Tom Byron is appearing this weekend in the play Deep Throat Sex Scandal. The veteran performer, who celebrated his 30th year in the industry in 2012, went home with an AVN Award win at the Las Vegas show last month, earning a trophy as the Best Supporting Actor for his work in Star Wars XXX: A Porn Parody (Axel Braun/Vivid). This interview with Byron ran in the December 2012 issue of AVN magazine.
Los Angeles, 1982. Ronald Reagan ran the country and Tom Bradley ran the city. But it was Russ Hampshire of VCA who ran Porn Valley. Those were different times—an era that few remember. And even fewer of those who remember still toil in the trenches of adult entertainment.
One who does is Tom Byron, who this year marked his 30th year in the business, with three decades and 2,531 titles below his belt.
On a rainy day in early October, Byron talked with AVN about his career in porn. It’s a journey that begins in the so-called Golden Age, when the term “adult film” actually referred to something that was shot on film, and traverses through the video age to the dawn of the DVD, stretching into the present, where adult movies have become “content,” consumed in forms that range from DVD to VOD to Roku.
But more on that later. First, we wanted to hear about when, how and why this Texas boy made his way to Southern California.
“I got in at the very end of the film era, what they call the golden era,” Byron said of his arrival in May 1982. His interest was piqued in the 1970s in Texas, where “there were a lot of porno theaters. I decided then that this is what I wanted to do with my life.”
It turned out that career path would have to wait. Byron was 18 when he came to California, where the age of majority, unfortunately, was 21. He had a full scholarship for college but dropped out. (“I didn’t want to be a music teacher.”) Then he worked in auto parts for a couple of years while he waited to turn 21 so he could get hired at a sex shop. “The girls used to come in and look at their magazines and their loops,” Byron said. “Their agency was right down the street, so—bing!—I went in to talk to Jim South.”
At South’s World Modeling Talent Agency, Byron met director Bobby Hollander. “He was in Jim’s office on my first day there. He didn’t take my first Polaroid, but he brought in a girl to dance for me to, you know...” Byron trailed off. “So I got a little chub and [Hollander] goes, ‘Christ, look at the hammer on that kid.’ That’s like my favorite line. So he actually called me that night and booked me in a d.p. scene with Craig Roberts, this guy from Oklahoma. It’s still available. It’s called Anything Goes. Oh, it was a horrible scene. The d.p. never happened—I popped too soon.”
After that, though, working in the industry was all that Byron had hoped it would be. “I was into the business, studying it,” he said, with such teachers as Hollander, Anthony Spinelli, Lasse Braun, Gerard Damiano and Greg Dark.
“It seemed like you pretty much knew everyone, you knew who ran the business,” he said. “I knew who all the players were, I knew who all the girls were.”
“When I got into the business, I thought it was heading for the mainstream to where there would be a merging,” Byron recalled. “I thought Robert DeNiro would be doing anal. It seemed like that’s where we were going in 1982. And then Reagan and Meese and the whole conservative bullshit, Jerry Falwell and all those cocksuckers ... it kind of rained on that parade. Plus, video took over, and video kind of cheapened the whole process. Once the theaters closed down, the artistry kind of declined.”
The party, however, was far from over. “People made tons of money in VHS,” he noted, and there was a big boom during the time when both DVD and VHS formats were sold. “Back then, internet companies were the startups.”
In the mid-1990s, Byron moved into a new phase of his career when he worked with Rob Black at Elegant Angel. The two soon went on to build, along with Van Damage and Black’s wife Lizzy Borden, a studio named Extreme Associates. The name was fitting. Not only was the content they created controversial—the equivalent of a red flag waved at federal prosecutors—but Extreme also became known, according to Wikipedia, for its public relations wars with Vivid, Elegant Angel, Larry Flynt and even Adult Video News and its founder, Paul Fishbein. Amid the verbal wrangling, Extreme also operated a professional wrestling promotion called Xtreme Pro Wrestling from 1999 to 2003.
One match, however, it didn’t win. On April 8, 2003, the Extreme office was raided by federal agents. And though the company continued to stay in business for several years thereafter, in March 2009 Black and Borden pleaded guilty to obscenity charges to avoid trial, effectively putting the final nail into the company’s coffin.
Asked if it was difficult for him when his associates went to prison, Byron said, “I felt guilty because I didn’t get indicted.”
He added, “When they came in for the raid, I was part of what was on the search warrant ... but I didn’t get indicted because I didn’t go on the Frontline show [the 2002 documentary during which Black invited Attorney General John Ashcroft to come after him]. I think how they wanted to angle it publicity-wise was to charge a man and a wife ... Maybe they’re thinking, ‘We’ll get his wife and maybe he’ll make a deal.’ And at the end of the day and seven years and hundreds of thousands of dollars later, it was, ‘Well, we’re gonna get your wife too.’ ... They just waited him out.”
“We live in a bubble in Porn Valley and we don’t realize that, to the rest of the world, anything other than two people in the missionary position on a fucking bed with the lights out is out of the norm,” Byron said soberly. “John [Stagliano] got fucking lucky. It could have gone the other way.
