NEW YORK CITY—After John Holmes and Harry Reems, the next two most recognizable male faces from the early days of adult films would probably be Jamie Gillis and John Leslie—and fondly enough, the two were best friends.
"I remember the day I met him," Leslie told AVN. "It was my first trip to New York in 1976, and I was staying with this woman, Sandy, who was an agent in the business at that time, and we went to this off-Broadway show that was about the porno business, and Jamie was there with other people and that's the first time we met. I'd seen him in the movies and I was a fan of his, and we hit it off right away, and soon after that, I cooked my first meal for him at Sandy's place. I've cooked for him countless times over the years. The dinner was filet of sole Claudine; I saw it on TV, so I figured I'd just try it, and it came out real good and we had a nice dinner. So we remained close.
"We were on a number of sets together, and always had a good time, and he actually lived with me for a little while here in Marin, and he was with me the day Ecstasy Girls swept the AFA awards in 1980," Leslie continued. "I'll never forget that night. It was a wonderful night. Everybody loved what happened. Everything was well-deserved, and everybody felt that way. It was [Harold Lime's] movie, and the feeling that night was just warm and cozy and fuzzy and wonderful. Everybody was happy for them for winning those awards, and we were staying at the Holiday Inn, I think it was on Hollywood Boulevard, at that time, and the next day we were going to travel to—I was going back home, and we were traveling to San Francisco with [Harold] and Jesie St. James and a bunch of other people; we were going to do a movie up here. So before we went to the airport, we met in this little lounge where we had a bite of breakfast or something, and I was talking to Jamie, and I said, 'What a wonderful night that was.' I didn't want it to end, it was such a beautiful night, and I remember him saying to me, 'It was bittersweet, you know.' So we went to the airport in Burbank and we're together and we both see this woman, and Jamie goes, 'Oh,' and he goes over and starts talking to her, and I'm right with him, and her and I lock eyes, and that was it. That's my wife. So we got on the plane, and Kathleen and I were sitting and talking, and we weren't talking to everybody else, and actually everybody left the plane, and the next thing I knew, they were tapping us on the shoulder, saying, 'You've got to get off the plane now.' And we've been together every since. And Jamie felt very much a part of our relationship, and very close to us, and obviously he was at our house many, many, many times once she moved up here and we married and everything. It was part of how close we were; all this stuff built into our relationship, you know. And he always respected me so much for what I did and my paintings and my music, and obviously my acting and directing."
Another highly recognizable face would have been Ron Jeremy's, and he too has good memories of Gillis.
"When I first got in the business," Jeremy recalled, "Harry Reems had retired, John Holmes was in and out of jail, and so the guy that I looked up to the most was really Jamie Gillis; he was like the number one guy when I got into porn. He was the top guy. He was like number one, Marc Stevens was like number two, and then John Leslie was number three. Jamie was number one. He was also a Jewish boy, we used to talk about that as well, and also was a college graduate; he went to Columbia. And Jamie kind of took me under his wing a little bit; he helped me get a part in Dracula Exotica where I played a henchman. My first dialogue scene was with Jamie, and he had sex with Marlene Willoughby on the big feast table, and I did a sex scene later on in the film."
"He was in just about every movie in the '70s," Annie Sprinkle assured. "He was in one of my first movies, Kathy's Graduation. I've seen it many times, and I used a clip from that in Herstory of Porn. We did a double insertion—two penises in my vagina—which at that time also was a pretty fresh idea; him and another guy with the two penises, kind of rubbing them together. He wasn't shy about getting near a guy. I was so flirty with him. I mean, every girl had a crush on him. Every girl had the hots for him at first."
"He played my dad in Talk Dirty to Me 3," recalled Tom Byron. "He was one of my mentors or heroes in the business even before I got in the business. Him, Joey [Silvera], John [Leslie], Paul [Thomas], these were all people I looked up to. They're the ones that I studied, the ones that I aspired to be. I don't remember when I first met him, but we had some good times hanging out in Europe with Joey, and I just admired the guy. He was an incredibly versatile actor. He could go from playing the daring, debonair leading man like in Misty Beethoven to a depraved lunatic like the Enema Bandit in Water Power. I mean, he was just a great character, and a real smart, funny guy, too."
Gillis had a similar effect on Paul Thomas.
"He was the older pro from New York," said the California-based Thomas, "but it was him and I and John Leslie and a few others, and if I could say that I looked up to anyone, it was him. He was, to me, the best-ever porn star. Very talented, very creative; a dark, twisted sexual spirit. He wasn't some mainstream actor who was trying to pretend he was a porno star, he was the real deal. Every time he gave a twisted sexual performance, you were probably watching an original, the first time that had ever been done. And a great guy, very nice guy. Not all that forthcoming with his time—he was a very private person—but I definitely looked up to him. He was one of the few people that I could look up to, and I did."
