My drama teacher, the porn star

The director of my grade school plays worked with the likes of John Holmes. We reunite to talk about his new memoir

Topics: Pornography, Sex, Love and Sex, Editor's Picks,

My drama teacher, the porn starPorn legend John Holmes with Howie Gordon (Credit: Howie Gordon)

Howie Gordon directed my grade school plays. As a third grader, I vaguely understood that he was qualified for this gig because he had acting experience. I had no idea that much of it was in pornography.

It was only a year ago that I figured it out. I was watching “After Porn Ends,” a documentary about what happens when adult performers return to “civilian” life, when I recognized Howie, the father of my classmate, the guy who enthusiastically taught us how to perform on stage and edited videos of our adolescent attempts at acting. It turned out Howie had an X-rated alter ego in the ’70s and ’80s: Richard Pacheco. My drama teacher, the porn star. Not only that but he’s a prolific, award-winning performer and Playgirl Man of the Year who worked with legends like John Holmes and Marilyn Chambers. He was even inducted into the Adult Video News Hall of Fame.

As of very recently, he’s also the author of a memoir about his days in porn, “Hindsight: True Love & Mischief in the Golden Age of Porn.” It’s a tale of an overweight boy from Pittsburgh who sheds 50 pounds, starts lifting weights and finds himself doing adult movies. Before long, he’s posing for Playgirl and performing with porn’s greats. The book is appropriately filled with salacious details about his flings, on-screen and off, but it’s also a thoughtful and philosophical read. For him, doing porn was political: “I foolishly expected the heirs to the Sixties sexual revolution to be there en masse,” he writes. “They weren’t. And it remained sadly unconscionable that the sexual media for the entire culture of that time was largely relegated to an underclass of amateurs and criminals who mostly created a pornographic world of sexual looting and moral midgetry.”

He expected more of the medium. It’s no surprise then that he is both a defender of the industry and a critic. “Sometimes the domination of male rage in the industry just gets to me,” he writes. “It comes off as so nasty and mean-spirited that it’s like sex without humanity.” He goes on to explain, “There is more to sex than conquest and vengeance. I want to see that portrayed, too.” Still, he loved his work and stayed in the industry, all the while battling over the idea of monogamy with his none-too-thrilled wife, until the threat of AIDS drove him out of the business.



I spoke to him by phone about the difficulty of getting erections on-demand, what he thinks of porn today and how he told his kids about his past.

Let’s start with how you got into porn.

I was a senior in college and I had a girlfriend who was quite a stunner and one of the freshmen there wanted to make a sex film and invited the two of us to be the stars. I had grown up as the fat kid in life. I was relatively obese from the age of 7 to 17. I had the largest breasts in the seventh grade. I lost 50 pounds in the spring junior year of high school. I went from Quasimodo to Robert Redford and women who had never looked at me were now looking at me. When I was invited to be in a movie because of my looks, well, that was like winning the World Series and taking the ticker tape parade down Broadway. The fact that it was sex was just a bonus.

I never dreamed it would become a professional career. Cut to five years later, we get a phone call. My wife Carly and I were on casting lists from some acting classes we had taken and they were looking for some women and they asked for her. They said it was a “romp through a hospital” and she asked quite directly, “Is that a porn film?” And normally they didn’t tell you over the phone because they had much more success getting people to be in the movies if they came down for an audition. The guy said, “Yes, it is.” And she said, “Well, I’m not interested, but maybe my husband will be” and handed me the phone.

was interested — from a personal sense, my fantasy was to meet an X-rated woman. I thought such a person existed. I wanted a “fuck me, fuck me” woman; I’d never been with a prostitute, I’d never been with a bad girl. All my relationships with sex had been about love. I wanted lust and I hadn’t ever been able to make the object of my love the object of my lust. Those were the kind of women I wanted to meet and I thought I’d meet them in the X-rated movies and then come home wiser to my wife. In those days we had a relationship we used to call “yours, mine and ours.” We had free love. We were trying to do Romeo and Juliet and free love at the same time. As I said in the book, we beat that horse for 30 years until it died.

