NEW YORK CITY—As part of his upcoming project, a documentary on the birth of the New York hardcore scene, adult historian Benson Hurst spent a lot of time with Jamie Gillis right up until his death last Friday, and Hurst related to AVN some of the information he gleaned from his talks with the actor:
"I spent the last few days before his passing with Jamie, and it's hit us all pretty hard. He was such a great guy," Hurst said.
His Early Life and Career
"He was fourth of six siblings; not particularly close to them but not estranged either. He was a graduate of Columbia University in 1970 and wanted to become a mime artist originally. In fact, he actually was a mime artist for a couple of years in the late '60s and also had theatrical aspirations. He was in Shakespeare productions in lead roles, and I have a few reviews from the New York Times of Shakespeare plays that he did. He played both Laertes and Polonius in an off-Broadway production of Hamlet. A lot of porn people were aspiring actors in the early days, but in Jamie's case, I actually felt it was justified due to the number of real roles that he had played in off-Broadway productions, and everybody knows that in his spare time, he was a taxi driver, which allowed him to continue auditioning for plays during the day."
That was before he was in porn? "Yes, although the details of his sexual escapades as a taxi driver would fill another book; very entertaining."
"Jamie's first introduction to porn was to audition for the now legendary Bob Wolf, who was the loop maker in New York, who was the guy who did the infamous Linda Lovelace dog loop, and he also was the guy who started Eric Edwards, Tina and Jason Russell, and several other early stars. Bob had this basement on 14th Street which was effectively Ground Zero when it came to hardcore in New York. So Jamie saw an advert in the Village Voice in '71, went to this basement, had a Polaroid taken of himself, was invited back a few days later to appear in a porn loop, which he remembered very well, because after having sex with this girl, he asked her for her phone number, and she reacted with great indignance, saying, 'Who do you think you are, wanting to go out with me? We may have had sex but that doesn't mean anything,' which he always said really titillated him. He loved the fact that just because you had sex with someone didn't give you any rights to ask a girl out."
"He then got a number of roles in pre-Deep Throat pictures, some of them sort of marriage-manual white-coat documentaries that purported to have socially redeeming purpose, and a few pre-Deep Throat hardcore narrative films as well. So he was making these before the watershed moment that was Deep Throat in 1973. And then, Harry Reems was taken off the scene by the legal travails that he went through—the Deep Throat bust in Tennessee—so by the time you get to '74, '75, '76, Jamie was the number-one go-to actor in New York. If I had to name the top five movies, both in terms of box-office gross or in terms of how good they were, Jamie was the lead in each of those, whether it was The Opening of Misty Beethoven, Through the Looking Glass, The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann, Story of Joanna—all of these, Jamie was pretty much the lead, winning the very first awards that were being handed out in the industry."
"He was also notorious for his dark side, and before I met him, I remember my wife saying, 'I'm not sure whether we should have the interview at our house. This is Jamie Gillis, after all. You know: The Prince of Darkness?' And I had a cameraman lined up but he pulled out because he didn't necessarily want to be there when Jamie was there and so on, and it became clear to me that he was a guy with a reputation that genuinely preceded him, and to be honest, to people outside the industry I've said, 'You know, I'm friends with Jamie Gillis,' and they've come back after having Googled him and said, 'You know, he really was a dirty, nasty, mean kind of misogynistic person.'"
"He had a kinky side, and basically, one thing he always said to me, which always stuck with me, I asked him about some of the more supposedly perverse things he did, and he sat back and he said, 'You know, I never did anything that didn't feel right in the moment and right for the person I was with,' and whether that was true or not, I believe that he believed that. As a result, the relationships that he had with someone like Serena were—they sort of lived this relationship out in the sex clubs of New York as well as on the screen of the films they were in, and that was a sort of sadomasochistic although consensual relationship. But I still get people in the industry who go, 'I was never sure about that relationship,' and I know the affection they had for each other right up until the end; gave me all indications that they were just very close and consensual and so on."