But the actress with whom AVN spoke who may have the earliest memories of Gillis was Sharon Mitchell.
"Jamie and I worked together on a lot of loops," Mitchell recalled. "We would go to Peter Ivers' house on Saturday afternoons with the other 10 people that were in the industry in New York back then, and we'd make loops on the weekend, and I think we got paid like $300 or $400 for, I guess, about 40 minutes of us having sex, and it was great.
"But the first time I met Jamie, I was on a set; it was one of the first movies I worked on, That Lady from Rio, with Vanessa Del Rio," she continued. "It was one of the 16mm not-so-big movies with a not-so-small budget, and they were trying to get me to do some sort of double penetration—I didn't even know what it was, and Jamie said, 'Have you ever worked before?' And I said, 'No,' and he goes, 'Goddamnit,' and he went in and I heard him screaming at the director, and there was a dozen eggs that the caterer had on the table, and he started hurling eggs at the director and screaming and yelling, and then he came back and asked me how much I was being paid, and I told him, and then he went back again and screamed at him, and he and John Leslie both were instrumental in helping me with pay scale, not being taken advantage of. I mean, they really were kind of my big brothers."
Mitchell also had some thoughts on a scene that porn viewers of today might find shocking: Zebedy Colt giving Gillis a blowjob in 1975's The Story of Joanna.
"Back then, nobody really gave a shit," Mitchell explained. "I mean, it was the sexual revolution. We were all kind of incestuous anyway, either working together or rooming together or helping each other out in one way or another. That's just the way it was. We were all out-of-work actors. There were only about 30 of us in New York."
"People don’t realize that everything was kind of thrown in together back then," she added. "I mean, any and all fantasies were sort of thrown in, be it rape, be it S&M, be it gay—everything was thrown into the same movie, and the plots were cool because they used to cut them up for the drive-ins anyway. So it really was awesome."
Annie Sprinkle, who worked behind the scenes of that film, had a similar assessment.
"That was a real taboo breaker, for a real straight guy like Jamie, a straight icon, to get a blowjob from a man; that was big," she said. "Back then, I was [director Gerard] Damiano's consort, so we spent a week up at an estate in Rhode Island together, and it was an interesting story because Jamie was just fantastic and amazing in that role. But then, of course, the gardener found a copy of the script, and we all had to escape under darkness of night."
"In the old days, we called him 'tri-sexual' because he would try anything—male, female, other," Jeremy added. "He could get an erection for anything. He could fuck a pound of calf's liver. He did a big giant orgy once where he actually had sex with a stuffed turkey. And no one else but him could do that. I said to him, 'Jamie, what were you thinking about when you were fucking the turkey? Were you thinking about being with a particular female or girls in general?' He said, 'No, just thinking of the turkey.' Motherfucker! I swear to God he would say that, just to fuck with me. Every other guy in porn would need to think of something with his mind to fuck a turkey. Jamie would say, 'No, I'm fine. Just fucking a turkey.' No one else but Jamie could do that. He was the ultimate porn star."
Or as industry vet Bill Margold put it, "If you put pubic hair around a light socket, he'd stick his dick into it."
Another of Gillis' early acquaintances was actress Veronica Vera.
"I had known about him and wanted him to be in my very first movie; I wanted to do my very first sex scene with him but his schedule didn't permit that," she said. "That was in Consenting Adults, which was about 1983 or '4. But one of my best memories was meeting up with Jamie at the Hellfire Club in Manhattan, where we had a sexual experience with a crowd surrounding us. We had this animal attraction, which was easy to have with Jamie, and we had sex in front of a whole group of people as they all kind of gathered and all stood around while sex was happening. This is when sex actually happened at the Hellfire Club. And so then I brought him home to my apartment, which was just a block away from there, and my two young Greek nieces were staying with me; they were both like 18 years old, and they were staying in another room, and when we all woke up in the morning, they kind of jumped into bed and were going, like, 'Oh, what's this?' And Jamie was just in total heaven because there's these pretty young Greek girls as well, which he loved all women, but these were fresh new little nymphettes, so it was just heaven to him. That was fun, and it was an experience that I don't think any of us ever forgot."
Interestingly, gourmet food played a large role in Gillis' life.
"His girlfriends were always food critics," Jeremy remembered. "When me and Jamie went out to dinner together, he could taste a glass of wine—and he wouldn't look at the label; I would hide it from him—or a bit of jam and he could tell me where it was from and the year it was made. He really knew his food."
