of myself today. I have self-esteem. I have self-love. Not great abundances of any of them, but for the first time in my life, I sleep comfortably.”
Harry Reems was born Herbert Streicher in the Bronx on August 27, 1947, to what he described as a “forward-thinking mother and father.” The former was an ex-runway model and jitterbug dancer, the latter a bagman for notorious mobster Meyer Lansky who became first a bookie, then owner of a printing business. “He was more of a buddy and a pal,” Reems said of his father. “He gave me my first drink at 11 years old at my brother’s barmitzvah, and kept giving them to me that day until I ended up puking on his shoes. But immediately I wanted more. I didn’t like the taste of the drink but I certainly liked the effect. So drinking became a pastime of mine at a very early age.”
Yet sexually, he was a “late bloomer”, having grown up in the 50s in “a very sexually repressed society. Sex was something you didn’t have. And if girls did have sex prior to marriage, they were basically sluts.” It didn’t help, either, that Reems was a “skinny kid with a big nose and a lot of pimples. So I hadn’t had a lot of sexual experience way up until the time I got into these movies. I was not very sexually active. I was shy.”
I walked into this apartment and there were two beautiful women. They took their clothes off, I took mine off. And regardless of the crew members, I didn't have any problem whatsoever. In fact, I ejaculated prematurely!
“These movies” were initially ten-minute stag films sold illegally under the counter in certain discreet bookstores. When Reems got into them in 1968 he was a legitimate actor in the experimental lab of the National Shakespeare Company in New York, with some small film roles under his belt (his knees would appear in the Oscar-winning 1971 Jane Fonda film Klute). “I was building a nice reputation,” he recalled, “but you worked at base minimum and got paid $76 a week. You couldn’t live on that in New York, not even in the late 60s! So one day a fellow actor said, ‘I know where you can pick up $100 for about an hour’s work, and you’re going to have sex.’”
All Reems had to do was ensure that no one in the Actors’ Equity Association discovered that he was making non-union films. As a cover, he performed under different names – Peter Long, Dick Hurt – managing around 50 films before Deep Throat. While he did the work out of financial necessity, Reems appears to have taken to porn as easily as he took to drinking. “I was scared and yet I was titillated at the same time,” he said, remembering his first time. “I walked into this apartment and there were these two beautiful women. They took their clothes off, I took my clothes off. And regardless of the fact that there were crew members, cameramen and directors, I didn’t seem to have any problem whatsoever. In fact, I ejaculated prematurely!”
Reems was part of a nascent New York porn scene involving a small group of actors and filmmakers that included Linda Boreman (yet to acquire her famous nom de porn) and Deep Throat’s director, Gerry Damiano. “He was one of a handful of producers and directors who were making these films. There were maybe ten to 15 directors, 30 to 40 actors and actresses, and we all worked together multiple times. So I had worked with Damiano around 20 times before we did Deep Throat, and Linda Lovelace twice.”
I panhandled in the streets. I lived in alleys, I was in and out of jails, and in and out of hospitals. I suffered a tremendous amount of internal bleeding and needed hospitalisation on a regular basis. I drank half a gallon of vodka every single day for the last six or seven years of my drinking. If I didn’t, I would seizure
So what was she like? “She wasn’t talented as an actress, she wasn’t a knock-out beauty, but she sure could perform oral sex. She came across as rather shy and not very aware of what she was doing. She and her boyfriend at the time, Chuck Traynor, went to orgies and were a part of that sexual revolution that was taking place, whereas I wasn’t. I’d go home, study, and go to the theatre to act or rehearse.”
In 1969, I am Curious (Yellow) – a Swedish film with nudity, staged intercourse and, significantly, a sociopolitical message – won a courtroom challenge to America’s existing obscenity laws, opening the door to more sexually explicit films as long as they were deemed to have socially redeeming value. As if warming up for his role as Dr Young in Deep Throat, Reems now found himself cast mainly as doctors. “I was the only one who could act so I had all the lines. I’d say: ‘If you’re having trouble with oral sex, here’s how you do it,’ and it would cut to a 20-to-30-minute oral-sex scene. I was the socially redeeming value!”
Deep Throat dispensed with such hypocrisy, spoofing the “white-coat” films with a flimsy story about Lovelace discovering that the reason she finds conventional sex unsatisfying is because her clitoris is located in the back of her throat. Cue lots of eye-watering fellatio. The film, shot over six days in Miami in January 1972, was played for laughs – especially by Reems, who was hired initially as lighting director but took the doctor role when Damiano was unable to cast it – and in doing so brought pornography out of the shadows and into the mainstream. “It showed sex for sex,” Reems said with an audible shrug. “There was no pretence of it being an important film for people to remedy their sexual problems. It was just an out-and-out comedy.” As one of the first high-quality porn productions at a time of sexual liberation, it caught the spirit of the times, kickstarting porno chic, which shifted adult films from the “raincoat” crowds of 49th Street into the mainstream. Even Jackie O went to see it. Attempting to explain Deep Throat’s attraction, Norman Mailer suggested, “It was a mid-world between crime and art.” Depending on who you believe, it grossed somewhere between $30 million and $600 million.