“It’s not like when Reuben Sturman walked out of Boron because he was in a camp with no fences,” Byron added. “In this country today, you go to prison. With killers and rapists. And you’re marked as a sex offender when you go in, so you’ve got to explain to everybody how you’re not a fucking ‘cho-mo,’ which is what you call a child molester. They don’t play.”
In 2002, shortly before the raid, Byron had stepped away from performing. “I sort of burned myself out,” he admitted. “Three years later I was looking around at all these gorgeous women in the business—remember, this was ’04 and ’05, when Lauren Phoenix and all these beautiful goddesses were coming into the business—I wanted to get back into the game. So in the early part of ’05, I quit smoking, started going to the gym, lost 30 pounds, got back in about mid-’05 and basically made up for lost time.”
Also during that time, Byron launched Tom Byron Pictures. “I had a nice house in Granada Hills and shot a bunch of gonzo scenes,” he said. “I started Seasoned Players and continued other lines like Lord of Asses.” Byron’s work at his eponymous studio was a success both commercially and critically. The Seasoned Players series in particular received AVN Awards three years running, and it drew a wide array of noteworthy screen veterans, such as Shayla LaVeaux, Ginger Lynn, Lisa Ann, Nina Hartley, Kelly Nichols, Amber Lynn and Teri Weigel and Brittany O’Connell.
Both Black and Borden have been out of jail since 2010, and in fact Byron was working with Black at the Sinister X office the day we spoke. They were laboring on a project for Sinister X’s Fairy Tale Films label: an adult adaptation of the Snow White saga. The walls of the back office were covered in faux stone to resemble castle walls, and the classic Snow White outfit was draped on a hanger.
“Where I get the most satisfaction now is producing these high-end features,” Byron said. “I’ve always been about knowing as many things as possible, about diversifying. That’s why I know how to edit, why I know how to score music, why I know how to produce and direct and do still photography. I like learning all facets of the business. The reason I’ve been around so long is that I can do different things. If I had to just rely on just me performing in front of the camera, I couldn’t survive like that. I’m 51 years old. I can’t do two scenes a day five days a week like I used to back in the ’80s.”
Artistic satisfaction is not the only reason, however, that Byron and Black have embraced parodies and features. As Byron explained, “Being able to make a movie with a start and a finish and a script and everything is a lot easier to defend” in an obscenity trial.
The irrepressible Black unleashed a stream of rhetoric on his past, his present, and how he sees the industry evolving.
“Forced Entry is what got me in the juice,” Black recalled. “It’s the worst fucking movie. It’s the world’s worst fake... like, really? You’re yelling at us because we made it too real?”
Byron concurred. “It’s very campy and purposely cartoonishly violent. It’s almost a parody of a real violent movie.”
But Black also notes that he had been given fair warning. “Russ Hampshire told me ages ago, ‘You’re going to go to prison for the shit you do.’ Russ’s thing was, ‘Safe shit you’re not going to get fucked with.’ I’m not a preacher now saying, ‘Safe shit, you won’t get fucked with.’ I’m just saying right now, ‘Why do crazy stuff—there’s no money in it!’”
When Black did his “crazy stuff,” there was still money to be made. “Back in the day, the extreme style wasn’t around so it was taboo, so the nice shit was all you ever had,” Black averred. “But now in the last 15 years—you know, 2 Girls 1 Cup is a joke.”
“Something to show your grandma,” Byron deadpanned.
To get attention for their work now, Black stated, they need “something that’s unique, and it’s not big boob bonanza.”
Byron added, “That’s the challenge, to make something that people wouldn’t expect from porno. Like [Axel Braun’s] Star Wars... this actually looks better than the original movie.”
Black noted, “You could send a movie to any of these media outlets and as long as it’s a parody or a feature or something that captivates the mind, they’ll actually report about it.”
Coming back to the money question, Black opined, “In this day and age, unless it’s a monster release, you can’t do a gonzo movie and make any money, unless you’ve been around 8 billion years and you’re an Evil Angel or something like that. Just putting random sex scenes on a tape or a DVD, you’re going to be lucky if you move 300 pieces. But there’s still a market for that stuff.”
And part of that market, Black added, is Roku. “So basically we’ve got the Extreme Entertainment Network,” he explained, talking about his Roku channel, which will let viewers watch internet content on their television. “Wasteland’s on here, all the big content companies like AEBN, people like that, they’re now on there.”
Black cautioned that he and Byron “haven’t really gone nuts on it” yet, but they will offer old Extreme Associates content and webisodes: “Tommy [Byron] interviewing people, reality type stuff. That’s where the future is. You have to make original content. We used to do that with our wrestling company.”
Again, it’s about giving the people what they want—and what they’re willing to pay for. “If you want garbage, go to the internet for free,” Black scoffed. “If you want premium stuff you’re gonna to pay for it, and what you’re going to pay for is good production quality because that’s what the couple wants at home.”