February 24, 2010 | Short Order
Jamie Gillis, a legend in adult films during the Golden Era of porn, is dead at 66
He knew my work. I knew his. It was 1976. I was standing in front of Brentano’s on 5th Avenue promoting my just published novel Blue Skies, No Candy at the city’s annual fair, “New York Is Book Country.” He stopped, picked up the book, read a few lines and laughed. “Your hero has my name,” he said. “Jamie. I know your work from New York magazine,” he said.
“And I know you. You’re that actor. From those movies.” He was young and surprisingly shy, with those shiny black curls and perfect posture, even better looking in person. “You were wonderful in Misty Beethoven.”
“That was fun to make,” he said. “I liked the woman in that one.”
“And what do you do when you don’t like the woman?” I asked.
“I just get myself in the mood.” He looked me straight in the eye.
What lusty 70s woman just liberated from marriage could possibly resist?
It was before sex on video. I Am Curious Yellow had been cleared of obscenity charges. Everyone was talking about Deep Throat and couples had started going to sex theaters together. I was just an amateur of erotica so I wasn’t aware that as a star of The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann, The Story of Joanna, and Through the Looking Glass, he was porn’s leading man and best actor in East Coast adult films. Or that it was porn’s “Golden Age.”
Although he was the most in-demand male performer at the time, he didn’t work that often. He woke at noon and organized his day around small pleasures, treating himself to a jar of lingonberries, sneaking into nearby theaters with the crowd after intermission, feeding quarters into a porno-flick machine in a cubicle at Show World on Eighth Avenue to watch himself flanked by two Lolitas, aroused all over again. Free for dinner? Yes. And dancing after. Xenon if we’d eaten on the west side. Regine’s if on the east. We danced till 2 or 3 in the morning, then walked home, hair soaking wet. He had certain rituals, like stopping at Smiler’s on Eighth Avenue for a grapefruit and the Times. And it was true. He didn’t seem to have a problem getting into the mood.
I heard his story. He was born Jamey Ira Gurman on April 20, 1943. “Hitler’s birthday,” he would note. His father named him Jamie after the pirate Tyrone Power played in Black Swan. His mother spelled it Jamey. They didn’t agree on much. He had that strut and swagger. I watched him playing Jamie Gillis. And I saw him being Jamey Gurman. He was dark, narcissistic, forbidden, touching, vulnerable, unlike any man I’d known.
Second from last in his high school class, he had determined to do well at Columbia and graduated with honors in English. He was doing Shakespeare Off-Broadway for no money and studying mime while driving a taxi to make a living when he saw an ad in the Village Voice for a nude model. He found himself making porn “loops” at $40 an hour, his take home from a day in the cab. “It was easy. Everyone was sweet. And I loved the sex.” He’d done live sex shows in Times Square too, reciting Shakespeare soliloquies to provide “socially redeeming purpose” and avoid obscenity charges. He marveled that he would be paid to have sex with dewy young girls. He was the happiest man I’d ever met.
In 1976, porn had become ambitious with plots and increasingly expensive production values. Producer Radley Metzger had taken his Misty Beethoven actors to Paris to shoot on location. People in the business thought straight actors would soon be doing explicit sex in big-budget Hollywood films. He liked being in the avant-garde. “I felt like a missionary,” he said.
I said: “Your story should be a book.”
“Norman Mailer said the same thing to me when I met him at a party,” he taunted.
“But I’ll pay you $50 a week to tape a diary,” I said. He agreed. So I knew he had a complicated other life, a girl friend, his naughty boy diversions. I would spoil him for all that.
Jamie looked dashing at the Four Seasons or The Palace in his brown pin striped suit he got from the costume rack on Misty. He liked to wear a shiny floral tie that still had a strip of masking tape on the back labeled “orgy scene.” I reached to pull it off.
He stepped back. “No, leave it. I like it that way.”
He was 35 years old and hungry. He was fascinated with tasting new tastes. His nose would twitch like a cat’s at the pleasure of it. I bought him a bag of passion fruit at Fauchon and he proceeded to eat them all. Sorbets could never be too tart. Meat must be rare. Wine was red, except for dessert wine. He quickly developed a passion for Chateau d’Yquem.
His dream, he said, clearly serious, was to invent a fruit.
You are reading this on InsatiableCritic because no one was quite as Insatiable as Jamie. My obsession with trying to change his life by helping him get an agent and jobs in straight film so he would come to see me as essential lasted a few years more than might seem sane on my part since he seemed to be falling in love every few weeks. A friend got him a casting agent and Sly Stallone gave him a part in Nighthawks. “I want to do well,” he said, “But I wouldn’t want to be as famous as Paul Newman. I want to be able to wander around the ladies’ lingerie department at Bloomingdale’s without drawing a crowd.”
I rewrote the first 100 pages of our book several times. I wrote it as non-fiction. I tried it as a novel. The Prince of Porn and the Junk Food Queen. No one wanted to buy it. It seemed that no one really liked the two main characters enough, my agent said. My therapist and I worked on that.
When porn production moved to California where it was predominantly shot on video, Jamie relocated in San Francisco. In 1989 he turned director/performer creating a series which initiated the “gonzo” style of porn videos, an early example of reality TV. He would hire a woman, a camera and a car to cruise the streets of San Francisco looking for a man who would agree to have sex with the woman on tape. It was called “On the Prowl.”
He met Zarela Martinez, the restaurateur, at my birthday party seven years ago. She took him home and he never left. He continued to work in adult films into the early 2000s, mostly in non-sexual roles, but announced his retirement at the end of 2007 as a Christmas gift for Zarela. He played poker for pocket money.
I remember all those years ago when he thought he would make a career breakthrough and get rich, Jamie had said he planned to buy the house he was born in on 105th Street and invite everyone he had loved to live there. That is exactly what Zarela gave him. And more. Celebrated for her wide circle of friends and admirers from all the arts and for garden parties and open houses with a buffet of marvelous Mexican food, she opened her landmark house to all his friends, to his family, to the women he had loved over the years, their husbands and mates. Her close friends discovered Jamie’s intelligence and sensitivity and playfulness and became his friend too.
In December I got an email from Jamie with the subject line: “cancer, schmancer.”
“Hey Dancing Queen,” it began, “I’ve only recently begun to tell friends and family, but you may have already heard that the Black Swan is expected to be sinking in the near future from a nasty, rare cancer…I am emotionally in a very good place (at least so far) and would feel myself ridiculously ungrateful for the great life I have had if I began to complain now. Thanks for all the hee hees.