MILL VALLEY, Calif.—John Leslie, the multi-award-winning actor and director, passed away on Sunday of an apparent heart attack at his home in Marin County. He was 65 years of age.
Leslie began his film career in the mid-1970s, and had his first major role in the Mitchell Brothers' production Autobiography of a Flea (1976), where he shared acting duties with legendary stars such as Annette Haven, Jean Jennings, John Holmes and Paul Thomas.
Leslie continued hardcore acting until the late '80s, though he essayed a few hardcore scenes after that—notably one with the star of his film, Naomi... There's Only One, in 2006—and had several non-sex roles after that. By 1988, however, he had turned his attention to directing—one of the first performers to do so—creating 27 movies for VCA Pictures and later nearly 100 for his own production company, John Leslie Productions, all of which were distributed by Evil Angel Productions.
Over his career, Leslie received 10 acting and directing awards from AVN, and several others from the X-Rated Critics Organization (XRCO), the Adult Film Association of America (AFAA) and the California Adult Film Association (CAFA), and was inducted into the AVN and XRCO Halls of Fame, as well as the Legends of Erotica.
When not engaged in adult movie production, Leslie was a prolific painter and photographer, and an accomplished blues musician, having played the blues harmonica and been a vocalist for the band The Brooklyn Blues Busters. He was also well-known in adult circles as a gourmet chef.
"John was one of the very, very, very few who I looked up to as having something to teach me," said another actor-turned-director Paul Thomas, who first worked with Leslie in 1977's Baby Face. "He was the best pornographer, best erotic filmmaker—the early stuff he did, the early gonzo he did at Evil Angel and the films he did for VCA, were just the best ever. And as an actor, I think he was the best we had, adding an intelligence and a darkness to his work—he was just an artist in many ways, from his painting to his cooking to his filmmaking."
However, when it was suggested that Leslie was a "nice guy," Thomas bristled.
"He was far too deep and far too complicated to be a 'nice guy'," Thomas retorted. "He might well have been a nice guy, but that's selling him short. He could be anything but nice. He could be devious, he could be mean—he did what he had to do to get what he wanted. But he was much more than a nice guy. He was a fantastic artist."
Actors who worked with Leslie "back in the day" certainly shared that opinion.
"Oh my God, no!" exclaimed Randy Spears, when first informed of Leslie's death. "John was my mentor. He's the one guy that I looked up to before I got into this business. I said, I want to be John Leslie. Oh, man, that's sad. God rest his soul."
"When I met John for the first time, he's the only person in my whole life that I've ever been starstruck over," Spears, who first worked with Leslie on Candy's Little Sister Sugar in 1988, said. "I'd watched his movies for many years. I felt like I was standing in front of a movie star, and he was... I think I met him in his last year as a performer. I remember working with him actor to actor up in San Francisco, when we were still running from the law, trying to shoot up there. I remember the first time I did dialog with him, I was so nervous. I was like, 'Wow! This is The Guy right here,' and he was just super. I remember, when I walked on the set to do my dialog, that was the first time I had met him, and I said, 'Hi, I'm Randy Spears,' and he goes, 'John Leslie.' I said, 'John, you're the one person that I always looked forward to meeting when I got in the business,' and he goes, 'You look like a cop. You a cop?' So I go, 'No, John, I'm not a cop; I'm just a horny young lad.' So he goes, 'Well, welcome.' He was just a super-nice guy to me always. Oh, man, I'm going to miss him and his lovely wife."
"I remember John with Jesie St. James in The Sensuous Detective ; I went to the Pussycat Theater in New York to see that one," recalled Sean Michaels, who credits Leslie with helping shape his future career path. "It was so hot; they were both very hot individuals. He had a real tough guy style, and I was like, 'Wow! Look at this guy! It's like Jimmy Cagney fucking for us right here.' It was great. What an inspiration and what a loss."
"He was the first person to give me, a male performer in the adult industry who just happens to be black, an opportunity to do more than just be known for being a black dick in movies, and which also gave me the opportunity to see that the industry did offer more than a lot of racially demeaning types of roles toward not only African-Americans but all nationalities that are in the adult industry," Michaels continued. "I understand we're dealing with fantasy, but there's a way that that can be portrayed in a classy and humane way, and John always did that. Since meeting him and him inviting me up to Bodega Bay to do a movie, Oh, What A Night  with Joey Silvera, Nina Hartley and Cheri Taylor. I was nervous. I knew my lines and everything, but I was just nervous about working with John Leslie—and of course, I had a crush on Cheri Taylor, so I was totally intimidated, but he put me at ease, as did Joey, and I was able to pull it off, and that was basically the beginning of my career as a serous individual in the adult industry. That was my introduction to an actor becoming a director/producer as well as meeting people like Rocco Siffredi and other individuals who were tutored by John as well."
Of course, it was VCA Pictures' then-owner Russell Hampshire who gave Leslie his first chance to direct.
"I really don't remember how we first decided that he would direct for us," Hampshire admitted. "He was a great guy. He really put his heart and soul into his movie-making. I know the crew always talked about how good he was to them. Going from being an actor to being a producer and director, he knew both sides of the camera, and he put that to good use; he made some great movies in his time. And I loved the way he used to play his harmonica all the time. We always wanted to hear John play his harmonica, which he did around the office a lot.
"He died at such a young age, and so unexpected; such a shame.," added Hampshire. "John was just an overall great person: A great director, a great actor, a great person. We loved him."
