CHATSWORTH, Calif. – Ron Sullivan, who directed adult films as Henri Pachard for more than 30 years, has died from complications of cancer. He was 69 years old.
Born June 4, 1939 in Kansas City, Mo., Sullivan became one of the most successful directors of porn’s Golden Age and a kingpin of the New York-based theatrical adult film industry in the late 1970s.
When theaters began to close in the mid-80s, he migrated to Los Angeles and carved out another successful career in video production. His list of titles runs into the hundreds and includes such classics as Babylon Pink, Outlaw Ladies, Public Affairs and Taboo, American Style.
"He was my friend, my mentor, my partner, my inspiration," award-winning director Paul Thomas told AVN. "He taught me everything I know about set-up, about plot, about pacing – I can't even say all the things I learned from Ron."
"He was great fun," recalled veteran actress Gloria Leonard. "He had a marvelous sense of humor. He and I were both good joke-tellers, so we entertained one another. On the set, he consumed a fair amount of vodka, but that was after filming. It was always disguised as a glass of water or something. And of course, when he and I were having our little fling for about a year and a half or so, it was the days of mucho cocaine, and I used to make jokes about the fact that everything we liked began with a 'C': cigarettes, cannabis, cocaine, cognac."
Sullivan's career in entertainment goes back to the mid-'60s. He worked as a stage manager in New York and Williamsburg, Va., before getting into the film business, according to his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Raven Touchstone.
Sullivan's first movies as a producer and director were sexploitation features made for Distribpix, the independent New York distribution company founded by Arthur Morowitz and Howard Farber, later of Video-X-Pix fame. These early grindhouse films include the roughie Scare Their Pants Off (produced by Sullivan and directed by John Maddox), Lust Weekend, The Bizarre Ones and The Erotic Circus.
Sullivan also worked for Robert Downey, Sr.'s company PS Distribution and co-produced Downey's counterculture satire Putney Swope (1969). During the same period, Sullivan produced The Headless Eyes, a proto-slasher flick directed by Kent Bateman, the father of well-known mainstream performers Justine and Jason Bateman.
"He was a very noir kind of guy," Leonard remembered. "When we were in New York, he always wore a hat, like a fedora kind of thing. Then he moved to LA and I moved somewhere else; we kept in touch in a minimal level."
But Sullivan, though married five times, was in inveterate womanizer.
"We were an item for at least a year when we both still lived in NYC; kind of like Bogey and Bacall," Leonard said. "He called me Toots and I called him Sulli — he considered me a 'great dame' and I'd tell him he was a 'big lug.' So he comes to my house one day and he says, 'I had a dream that I packed up all my stuff and I left Joan [Sullivan's third wife] and I came to live with you.' I said, 'Ron, first of all, I don't have any closet space. Second of all, I love you dearly, but my theory is, you're here, we have a great time, I told you I love you. Now get the fuck out of here.'"
Actress/director/producer Candida Royalle had a similar story to tell.
"I found him to be one of the most charming, charismatic people I ever met; sinfully flirtatious, and just so wonderful and kind and such a delight to work for, and it really made me proud to be in his movie," Royalle said. "He was one of the best ever in that whole industry. He's just the kind of guy who made you – whenever I'd run into him, it felt so good because he had a way of looking at you that made you feel like no one else existed, at least for that moment. He just had such wonderful, loving, happy eyes and it's like he embraced you with his gaze and made you feel so special and so important and that he was really happy to see you and was interested in everything you had to say – and I don't say that lightly."
"My affair with him was very short-lived," she continued. "I was young, I wasn't even back in New York from L.A. yet; I was very naïve. My style was never to be with married men, and he was married so many times. He just loved women. He had to be married to them, he had to have sex with them, anything. But I remember very clearly – I was still living in L.A. and I was just brought out to work on a movie with Leslie Bovee and at one point, he was dropping me off somewhere, and I had such a massive crush on him, and I turned to him and I said, 'Do you love your wife?' And he thought about it for a minute, and he said, 'Yes, I do.' And I remember thinking, Well, what the hell am I doing here then? ... It's just that I could never be number two. He just was so wonderful and adorable and special and so incredibly talented, I just feel extremely sad for him and his wife."
Sullivan's prodigious sexual appetite seemed to go hand in hand with his creative ability.
"We had a great time working together," Touchstone, another former lover, remembered. "We worked together for a lot of years, but the biggest years were through the '80s and part of the '90s. We were doing movie after movie after movie. He was so gifted; he was so incredibly talented, and sometimes on the set he would be standing there very quietly with his hand on his chin, and people would be saying, 'Ron? Ron?' and Ron would say, 'Hush. When I'm quiet, I'm thinking.' And he was just brilliant."
Touchstone explained that during these meditative moments, Sullivan was picturing the upcoming action in his head.
"Ron was the first director I worked with who really knew how to direct," she said. "He understood talent; he knew how to get the best out of the players; he knew how to block; he knew the camera – he knew if you put a fan over here and you rigged it so that the blades were going slowly and you shot through the blades, you'd get this or that – he knew all this stuff, and it was such a pleasure to write for somebody who really could actually execute what I was writing."