"Jamie had just such a bizarre collection of everything," Mitchell added, "and I know from rooming with him in Hollywood years later that if you'd open up Jamie's fridge, there would be like bull testicles and all these oddities, and fruits—he was a member of the Fruit of the Month Club—and this and that, all these odd foods and fruits coming in. He was a connoisseur and he had a very eclectic palate for food, and of course dated many famous chefs and traveled around the world with them."
Gillis was the longtime consort of New York Times food critic and author Gael Greene, who wrote graphic details of their affair in her novel Insatiable: Tales from a Life of Delicious Excess, but in later years, he lived with Zarela Martinez.
"Zarela is a very cultured, very smart woman who owns a very famous restaurant here in New York," Vera explained. "It's a Mexican restaurant. She grew up in Mexico, she went to finishing school in Mexico, she's a very cultured and learned woman, and she has a lot of different literary world people come to her restaurant. When she first met Jamie—she met him through Gael—she started talking books and philosophy to him, which really brought out his mind, which Jamie had a very fine mind; he was a very smart guy but he was also kind of withdrawn; you didn't get that from him right off the bat. So they connected on that level and they started living together—he moved in with her—and they've been living together for maybe at least five years now. She took care of him at the end, which he couldn't have been in better hands. She was really devoted to him, and he died at her home—but for the last couple of years in Jamie's life, he was surrounded by the most amazing thinkers."
But Gillis could also appreciate the simpler aspects of the human condition.
"Jamie was just the kind of guy who loved life; he just could enjoy any situation," Leslie said. "I tell the story, one time he stopped working in the business; he had this one girlfriend who didn't want him to do it anymore, so he just was completely broke, and he loved fruit, right? And he told me, 'I couldn't afford to buy the fruit but I would still just go to the market and hold it and smell it.' He could enjoy just that much of it and be content; it was amazing. That's the type of guy he was. He didn't wallow in it and say, 'I wish I had money.' It didn't have anything to do with that. He would walk around and just enjoy the walk. He was very honest and wouldn't do anything bad to anybody."
But Gillis also had girlfriends inside the industry.
"I wouldn't even have been as involved in the adult business as I was if it wouldn't have been for Jamie," actress Amber Lynn stated. "I lived with him and at one point I was engaged to him, and we had a very serious, very real relationship, so it's devastating. He started contacting me again about a year ago, and he didn't tell me he had cancer, but I could tell that he wanted to be friends and be in contact, so it makes perfect sense to me now. At the time I just was really happy to hear from him. We had not been in close contact."
"I can tell so many stories about Jamie and the joy of being around Jamie and eating with Jamie, like when he demanded wine at the original Pantry, because it was beneath him [not to have wine with dinner], so I had to get a bottle of wine and put it in a brown bag," Margold reminisced. "Serena and I and Jamie sat there and held court. The last time I heard from him, he called up and said, 'How is my baby?' And he was calling about Amber during that fiasco of the [Ron] Sullivan disaster; it was just ripped away from her and it broke my heart, but he knew that I would watch that if anybody tried to hurt her, I would destroy them. I worship Amber and I discovered her and she was the 'Blonde Panther,' but I think Jamie and Serena were the soul couple of all time in this business. They were linked on so many levels and when they held hands, it made me happy."
"I only made a few films with him," said Annie Sprinkle, "but he had a whole range of personas, and in some ways, he was very much about female empowerment and really adored women, and in some ways, he could be very dominant. He could be so sweet and charming, but if there was a woman who liked it rough, he could really go there too."
"There is the story that when he lived with Serena, he would always kiss her goodbye in the morning by kissing her asshole," added Evil Angel owner John Stagliano.
Sharon Mitchell, though, has a wealth of Gillis stories from over the 40 years that she's known him.
"Jamie and I were just really compatible, and when I think of Jamie, I think of two words: 'Ah, yes!'" Mitchell recollected. "If you watch any movie he was in, that's what he used to say after he cums. And I just loved that. Privately, we became close friends, and this is when I was in New York. I was living on Downing Street; I was 17 or 18, and he says to me, 'Mitch, would you do me a favor? I said, 'What?' He said, 'My mom's been dead for a really long time and my dad's a really sweet guy; would you go out to dinner with him?' And I said, 'You know, I don't want to fuck him or anything...' And he said, 'No, no, no; just go out to dinner with him,' and I was thinking, 'Whoa, Jamie's father; this is going to be interesting.' So I made it clear that I wasn't committing to any kind of escort thing. He said, 'No, no, no; that's fine.'"