Two people who got to know Leslie well at Evil Angel were general manager Christian Mann and fellow director Jules Jordan.
"Obviously, he was a friend, a legend and a mentor to me," Jordan reflected. "I was greatly inspired by him. One thing about John, he was a great guy; nobody had anything bad to say about him. I was fortunate enough to spend some time with him on his trips down here to L.A.; once in a while, me and Joey would go out to eat or meet him at the hotel he'd stay at when he was down here shooting, and he was one of the people in the business who you could say was a true artist; whether it's music, movies or whatever, he was an amazing guy.
"I think I first met John probably the first year I was with Evil Angel; either late 2000 or early 2001," he continued. "I always wanted to meet him; he was kind of the Robert DeNiro of adult; he was quite a character, and I think it was at one of my first AVN shows with Evil Angel; I had always been friends with Joey, and Joey has the most history with John probably of anybody, and Joey introduced us and we just hit it off, and when he'd come to town, we all tried to get together, and the stories that John would have and Joey would also share, he just had the best stories about the classic days of adult. You could sit and listen to these guys talk about everything they'd been through—you know, personal stuff with him and Joey living in san Francisco and the trips they would take—you could sit for hours and hear great stories; probably the best stories anybody in the business could ever tell."
Mann, who's spent much of today fielding phone calls and emails of condolence for Leslie's passing, also had great respect for the man.
"He was really a lot more than just a member of this industry; he was a really interesting well-rounded guy who had a big interest in culture," Mann said. "His love of music, and specifically blues, was legendary. He was a musician himself, a very accomplished gourmet cook, and sort of a guy who loved golf and he was a bon vivant, and in my mind, led a very full life. He was deeply in love with his wife; about to celebrate their 23rd wedding anniversary; together 30 years. They met at Burbank airport, and it was love at first sight."
Perhaps the industry member who's had the most contact with Leslie over the past few years is photographer Kevin Moore.
"I don't remember the first movie we did together, but the first photos I took that really had an effect on him, where me and him really sort of went to the next level as mentor/student was the Naomi movie," Moore recalled. "That's the first one where the bond there really started to get bigger, because he was really smitten with her; she was a very special person; she just looked unbelievable in it. So it was like five years ago that I started working with him, but it was on that movie that we connected."
"I used to be Joey Silvera's assistant for a long time, and from Joey, I met John, because Joey and John are best friends," Moore continued. "What had happened was, John needed a photographer because he wasn't happy with the photographers he was using many years ago, and I had met him a couple of times. I was a huge porno fan as a kid; I used to work in porno stores; I used to watch all of John's movies, and Joey's—these guys are my idols in a way. Catwoman , I can't even tell you; those movies just blew my mind. Tori Welles in Chameleons-Not the Sequel  really changed me; it made me want to do it. I never thought in a million fucking years that I'd be working by these guys' sides; never. And John and I just hit it off, like me and Joey just hit it off."
Leslie and Moore frequently discussed the art of moviemaking, and Leslie had very specific tastes regarding what he wanted to see.
"John and I would sit around and just talk about what to do, what to shoot," Moore said. "We'd talk about particular girls, how amazing she was, her ass, the shots he wanted. I would show him shots; I'd get feedback. He would just get real excited at the fact that I wanted to nail it, get it right, and he just always had—he was very specific and he'd let you know when he was unhappy, but at the same time, when you nailed it, the guy was just so—he made you feel like a million bucks. He really did. That guy was so good at motivating people and complimenting them; like, I shoot movies now and I still shoot photos, but I learned so much, I can't even tell you. Even the little technical things. I mean, we did a feature, like his last feature, all around the girl Brianna Love—by that point, I was already wearing multiple hats: his production manager, his assistant, his photographer and everything in the world, and I just remember we spent so much time on that movie. And even though it wasn't like a big budget feature, it was great to work with John in a feature way, because I was such a big fan of his feature work early on, and I kept trying to push him to shoot another feature."
Moore is currently editing Leslie's final three movies.
"The guy was a legend and one of the nicest guys in the business. The man was my second father; I want to honor him any way I can."
"My biggest memory of John was just how amazing he was as an individual," said actor Erik Everhard, who frequently appeared in Leslie's movies. "Aside from porno, he was one of the only real artists that I've ever met in the industry. We had some good personal moments. I got to share some of my art photography with him; he brought his paintings to show me. We had nice connections on an artist level that was separate from the business and it was the most enjoyable times I spent with John was when we were able to talk about his photography, his art and all these other things when we were sitting on set. I think more him being an artist is what most people will remember and what I'll remember about him. You just don't meet people who are that creative and really inspirational."
All who knew Leslie miss him intensely.
"I've been very, very sad," Thomas said. "I was looking forward to seeing John in Las Vegas. "[His death] makes it a little bit more official that an era has passed. We've all had the feeling that the business is definitely changing, and that there's possibly—I think the most poignant statement I could make, I've been sitting here being one of the few filmmakers in the business that still wants to tell a story and make a movie. I've been obviously wondering if indeed my time is past, and John's demise somehow seems to put a period on that, that an era has passed."
"He died at such a young age, and so unexpected; such a shame," Hampshire added. "John was just an overall great person: A great director, a great actor, a great person. We loved him."
Although no memorial service for Leslie has yet been set, AVN has learned that his body will be cremated. Check back to AVN.com for details of whatever memorial service will take place.