His Historical Significance
"What interested me in him was, he was a famous figure for a number of different eras, having started in the 'Swinging Sixties,' or the legacy of the 'Swinging Sixties,' he'd been so very hippie-ish, and then he got into the acting-type porn films, and then he got into the video age, and then he got into the gonzo era with his On the Prowl series, and then he made a number of fetish movies as well. One of the last things he said to me was—we were cleaning in his room, and somebody said, 'This says you won an award for Best Fetish Video; how ridiculous is that?' And he sat up a little bit hurt and said, 'There's people out there that make hundreds of fetish videos every year; it's a production line. I made one and they gave me the award for Best Fetish Movie.' He said, 'Take care of that award,' and you could see that he was a little bit preachy all of a sudden, and I found that amusing and we laughed about it. How many people can have been through all of those different eras and the sharp end of the industry, and yet be as intelligent and cultured as I felt he was. He was unique."
His Off-Screen Life
"He was a keen boxing fan, and he was always recognized. It would be a lot of fun walking with him and see people walk past and then sprint back so they could stand in front of him and look at him again, which surprised me because I just never thought he had that kind of notoriety but I think people recognized his face."
"He moved back to New York I think in the early 2000s, and didn't like flying too much so he didn't return to California very much after that. He supposedly announced his retirement at Christmas 2007 to his partner [Zarela] as a Christmas present to her. In reality, I don't think he'd had too many roles of a sexual nature in recent years. He'd been in a few non-sexual roles and a couple of fetish roles, but that was it."
"On any given night, you would go to Zarela's and if you looked at the 'owner's table,' there would be Jamie, and that was one of my most abiding memories. He would be happy to see anybody. One day, he told me—I asked, 'Do you get recognized much?' and he said, 'I do, actually.' He said, the other day, some guys had stopped and done a double-take and they'd gone up to him, and he was thinking, 'Here comes more fans,' and he was puffing up his chest in a proud way, and one of the guys pointed at him and said, 'You! You! You're the guy who fucked Vanessa Del Rio!' Jamie said that gave him even more pride, the fact that he was known just as 'the guy who fucked Vanessa del Rio' as opposed to being The Great Jamie Gillis."
His Final Days
"His decline was fairly rapid, but he broke the news to me in early December, and he was walking around and fine then but looking a little bit pale. I had to go away for the Christmas break, came back at the beginning of the year, and he was pretty much bedridden from the turn of the year."
"When he told me he was suffering from this, he told me he wasn't telling anybody else, and the reason for that, I think—and he never was too explicit about it, but in conversation with him, I think he feared a little bit that his life might become a little bit of a circus in his last days, and he didn't wish that upon himself nor his partner, who obviously wasn't part of the industry, so he did keep it quiet. But a consequence of that was, a lot of people were taken by surprise because they didn't even know he was sick. It's something he felt bad about, but it's a natural consequence of the choice."
"I sat with him a couple of weeks ago, and I asked him, 'What gives you happiness?' And he said, 'I have no sex drive anymore; I have no interest in food; I'm not interested in watching movies,' and he looked at me and he said, 'Can you imagine that? The great Gillis has lost all of his senses?'"
"I always used to say to him, 'Jamie, you were a great actor,' and he said, 'Well, yes, but in second place, there was a Great Dane.' So he had this mixture of contempt for the competition but at the same time, a sneaking contentment that he was well-regarded. It was this ambivalence; he loved the industry, but at the same time he recognized its limitations. I used to say to him, 'You could have had a genuine acting career, quite clearly,' and he said, 'And what? Be recognized by the mainstream? I'd much rather be recognized by the pervert who frequents 42nd Street cinemas and so on.' Right up until the end, he asked me, 'Do you think anybody will care? Do you think anybody will remember me? And I couldn't be quite sure whether he was doubting his own notoriety or whether he just wanted to have affirmation of it, and I think there was an element of both. I thought the world of him as a person and as an actor."
Jamie Gillis: April 20, 1943–February 19, 2010