NEW YORK CITY—Joe Sarno—aka Irving Weiss aka Monica Fitta aka Eric Andersson aka Lester Jordan aka dozens of others—died on Monday of undisclosed causes, leaving a legacy of adult and sexy mainstream films nearly unmatched in the history of adult cinema.
According to the Internet Movie Database, Sarno directed 105 films during a career that lasted over 40 years, often employing adult performers in his more mainstream projects. For example, Sarno's last work, Suburban Secrets (2004), about a famous nude model who returns to her home town to find that her ex-boyfriend is having an affair with her aunt, starred an adult actress in a major role. Sarno has been described by film historian Michael Bowen as "the Ingmar Bergman of sex films."
"Joe was a well-respected mainstream filmmaker, having made close to a hundred feature films, mainly in Sweden, both sexploitation and horror," noted actor/director Gino Colbert. "His best work was in the psychological drama genre. One of his films, Inga, ran for over a year on 42nd Street and was considered groundbreaking at the time. Joe worked up until a few years ago, making the sexploitation picture Suburban Secrets, which starred Tina Tyler. Martin Scorsese saw it at a film festival and complimented Tyler's performance. And Joe had another script in development. He was a regular at film festivals, being honored for his amazing body of work. Last year, he was honored at a film festival in London and one in Italy for his work. He also lectured in film schools around the country."
But while most of Sarno's adult productions were directed under pseudonyms, or credited to others, they include movies that would show up on almost anyone's list of the best adult films of all times.
"For years, he was the in-house director for [Howard] Farber and [Arthur] Morowitz in NYC," Colbert explained. "He was responsible for creating the 'Inside' movie series—All About Gloria Leonard, Inside Seka, Deep Inside Annie Sprinkle and many more—which became huge box office successes and are now classics. I believe he directed their first porn release, which put them on the map as distributors of their label, Video-X-Pix. Together, we made over a hundred features in NYC, he as director and me as his line producer. He is responsible for me being in this business. I met Joe in 1979 when he was casting Inside Seka and he hired me for an orgy scene which was shot at Plato's Retreat in the Ansonia Hotel. He was extremely generous with training directors and enjoyed sharing his amazing wealth of knowledge."
"I remember there always being a very good relationship between Joe and my father, a very wonderful working relationship, and they've shared many meals over the past years," added Steven Morowitz, Arthur's son and currently the head of production for Video-X-Pix. "They had lunch a few months back, but Joe was getting older and it was harder for him to get around. Joe's son, Billy, has been working for my father for almost 30 years now. About a month ago, I was told that Joe was in the hospital. He was in and out for maybe the last month, and he was potentially being moved to a hospice, but I think [his death] may just have been from old age."
"Mostly when it comes to the sexploitation world, Joe was something of a hero," Morowitz added. "He's also been very proud, especially over the last 10 or 15 years, with all the reissuing of films from that era and the film festivals; there's been a lot of demand for his movies. For my old man, he did a film, The Bed and How To Make It, which we've now transferred from 35mm and will be releasing soon, and there were others that were even more popular, so those are the films he's been known by. We've got a film coming out shortly called Nude in Charcoal (1961), which was the first film Joe ever made. It's never been out on disk or tape. We have it on 35mm negative, and we transferred it; it's a wonderful little piece of sexploitation history."
The Bed and How To Make It—a sort of parody of a then-popular mainstream film, The Knack and How To Get It—featured Sarno's wife, Peggy Steffans, in one of the lead roles. Peggy was a popular actress on the sexploitation circuit in the mid-'60s, and appeared in at least 15 of Sarno's own productions.
"Joe Sarno was a king among porn kings; I'm very sorry to hear of his passing," wrote Annie Sprinkle in an email earlier today. "Fortunately I saw him last summer for a little '70s porn folk reunion. Joe was a lovely, lovely, darling person that really cared about his films and the people that worked for and with him. He is the first person that really tried to coach me how to act. He said, 'Don't forget to breathe.' That was a great tip which I still use today."
"I did about 8 or 10 films directed by Joe," she continued. "He was also the first of the directors that I worked with that really took time to go for the woman's orgasm in a sex scene. What a concept! Joe may be gone in the flesh, but will live on in my heart, for sure. He was a real sweetie and I will always remember him so fondly. He taught me a lot and inspired me."
Colbert echoed and expanded on some of Sprinkle's remembrances of Sarno.
"Joe had a very distinct style of shooting hardcore," Colbert said. "He focused on the female orgasm—nothing in a scene mattered more—and he never used music over a scene. He believed in capturing the real sight and sound of real sex. And his movies were technically perfect. He was an amazing filmmaker who left his mark on the industry from his first adult feature."
"He really does have a legion of fans," Morowitz agreed. "I know from talking to Joe, he didn't want to be known as a porn director—that's part of the reason he used so many pseudonyms—and although there's been a lot of effort on the part of certain scholars to kind of negate the fact that Joe was a pornographer, I know he was a real filmmaker, but I'm one of those people who celebrates everything in his collection."
"Joe was a wonderful guy," he continued. "When I first knew of Joe, it had nothing to do with filmmaking. I was just a kid, but I remember him as being amazingly jovial—a big man, a husky guy. I remember one thing: As a kid, I'd tag along to these Chinese food dinners that would include Joe, my old man, Howard Farber, the whole Video-X-Pix gang, and I remember Joe had this little trick: He used to eat these hot Szechuan peppers, and I couldn't believe how he did it; he used to turn beet red. For some reason, there was this ongoing gag where Joe could eat these Szechuan peppers, he'd turn red and his voice would go all hoarse. It was funny."
"For whatever the reason, there was definitely a special bond between Joe and my father, and I think my father was one of the main reasons why Joe became successful: He got Joe's films exposed."