You talk very candidly about performance issues on-set — this was before Viagra. What was it like having to rely for work on a body part that is, as a general rule, bad at performing under pressure?

It was extraordinarily humiliating. You didn’t find guys like me in porn generally — and every actor is gonna say that because that’s the first thing that all of us say when we’re fighting the monster of sexual guilt when dealing with the mainstream — but how I was different was, well, for one, I had an average-size penis, or slightly below average I’d even say. Most of the guys in that business are hung like horses. So it was humiliating even to get naked in that crowd. What I brought to the table beyond the size of my erection was two things. One, my body was superb. I was living in the gym at that time. I weighed 143-and-a-half pounds. I had the body fat of a red ant. I had abs like a Greek god. So I was good to look at, and my penis was in proportion to my body. Beyond that, I could act. I just happened to come along at a time when they were trying to improve the quality of the acting. There was the notion that we could develop a market to trump Hollywood by making real movies that had real sex in them, as opposed to sex movies.

So what happened on that first shoot?

You can do the push-ups, you can do the sit-ups, you can make your body gorgeous, but you can’t promise that at 10 o’clock on Thursday morning you’re gonna get a hard-on. I get to the set and they’d scheduled a half day. All they gotta do is one scene: me getting a blow job in a closet. Foreplay consists of the director saying to the girl, “You get on your knees” and to me, “You pull down your pants, let’s go.” I’m hard, it feels good. They run out of film, she stops sucking me, and I lose the erection. It’s time to start again, it’s back to step one, and everything works again. To make a long story short, this happens maybe six, seven, eight times. Finally my penis said to me, “Hey, what’s going on here? Are we doing this or are we not doing this?” Then the director says to me, “OK, we have all the footage we need of the blow job. Now come.” At that point the woman starts sucking me like she’s trying to make me come and I don’t know how to slow her down because she just wants to get home.

She’s sucking, nothing is happening. It’s 1:30. It’s 2 o’clock. They’re waiting me out. It’s 3 o’clock. The girl has her head on my thigh and she’s asleep. I’m so far beyond any humiliation I’ve ever felt. And all of a sudden I start thinking about the first girl I ever made out with. It’s the eighth grade, summer. I start to get aroused. The director sees it and he starts waking everybody up. She reached over and touched me and as soon as she touched me it went away. Her touch scared me at this point. The director said, “Don’t touch him. You masturbate till you come. And when that first squirt comes out, grab it like you did it.” And lo and behold that came to pass.

What’s the worst porn line that you ever delivered?

[Takes on exaggerated hillbilly accent] It’s from a movie called “Pizza Girls,” and some pretty girl would come over on roller skates with your pizza and then she’d come in your house and you’d have a sexual act together. When she knocked at the door, I had to say this line: “I’ve got a stove pipe in my pants just a’ waitin’ for you.”

Let’s pivot to John Holmes. You say at one point in the book, “I would suspect that in reality his great cock was at once a gift and a nightmare for the man who had to live with it.” Why a nightmare?

Well, because there were women who he tried to enter who no doubt just couldn’t handle it. Some women would see that cock and swoon in religious ecstasy. On the other side, there were women who would just start screaming. On the set, either reaction would be whatever it was, to be used in the context of the movie, but in your private life, what if the woman screaming is the woman you love?

The electricity of seeing him in action was because we all lived with the superstition, the folk wisdom, that bigger was better. This is the moment that she found out. There would be no more mystery because it wasn’t going to get any bigger. His was like 14 fucking inches. I saw that thing in action and it was real, it’s not fake. It was like a donkey’s. It never really got hard like an average dick got hard, it got hardish, because if all the blood would go to his dick he’d pass out. There’s not enough blood in your body to run that thing. But it was quite something to watch.

You write about the suicide of Shauna Grant, real name Colleen Marie Applegate, that it was “not the first suicide in the porn community,” that there was “almost one a year.” Why was that, do you think?

Well, these are misleading conversations if you only focus on that and talk about that without context. The occupation with the highest suicide rate in the U.S. is dentistry. [Ed. note: It might actually be physicians.] But it’s a lot less scandalous when a dentist kills himself than someone in the porn world.

