The Afterlife of a Porn Star

Photo: Kai Regan

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.”

Reems's mug shot from 1974; his business card today.Photo: Top, Courtesy of Documentary Productions, LLC/Universal Studios

Even Reems was disturbed by what was revealed at the trial. “I started hearing about people being killed, baseball bats on projectionists’ heads, money going to the Bahamas, and I soon realized that I was mixed up with the wrong crowd,” he says. “Every day I sat on the witness bench, I’d move a little farther away from them.” Still, he couldn’t shake the association. On April 30, 1976, a jury found all the Deep Throat defendants guilty. Reems faced a prison sentence of up to five years.

He immediately went to work to clear his name, setting up a legal-defense fund and retaining Alan Dershowitz for a possible appeal. He was the beneficiary of fund-raisers thrown by the likes of Warren Beatty and editorials penned by writers across the political spectrum. A year later, he was finally granted a new trial (on the grounds that Deep Throat had been made before the Supreme Court’s 1973 “contemporary community standards” ruling) and his conviction was overturned. “Had Harry Reems been imprisoned, actors would be terrified to do anything even vaguely romantic,” says Inside Deep Throat producer Brian Grazer. “All our rights in the area of freedom of speech would have contracted.”

It looked as if Reems might emerge unscathed. In the late seventies, after relocating to Los Angeles, he was offered his first role in a studio movie: Coach Calhoun in Grease. But two weeks before filming began, he was kicked off the project for fear that his notoriety would jeopardize its box office in the South. “Acting was my true love, and I buried that possibility by going into adult films,” Reems says. “The writing was on the wall. There was no place for me in conventional entertainment.”

Severely depressed, he continued to appear in porn films and became a raging alcoholic, consuming as much as half a gallon of vodka a day and blacking out for months at a time. When he wasn’t panhandling on the streets or stealing from his friends to raise booze money, he was contemplating suicide. “I lived in a little house in Malibu with a 25-millimeter pistol,” says Reems, “and I held it up to my head so many times. Fortunately, I didn’t have the courage to pull the trigger.”

It was at the bottom of a bender in 1986 that Reems found himself in Park City and decided the quiet mountain town would be his new home. He joined a twelve-step program, and, after he sobered up, went for his real-estate license. The real-estate commission granted it, with a catch: He’d be on probation for five years, to make sure he didn’t exhibit any behavior unbecoming an agent. He felt it was a fair price to pay for the redemptive possibilities of small-town life. “You’ve got maybe 2,000 households in Park City,” says Reems. “It didn’t take long before everybody knew I was here. And after a year or two of good, hard work, I became known as the Realtor, and very few people questioned my background.”

Since 1990, Reems has been married to a woman he fell in love with through his twelve-step meetings. “It wasn’t that I was an alcoholic,” his wife, Jeannie, explains. “I wanted to meet someone that believed in God.” (Like many twelve-steppers, Reems had converted to Christianity: “I just look for one person to fill my spiritual gas tank once a week,” he says, “and away I go.”) Not everyone in Jeannie’s social circle was enthusiastic about the union. “I always had a good feeling about Harry as a person, because he’s not what you’d expect,” she says. “But I had some not-even-friends who were very upset about it. One of them said, ‘Oh, he must have AIDS.’ They’re not my friends anymore.” Jeannie is not especially fond of Deep Throat (“It’s amusing and dumb”), but she is a fan of Inside Deep Throat, even though it shows Linda Lovelace and her husband engaged in the act that gave the film its name. “In some ways, I wish they had toned it down a little bit,” she says, “but I suppose you have to show people what you’re talking about. It’s just so odd to see.”

Over the years, Reems remained in limited contact with Lovelace. For much of the eighties, she was an anti-porn advocate, but in 2001, at 52, she appeared in a pictorial in Leg Show magazine. “She was always jumping on the next bandwagon,” says Reems, who remembers donating $1,000 to a fund that helped the actress pay for a liver transplant in 1987. “There was no consistency to her life direction.” In 2002, Lovelace died of injuries sustained in a car crash.

Though Reems regrets his hard-drinking ways, he has never renounced his own pornographic past. In fact, he’s proud of his role as First Amendment cause célèbre: “I was the first artist of any kind ever to be prosecuted by the federal government,” he says. And despite the fact that he never saw a dime of Deep Throat’s record-breaking profits (an estimated $600 million, virtually all of which went to the mob), he has retained the alias that the film made infamous, as a badge of honor from an era when he felt he had nothing to hide. “I didn’t want to go through the process of convincing people that I was trying to deny who I was,” says Reems, who is listed in the local phone book under his porn name. Besides, he adds, “nobody under 50 even knows who I am now. Unless you’re a porno historian, and then you’re really sick.”

Two days into the Sundance Film Festival, a young volunteer spotted Harry Reems pacing outside an auditorium, waiting eagerly for a screening of Inside Deep Throat to end. Mistaking him for a nervous director or an agitated producer, she asked, “Are you here for your movie?” “Oh, no,” he replied. “I already did my movie.”

When the film ended and the house lights came up, Reems was whisked into the theater to a standing ovation. In a Q&A session, the audience ignored the movie’s directors and Über-producer for nearly half an hour, addressing every one of their questions to Reems: Had he been bankrupted by his legal fees? Was he frightened by the prospect of going to jail? Did Roy Cohn ever come on to him? Reems answered his fans with characteristic candor, taking particular delight when someone asked if he had any advice for the porn stars of today. “Plan ahead,” he responded with a chuckle.Another round of applause followed Reems up the aisle and out the door, where a chauffeured Escalade waited to drive him back to his old new life: the wife, the dog, the real-estate business, the house in the mountains. It had taken more than three decades, but for just one day, Harry Reems was a movie star.

The Afterlife of a Porn Star