"He was very sure of himself as to what he wanted in a scene, and kind of laid it out," Leonard agreed. "He was always a very friendly director; never harsh or belittling or anything like that. And if it wasn't what he wanted, he would just take it over again. In those days, it was okay to have three or four takes in a film."
Touchstone's and Sullivan's first collaboration was 1986's Blame It On Ginger, which won the award for Best Couples Sex Scene (Video) at the 1987 AVN Awards show. Sullivan had previously won AVN's first Best Director - Video award in 1985 for Long Hard Nights, and took home directorial awards again in 1988 for Talk Dirty to Me, Part V and in 1990 for The Nicole Stanton Story, Parts 1 & 2. He was also honored several times by the X-Rated Critics Association (XRCO), first in 1979 for Babylon Pink (his first full-length adult movie), then for Outlaw Ladies in 1981, Sexcapades in 1983, and Taboo American Style 1-4. He was one of the first inductees into both the AVN and XRCO Halls of Fame.
One of Sullivan's best-known early films was 1982's The Devil In Miss Jones 2.
"I met Ron in an office, just a standard theatrical office, and he hired me to do a remake of that famous film, The Devil In Miss Jones," recalled star Georgina Spelvin. "He got Jack Wrangler, a star of both gay and straight films, to play the Devil. To create his director's vision of hell, he used huge bursts of stage smoke made of dry ice blasted onto the set and made the crowded area a true hell. A delightful gay hair stylist was doing his best to give my character a lofty bouffant hairdo. Between each shot, he would drag me back to the dressing room to set, blow-dry and tease my poor wisps back into the shape of his vision... Nothing deterred Ron. He was an extraordinary director. I never saw him frown, I never heard a cross word out of his mouth. I never knew a director who had as much fun doing the films they did as Ron did; he was just great. It was a couple of films later – well, I was starving to death in Los Angeles at this time, and he called me one day and said, 'How are you doing, George?' And I said, 'Well, to tell you the truth, not very well. The rent's due and I'm flat busted.' He said, 'Will $200 help?' I said, 'Of course it will.' He said, 'It's in the mail,' and indeed, two days later, there was a check, which saved my butt that time... Henri is indeed one of a kind. Ron has been a good friend, a damned good friend for a very, very long time."
Devil 2, as Sullivan referred to it, was also his first collaboration with his son Jason, now a prolific cameraman and director in the industry, who thoroughly enjoyed the experience, but explained, "I wasn't allowed to be there for the sex scenes since I wasn't quite of age yet."
"Ron and my mom were divorced when I was about 3-1/2," Jason remembered. "They'd bought a house in Woodstock, NY. We lived there together for a bit, and dad would go to the City to work and visit on weekends, and we'd visit him once a month or so, and go see chop suey movies in Times Square."
Sullivan is best remembered for his New York hardcore classics, which showed him as a master at capturing boiling-hot sex scenes and creating genuinely dirty, kinky scenarios. One of his well-known directorial signatures was shooting sex in bathrooms.
"Ron flew me to New York, paid me $200 for the day, which was twice the going rate, and I got my first experience in an Henri Pachard bathroom scene," Spelvin recalled. "I think it was called Babylon Pink. He had me wrapped around all those facilities, trying to get my nether regions to a point where a camera could get a good shot in a very close encounter, until I thought I was going to bust the facilities trying to get myself out of there."
"Ron let me stay at his house, because when I was filming Babylon Pink, my husband, who was a crazy dentist – he used to beat me – was just always after me for something," remembered classic adult actress Samantha Fox. "Of course, I was doing porno which he loved and hated – and Ron and his wife were so gracious and let me stay there. Ron was a very handsome, smart, likeable and generous man, just a wonderful person."
Sullivan lived and worked on both coasts between 1980 and '85, before settling in Los Angeles in 1986.
"That's when my dad married his fourth wife, Deborah Holden," Jason said. "RSPT [Sullivan's partnership with Paul Thomas] was still flying about then, and dad was showing P.T. the directing and producing ropes, and P.T. was still producing for them, and they were educating each other."
"The work was really drying up in New York," Jason continued, "and video was taking over the film end of it, and there was no point flying to New York to make a cheap video; the budgets weren't catering to that sort of thing, and the pretty people were out here."
Sullivan flew frequently to San Francisco to make movies, during which period he became good friends with acclaimed director Alex deRenzy, with whom he later made the award-winning Hothouse Rose 1 & 2.
Touchstone also remembers the San Francisco days.
"I did a lot of art direction; I did wardrobe, costumed everything, wrote the movie and I would assist Ron in everything," she said. "I was like the second in command, and worked with talent and rehearsed them, did everything. So he would drive and I would fly, and I would meet the other kids – Randy Spears, or Rick Savage, all these kids – we'd meet at the Burbank airport and fly up to wherever we were going. They were really fun days. We were outlaws; we had this great familial sense with each other, and it seemed that everybody had their [emotional] baggage. It wasn't like today; it was a whole different thing. Everybody wanted to make a good movie and most of the kids – everybody that Ron used in all of these movies, for the most part, were all people who loved acting, like Randy Spears, Victoria Paris, Jeanna Fine – we did this thing called City of Sin and City of Sin: Street Angels with Jeanna."
