Harry Reems is enjoying what he calls his “little unsigned Norman Rockwell” moment. Soaked in the morning sunlight reflecting off the Wasatch Mountains, the 57-year-old real-estate broker sits in the living room of his ranch house in Park City, Utah, his slipper-clad feet propped up on an ottoman and his faithful terrier, Bingo, by his side. He looks like just another bright-eyed, silver-haired local in this ski-resort community. But Reems’s name should be your first clue that he has not always led a life suitable for the Saturday Evening Post. Imagine him 30 years younger, with a thick black mane and a feral moustache, and you might catch a glimpse of who he once was: America’s first male pornographic-film star, who poked, stroked, and joked his way through more than 100 hard-core movies, including 1972’s seminal (in every sense of the word) Deep Throat.
Though that part of his life has been dead and buried for more than fifteen years, Reems doesn’t seem the least bit concerned that his lascivious old persona—not to mention his fully aroused nude body—is on display for all to see in a new documentary, Inside Deep Throat, which premiered practically in his backyard at the Sundance Film Festival. “My cover’s not blown,” says Reems. “Of course people can find me. But what are they gonna find me for?” In fact, he is eagerly anticipating the film’s release and hopes that viewers come away believing something that Reems has always believed about himself: “I’m the thread to tell the story of social change in America.” He’s exaggerating only slightly.
Before he was Harry Reems, he was Herbert Streicher, born in Manhattan and raised in a Westchester suburb. In 1965, at the age of 18, he enlisted in the Marines, but when his father became terminally ill, he was granted a hardship leave that eventually turned into an honorable discharge. He returned to Manhattan, in 1967, to become an actor. Quickly accumulating credits in experimental and Off–Off Broadway productions, he eventually earned his Actors’ Equity card. Still, he couldn’t seem to cover the $38.37 monthly rent on the apartment he kept in Alphabet City. When a fellow thespian introduced him to the adult-film trade as a way of making ends meet, Reems didn’t hesitate. It was a purely financial decision, he says, one that he couldn’t imagine would negatively affect his life. Besides, he found that he was well suited to the work. “I always thought of myself as a shy kid with a lot of pimples and a big nose,” he says. “But when I came back from the Marine Corps, suddenly I got a hard body and I had a different look to me.”
By this time, the city offered many options for cineastes who wanted to get off at the movies. Sexually explicit films such as I Am Curious (Yellow) had sneaked into Times Square art-house theaters, skirting obscenity rules by including scenes of redeeming social value. And the neighborhood’s schlock shops sold “loops”: silent black-and-white eight-millimeter films that provided ten minutes’ worth of straight-up fornication. “Guys would go to smoke rooms and watch this stuff together to make sure they were having sex correctly,” says Legs McNeil, co-author of The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry. “It was not an erotic exercise.”
Nor was it especially arousing for the people who appeared in them. “It wasn’t uncommon to see people sweating profusely in the sex scenes because of the lighting,” says Reems. “Plus, you have a handheld camera two inches away from your genitals. Not the easiest of conditions to have a successful sexual encounter.” Few of Reems’s onscreen partners shared his background in the dramatic arts. “They came from the corner of 49th and Eighth,” he says. “Most of these people were basically exhibitionists. I guess I have a little bit of that in me, but I always felt as though I wasn’t part of that crowd.” Yet for years he made skin flicks in his free time between theater projects, working on them for as little as an evening or as long as eight days, in sterile production studios and dingy bedrooms around the city. To avoid attracting attention from the actors’ unions, he appeared under such aliases as Dick Hurt and Peter Long, but often in the same role. “I was always the doctor,” he says, “because I was the one that had an acting background. I would say, ‘You’re having trouble with oral sex? Well, here’s how to do it.’ Cut to a twenty-minute oral-sex scene.”
In January 1972, he was approached by hard-core filmmaker Gerard Damiano to work on a feature-length project he was shooting in Miami. Its tongue-in-cheek script told the now famous story of a woman, played by freckle-faced ingénue Linda Lovelace, who makes the felicitous discovery that her clitoris is in her throat. Reems, who by now was more interested in being behind the camera, was hired as the lighting director, but when a suitable male lead could not be found in time, he was paid $100 a day to play the wisecracking physician who helps Lovelace untangle her tingle.
To contemporary eyes, Deep Throat is almost charming in its lack of technique, with its grainy film stock, crude editing, and extreme close-ups of pasty bodies. But when it opened at 49th Street’s New Mature World Theater on June 12, 1972, it was an instant hit, as memorable for Lovelace’s aptitude for oral sex as for Reems’s Borscht Belt–style one-liners. (She: “How would you feel if your balls were in your ear?” He: “Then I could hear myself coming!”) In his four-year-old porn journal, Screw, Al Goldstein gave Deep Throat a perfect score on his “peter meter,” declaring that he was “never so moved by any theatrical performance since stuttering through my own bar mitzvah.”
But it wasn’t until New York law enforcement took notice that Deep Throat became a blockbuster. The World Theater was raided three times in a single month that summer. And by the time a New York judge ruled the movie obscene the following spring, the publicity surrounding its legal troubles had helped earn Deep Throat nearly $2 million in the city and made pornography a national obsession. Jackie O. saw it. Johnny Carson referenced it in his monologues. Ralph Blumenthal wrote in the New York Times that Deep Throat had become the “premier topic of cocktail-party and dinner-table conversation”; members of the newsroom staff had viewed it en masse.
Reems, who had begun supplementing his hard-core résumé with roles in European B-movies, presumed that the attention could only help his career. “Then I could move on to making real, legitimate pictures,” he says. But on the morning of July 7, 1974, one month before the resignation of President Nixon, the actor was awoken by a knock at the door of his Chelsea apartment. “I looked through the peephole,” says Reems, “and there were three guys holding guns and FBI badges.”
It had been rumored that Deep Throat was funded by Joseph and Louis “Butchie” Peraino, associates of the Colombo crime family, and now Reems and eight reputed mobsters were being indicted in a Memphis federal court for conspiracy to transport obscene material across state lines. Though Reems had no Mafia ties, he was “the person that the public in Memphis would be least sympathetic towards,” says Fenton Bailey, co-director of Inside Deep Throat. “He was a very convenient target to demonize.” It worked. “People lined up outside the courthouse,” Reems says. “They didn’t throw eggs at the mafiosos—they threw eggs at Harry Reems.”