She wasn’t talented as an actress, she wasn’t a knock-out beauty, but she sure could perform oral sex. She came across as rather shy and not very aware of what she was doing. She and her boyfriend at the time, Chuck Traynor, went to orgies and were a part of that sexual revolution that was taking place, whereas I wasn’t. I’d go home, study, and go to the theatre to act or rehearse.
“The sexual revolution was already taking place when Deep Throat came out,” said Reems, “ but it was the catalyst to make it cocktail conversation, to make sex a topic that people could discuss freely at dinner parties and between partners, whereas it wasn’t talked about before.” It was only after the film came out that he discovered he had been billed as “Harry Reems”. He would keep the name for the rest of his life, even when he moved into real estate. Lovelace, meanwhile, became the new face of the “make love, not war” era, although Ordeal would give her image and her relationship with Traynor a darker spin. “I knew she was a little more at ease (filming sex scenes) when Traynor wasn’t around,” said Reems looking back. “(But) I just thought it was a very bad relationship and she was a sexual submissive.” He questioned her motive for writing the book. “She did Deep Throat, got paid $1200 (Reems got $250) and was a cause célèbre. She got thrown out of Royal Ascot because she was getting more attention than the Queen. But she could never get any other work. She had tried to get into more legitimate forms of entertainment and just could not make the transition.”
Reems starred in Damiano’s follow-up, The Devil in Miss Jones (1973), the story of a virgin who commits suicide and finds herself in limbo with the chance to commit all the sexual sins she had avoided while alive. Reems starred as Miss Jones’ (Georgina Spelvin) devilish “teacher” in lust. Possibly the artiest and most intense classic from the golden age of porn, the film gained positive critical attention from the mainstream media, and was even compared to Sartre’s No Exit by Variety. In 1975 he released a chirpy autobiography, Here Comes Harry Reems!
But the huge impact of Deep Throat would return to haunt him. The film had been funded largely by Louis “Butchie” Peraino of the Colombo mafia family of New York, and when it became a box-office and cultural sensation, the Nixon administration took steps to prosecute. Reems was arrested in his Chelsea apartment in July 1974. The administration’s actions came shortly after the revelation in Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s book All the President’s Men that “Deep Throat” was the pseudonym of their anonymous informant in the Watergate affair, which would force Nixon’s August 9 resignation.
Director Damiano and Lovelace were granted immunity for co-operating with the FBI, but Reems found himself in court in Memphis, Tennessee, on obscenity charges, alongside nine mafiosi. The nine-week trial was a disturbing experience – when he drove to the courthouse, people threw eggs and spat at his car. “I eventually needed a police escort and had to change motels every week, because there were people that were reading the papers, you know, Southern Baptists, that wanted me dead.”
In 1976 the jury found Reems guilty, making him the first actor in the United States to be prosecuted for a film he had acted in. The conviction sent a chill through Hollywood. The New York Times ran an editorial titled “The Anti-Freedom Conspiracy”, while Reems’ celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz dramatically announced, “It’s no exaggeration to say today Harry Reems, tomorrow Marlon Brando or Jack Nicholson.” Reems formed a legal defence fund, with help from the likes of Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Gregory Peck and Shirley MacLaine (“They didn’t support me,” he insisted, “they supported the issue”), and eventually succeeded in getting the conviction overturned on appeal.
Despite the victory, the trial had taken a heavy toll on Reems, both personally and professionally. Up until his arrest he’d been making a name for himself in mainstream films in Europe – but when the FBI took away his passport for four years, his career overseas stalled. He was still hoping for a move into mainstream acting; in 1977 he won the part of Coach Calhoun in Grease, only to have the studio replace him with Sid Caesar out of fear of provoking the anti-porn crusaders. He returned to porn. “On trial in 1974, I lost my entire life,” he said. He was drinking heavily, and began spiralling downwards, becoming a “blackout alcoholic. I panhandled in the streets. I lived in alleys, I was in and out of jails, and in and out of hospitals. I suffered a tremendous amount of internal bleeding and needed hospitalisation on a regular basis. I drank half a gallon of vodka every single day for the last six or seven years of my drinking. If I didn’t, I would seizure.”
“On trial in 1974, I lost my entire life,”
Eventually a friend intervened and sent Reems, who had moved to Park City in 1986, back to New York for treatment. While there he asked visitors for money to make phone calls, saving up every coin to buy a bottle of vodka minutes after his release. “I woke up seven days later in Los Angeles, in jail, laying in my own puke and faecal matter. I have no idea how I got to Los Angeles. I had no money, I only had quarters. At that point I said, ‘I’ve got to get sober.’ Hugh Hefner bailed me out, and a friend in Park City sent me a ticket so I could get home.”The day he got back, he finally entered a recovery programme and never touched another drop. Years later, he converted to Methodism and became a trustee of his local church, although he was happy to speak about his past for the 2005 documentary Inside Deep Throat. Reems died from pancreatic cancer just as Lovelace’s release brings fresh attention to a last-minute role he filmed in one day over four decades ago. He may have been only 65, but he’d lasted longer than anyone had expected during his lowest years. “I’m just blessed to be where I am,” he said when we spoke. “I should be dead. But for some reason God spared me and I’m making the most of what He’s given me now.”
Lovelace is out on August 23
Follow Stephen Applebaum on Twitter here @grubstreetsteve