"A couple of days later, the doorbell rings and there's this little short bald Jewish man out there," she continued. "He says, ' Hi, I'm Mr. [Gillis],' and he's got a bouquet of flowers, very sweet, very nice, and I said, 'Okay, great; let me just finish getting dressed,' and so he gives me the flowers, he comes in, closes the door and he was a total wolf. This guy chased me around my apartment and I was 17 and it was only a studio apartment, and so I'm running in circles in this tiny apartment going, 'Oh, my God!' And I was so uncomfortable! I don't know what Jamie told him or promised him or what he had assumed, but it was completely not what I had in mind, and so that's how I met Jamie's father. I just got so nervous and so flustered. Remember, I was 17; I was still just a kid from Jersey and I was doing Jamie a favor because he did everything from literally negotiating my pay to picking me up and taking me to work. He really took care of me like a sister. He really, really sheltered me. He was wonderful."
Mitchell also recalled a couple of sexual adventures involving Gillis while the pair were living in New York City in the early '70s.
"Long Jean Silver, the girl with the one leg, was my roommate for a while and we began working together," Mitchell said. "And she, Jamie and I worked on Water Power and a couple of things here and there, and we got along really well. Anyway, Larry Levine and all the people that used to manage Plato's Retreat used to hire me every Saturday night; I would take care of the choreography and the entertainment, and there was either a rock 'n' roll band or we would choreograph 20- to 30-minute dance moves, really nice stuff. So I went and I did a show, I remember that night, with Joanna Storm, to Led Zeppelin, where we had knives and we were cutting each other's clothes off—it was very sexy, a big hit. And then Jeannie showed up, and Jamie knew that nobody at Plato's Retreat had ever seen anything like her and her leg, so he wanted to orchestrate us fucking; he just wanted to do that. So I'm still in my little cut-up S&M costume from the show and Long Jean, who had three or four different boots and different prosthetics and so forth—and I know, because I was her roommate and she used to lose her feet all the time—so this night, she had leather-studded thigh-high boots, and so we're kissing and so on and so forth, and taking each other's clothes off and we're fondling each other, and it's taking a while, and Jamie is like this great maestro and everyone is gathering around and looking and it's wonderful—I mean, this is when the Rolling Stones used to go there—I mean, anybody and everybody used to go there; it was like Studio 54: The place to be—and then he goes, 'Now,' and I pulled off her boot and people were like, 'Oh my God!' And then she started stump-fucking me right then and there in the middle of this, and it was like no one had ever seen it before. It was fabulous, and Jamie was like the maestro; like 'Oh, yes!' He just loved that."
But not all of Mitchell's interactions with Gillis were quite so much fun.
"So I get this call at like 2:30 or 3 in the fucking morning," Mitchell related, "and this is one of the few nights I was actually asleep because I was a member of a few rock 'n' roll bands and I was either singing at Max's Kansas City or CBGB's or the Mud Club and I was a rock 'n' roller by night and a porn star by day and I used to work at ABC on the soap operas—I did a little bit of everything. So the phone rings and I pick it up and I go, 'Hello?' and he goes, 'Mitch'—and I hear this whishing in the background; it sounds like Niagara Falls—and I go, 'Jamie?' And he goes, 'Yes, Mitch—come over to my apartment! You've got to get here pronto, quick! Jump in a taxi! It's an emergency! I need you now!' So I thought, oh my God, is somebody OD'ing? I mean, I never know, because I've had those calls with Harry Reems before, where I had to come and give CPR. So I threw something on, jumped in the taxi, took it to 46th Street, and I go up and I find he's fucking [a famous adult actress] in his bathroom; he's got her head stuck in the toilet, and her necklace was actually stuck on some pipe inside the toilet, so in order for her to breathe periodically, he had to continue to flush the toilet. God forbid he should stop fucking her and call the plumber, you know? No, he called me instead. God knows why—so I called the plumber, because I tried but there was no way to get this thing out of there. I mean, it was just bizarre and sad; the necklace was so wound around something that if we tried to pull it off her, it would have cut her. I'm telling you, it was a precarious situation. But did you think Jamie would stop fucking her? No. He had been fucking her for God knows how long before he called me, and it must have taken me 20 or 30 minutes to get there, and I stayed right up until the plumber came."
But Mitchell isn't the only one with Gillis stories.
"I first saw Jamie Gillis in the early '70s, sometimes in 35mm films at the Pussycat Theaters, but mostly in cheap 16mm films at dive movie houses on east Hollywood Boulevard; one dollar to get in," reminisced Stagliano. "He was the one guy in the movie you were always sure was enjoying himself. There was not an ounce of bullshit in his sexual performance. His dick was always hard, even when left without female attention, patiently waiting under the constant movement of the bottom two fingers on his left hand. I remember thinking once that I had never seen him soft."