Sullivan had what amounted to his personal troupe of performers, including some of the best-known names in the business.
"We'd say, 'Okay; who are we going to put in this movie?'" Touchstone explained. "We'd plan a movie and think about the cast before we wrote the role. See, the way we would work it is, Ron would say, 'Okay, we have to do a movie for so-and-so.' For a number of years here, we worked together on just about everything, and so he would come to where I was living, and we would sit outside and talk. We had an idea – he had an idea or I had an idea, either one, and we'd start talking about the story and he'd get this and then I'd pull this off of it and then he'd pull that off of it, and bouncing back and forth, putting the story together, putting the idea together, and then, 'Okay, we've got all this cast of characters; now who are we going to use here so that we can tailor the characters to these players?"
"What was so good was that Ron could get so much out of them," she continued. "We had Rachel Ryan in Kinky Business 2 – she loved performing. She was wonderful. We had Jerry Butler, a wonderful actor; Tommy Byron, who was wonderful in that movie. We used Herschel [Savage]. We had Rick Savage – all these really good players, who were very talented. Jamie Gillis, as far as acting goes, he was wonderful. He was the phantom in Phantom of the Cabaret; Keisha; Sharon Kane – I loved Sharon Kane, loved working with her, and Ron loved her. We used her a lot. Sharon Mitchell – all of the really good players. Nina Hartley, she was wonderful; she was in Talk Dirty To Me Part 6."
Touchstone has particularly vivid memories of Phantom of the Cabaret, which was shot in and around Paris.
"When we wrote Phantom of the Cabaret, we knew we were going to have Jamie Gillis," she said. "I knew as a writer that I could write anything for him and he could play it. I didn't have to keep it small; I could make it as big as possible, and Ron knew, when we were working off the idea, that with Jamie Gillis, we could make the idea as big as possible because we could get as dramatic as we wanted, because Jamie had the ability to act anything."
"We had six players who were our players that we took with us. The rest of the script, we used French people, a lot of whom could not speak English, so we would give them maybe one or two lines. Everything else had to be written in such a way that the dialog was so simple, we could teach them phonetically or there was no dialog at all and everything could be understood just by action."
"Ron was funny," Touchstone chuckled. "I had on tape, because I took my Betacam with me – I have on tape Ron making a speech to all of us. The first place we stayed was in Paris proper, in a hotel. Then we went about an hour outside of Paris to a little city called Tours, and we stayed and we shot in a hunting manor that was built in 1750. It was huge. The fireplace was so huge, you could put six people just in the burning part of the fireplace. And we were all gathered downstairs, and Ron says, 'Okay, now, I know none of you want to be here' – and we all started to laugh, because this was one of Ron's typical speeches he would say to the players on the set when nobody would gather at the same time – and he used to say that getting all the talent on the set at one time was like sweeping ants onto a dustpan – and he would always do his speech: 'I know that none of you want to be here' – but of course, we all wanted to be there; we were in Paris! It was very funny."
This author had the good fortune to be on Sullivan's set in 1995 when shooting the first volume of his series Venom. Always the innovator, Sullivan got the idea to hand the video camera to one of the actors, thereby creating the forerunner of what would become the popular POV genre.
"He would talk to them, and he would simply tell them exactly what he wanted them to do," Touchstone related. "Sometimes, in discussing the scene, the player, whether it was Joey Silvera or Jamie or whoever, would have a suggestion, and they would say whatever it was – 'What about if we do bla-bla-bla' – and Ron's stock line, if it was a good idea, was 'That's such a good idea, I'm going to take credit for it myself!' He was always willing to allow everybody to participate, to allow everybody to contribute to the best of their ability. His sets were always fun. They were relaxed, they were easy, and yet the work was intense, because he was getting the best out of everybody, but he always made it fun for everyone. Everybody loved working with him."
"His personal life was always a mess," Touchstone continued. "He had affairs with people in the industry. He had quite a nice relationship for a long time with Gloria Leonard. He called her Toots. He had a relationship with me for a while. He was the only person in the industry with whom I ever had a relationship of that sort, and he called me Toots also, and I called Gloria at one time and said, 'You're Toots 1 and I'm Toots 2.' He loved to be attached to a woman. He didn't like to be by himself, and his choices weren't always great. He was always getting married to somebody else. I knew two of his previous wives, both complete nutcases. I went to two of his weddings – I think he had five. He finally got it right when he married Deloras."
Even while undergoing treatment for cancer, Sullivan continued to direct and work on sets. His last movie was Hustler Video's Barely Legal Trouble Makers. An omnibus film designed to raise money to help him defray medical expenses, originally titled We Are the World XXX, was temporarily sidetracked because of disputes among its producers.
Sullivan is survived by Deloras, his wife of ten years, and two sons, Jason and Nate.