That having been said, pornography as it was constituted then and as it exists now attracts the desperate, who need to opt out for their own personal reasons. You have a lot of desperate people in porn and where desperate people exist, suicide exists. A lot of people [in the industry] say, “I want to be a movie star. I’m going to have pretty clothes, people are going to worship me.” Instead people look at you with contempt, like you’re scum.

You said of porn, “It was the rage that used to get to me, the meanness and the rage.” What do you think about porn these days?

I’m less informed. Mostly what I see are the commentaries about it more than I watch it. I’ll watch the old stuff to death. I’m told that our era is referred to as the “golden age of porn.” Today’s stuff is cheaper, it’s down and dirty and there’s no attempt at the story aspect. It’s just wall-to-wall sex. Most of it, again, is catered to an audience of men and it’s men with unlimited dreams of power who get to use women as toys. One of the benevolent aspects of sex [films] today is that because the means of production have gotten cheaper many more people can make their own and garner access to a market. They can find their market whether that’s lesbian porn, SM porn, shoe fetish porn. Whatever your craziness is, you can find someone making movies about it. In my day, you couldn’t necessarily, there were maybe 30 to 40 movies made a year. Now there’s 12,000 to 15,000 a year.

What do you think about the current debate over condoms in porn?

I applaud people who are trying to save their lives. I think it’s ridiculous to risk your life for a buck. The people who are making the money out of this aren’t risking their lives, it’s the actors who are put at risk. I’m a big fan of choice. I think the performer should have a choice. The sad truth of the economics of it is that people who are making sex scenes with condoms are making less money than people who are making sex scenes without them. We’re talking about a business here, we’re not talking about a social movement or a religion. It’s a dollar-driven industry. Once the businessmen see that condom sex isn’t making the same amount of money, fuck condom sex. And that’s why I’m not in the business. That’s the initial reason I got out. People would say, “No condoms” and “Forget about AIDS.” I was resented for even talking about it on sets I was on. The first headline of the heterosexual transmission of AIDS in San Francisco was November 10th, 1984. I was newly married with babies; it was not a time to play russian roulette with my dick.

Would you say AIDS is why you retired, then?

Yeah. There was pressure coming from my wife to get out as well, but that was a conventional kind of pressure that dealt with the fact that we had children and her ability to be gracious about me having other lovers was disappearing. She had stopped doing that stuff in her life.

This is admittedly a tired question for porn performers, but: How did you tell your kids?

There was a very famous sex therapist named Mary Calderone, who argued initially that sex education doesn’t mean teaching 10-year-olds the positions of the “Kama Sutra.” She argued that you need to be age-appropriate with what you’re teaching. So, it first came up with the phone, because the phone would ring for Richard Pacheco and I had to teach Juliana, and then Polly, and later Bobby, “When the phone rings for Richard Pacheco, don’t hang up. That’s a name that Daddy uses when he’s making movies.”  They would ask, “Daddy makes movies? Can we see ‘em, can we see ‘em?” “No, they’re grown-up movies.”

Round two was one day, Polly was 10 and just out of nowhere turns to me and says, “What makes them grown-up movies? Do you mean like ‘Silence of the Lambs’?” And I said, “No, no, no, not like that.” And she said, “Well, what makes them grown-up? Sex?” It was just so perfectly right on that there was nothing to say but, “Yeah.” So Polly starts jumping up and down: “Daddy makes sexy movies, Daddy makes sexy movies!”

I have to ask: When directing our school plays, did you ever worry that you would be outed as a porn star? That the other parents would try to burn you at the stake?

If it had come I’d have dealt with it. It happened in Little League. When Bobby was 11, I walked onto the field one day and the coach called me over and said, “There’s gonna be trouble today. One of the mothers on the other team knows who you are.” He said, “I of course knew who you were the second you came on the field, and I want to tell you personally that anybody that’s been inside Nina Hartley’s booty is okay with me.” And nothing further came of it.

Tracy Clark-Flory

Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon. Follow @tracyclarkflory on Twitter and Facebook.

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