"In 1989 when I was preparing to shoot the first Buttman scene, I knew that this was the guy to play Eddie, the pervert lead," he continued. "I knew because when I was in an orgy with him in 1983, he positioned himself on the floor under this new young girl so she could sit on his face. I had never seen anyone love asshole like him. I was so in awe of meeting him. There was a new young girl in that orgy that I had been paired with. I had a feeling Jamie really liked her so I pushed her over to him as a gift to the master. She didn’t regret it. He thanked me later."
"Jamie was a very intelligent, witty guy with a very dark sense of humor," recalled veteran salesman Howard Levine. "Nothing ever seemed to bother him. Back in 1986, I was walking down Broadway in San Francisco and I saw Jamie just hanging out on the street. I was working for General Video at the time, and I walked up to him and began a conversation that would be the start of a great friendship. I asked if he was shooting anything, and he replied, 'No,' but he was open to any ideas. I told him that whatever he shot, I could sell. I gave him my card and told him to call me if something came up. About two weeks later Jamie showed up in some old Cadillac limo with Rene Morgan in the back seat. He was very excited. He told me he had taken Rene down to the Wharf where the ships had just come in and picked up two sailors, invited them in the car and Rene fucked them both while he shot it with a handheld camera. On that day, gonzo was born, and this was the first On the Prowl with Jamie Gillis. It sold very well, and was the start of a new genre. He really cared about his craft and was a stickler for details; he always insisted on setting the facts straight. Jamie was a visionary, often copied but never duplicated."
"I am credited with doing the first gonzo movies, but what is called gonzo today really was done first by Jamie," agreed Stagliano. "He came up with the Dirty Debutantes concept of interviewing girls before a sex scene. He did On the Prowl before I shot him in the first Buttman scene in 1989."
Gillis' death inspired some of his peers to wax philosophical.
"He was definitely the intellectual's porn star, the thinking man's porn star," assessed Paul Thomas. "And that's been lost, because it's not valued. Everything now is emphasizing the quick fix. Not just porno; movies, television, everything is emphasizing the quick fix, the fast food. So he was the Paddy Chayefsky/Playhouse 90 of porn. Cool, cool guy; really proud to have known him. He never really wanted to work, he never followed through with anything that took too much follow-through. He wanted to take it easy, eat well, drink his wine. And he was dark and twisted without being an alcoholic or a drug addict, which to me was always so admirable. He kept it in perspective, but he wanted to live an epicurean life."
Or as former '80s star Richard Pacheco put it simply, "He sat at the head of the table."
"He stayed a tough guy right to the end," was Ron Jeremy's appraisal. "I don't think Jamie even feared death. He was just too tough a guy. I don't think he was even afraid of it. There's nothing bad I can say about the guy. He was a good, good, good guy."
"He told me a few months ago that he was dying, but he told me not to tell anybody, and I said, 'No, I won't,'" Leslie explained. "He was diagnosed a year before he told me, but he didn't mention it to me then, and he said they told him he had a year, year and a half to live. So our conversation that initial time he told me, I said, 'Well, now you'll know. It's kind of exciting in a way when you think about it. You're gonna die.' And he was like—he said, 'Yeah; something to look forward to.' And he sort of liked it, and we were laughing about it and stuff, and he called me the next day and told me how much he appreciated our conversation. It's very difficult to talk to somebody who's dying. But we just talked normal, like it was just something else that would happen in life, and he said, 'Well, I'll try to get back to you when I go; I'll try to get back and tell you what it's like,' and I said, 'Yeah, that'd be great, but I don't think you can; you know what I mean?' Which is very, very deep."
"This is probably the most striking blow to our industry," Margold assessed. "Holmes died in '88, and the tragedy of Holmes is that by the time he died, we were sort of relieved. Holmes had suffered so much by that time that when I got the call from [director/historian Jim] Holliday, I said, 'Thank God, because he didn't need to suffer anymore.' Jamie I hope didn't suffer, but Jamie's up there choreographing a section of heaven now where only the most adventurous will want to go. Personally, I'd sooner have him go to hell, because he'd have a lot more fun there."
R.I.P. Jamie Gillis: April 20, 1943 – February 19, 2010
[Photo courtesy of Annie Sprinkle. Top, l-r, actors Michael Gaunt and George Payne, director Ralph Ell, Jamie Gillis, director Joe Sarno; bottom l-r, actresses Veronica Vera, Kim Pope, Annie Sprinkle.]