After ‘Deep Throat,’ G-rated life

A new film highlights Harry Reems’ porn fame, but now he’s a born-again Christian who sells real estate.

PARK CITY, Utah — Let Harry Reems count his blessings. It is not a small list.

“I’ve been clean and sober for 15 1/2 years. I’m happily and faithfully married and I love my wife dearly. I’ve been blessed with a tremendous amount of success selling real estate. God is shining his light on me now; I don’t think he did for a number of years.”

Which is putting it mildly.

For when Harry Reems takes a poetic moment and says “What a ride this thing called life is,” he is not being hyperbolic. As Linda Lovelace’s costar in “Deep Throat,” the most successful pornographic film ever made, he has gone from obscurity to celebrity to criminal notoriety to gutter-dwelling debauchery to born-again sobriety and success in one hectic lifetime.

“I’ve been through things most people never experience even vicariously, let alone for real,” he says. “I’m truly proud of myself; I’ve overcome some major problems. I really believe God is at work in my life.”

A resident of Park City for nearly 20 years with a house next door to the legendary Stein Eriksen, Reems and his wife, Jeannie, usually leave town when the frantic Sundance Film Festival takes over.

And though he has reached the point at which he has no regrets about it, Reems usually does not talk publicly about his past, “the life that nearly killed me,” outside of church groups and 12-step programs. He’s doing it now because of Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s comprehensive new documentary, “Inside Deep Throat,” produced by Brian Grazer for Universal and HBO, which was scheduled to have its world premiere Friday night. He’s doing it because he got paid “a nice chunk of money,” because he wants his story to help people, and because of the opportunities it might open up for his first love, acting.

For before he was an adult film star, Reems was Herb Streicher, a young New York actor who took his craft very seriously in the late 1960s. But his salary was no match for his commitment, so when a fellow actor told him “I know where you can pick up $100 for an hour’s work,” he went for it. “I took two different subways, I thought I was being followed, I was very, very nervous,” Reems remembers.

Those 10-minute loops or stag films, “epics that premiered at Kiwanis Clubs,” were succeeded by features known as “white coaters” because doctors on screen provided socially redeeming value. “Someone would stand in front of a blackboard in a white coat saying, ‘If you’re having difficulty with oral sex, here’s how to do it,’ and then they’d cut to a 30-minute sex scene.”

Reems was not even supposed to be in “Deep Throat.” He had been paid $250 by director Gerard Damiano to be the lighting director. But when the man hired for the part never showed, “Gerry said to me, ‘Put on this coat; you’re acting.’ “

Then as now a gregarious man with a sense of humor, Reems initially enjoyed the celebrity “Deep Throat’s” astonishing popularity brought him. (“Inside” estimates the porn film earned $600 million, so much that the Mafioso who backed it weighed the money rather than counted it). “You could call me the Shirley Temple” of adult films, he told an interviewer then. “Take an X film and make it an R because I have a PG body.” That all changed on a hot July night in 1974.

“It was 3 or 4 in the morning, I was in bed with the girl I was going out with then, and I heard this crazy bang, bang, bang at my door,” Reems remembers. “I looked through the peephole and saw this badge with two guys behind it with guns drawn. When I opened the door, they pushed it so hard they nearly took my nose off.”

Reems was arrested as part of an aggressive strategy developed by a virulently anti-pornography Memphis federal prosecutor named Larry Parrish, who told juries he’d “rather see dope on the streets than these movies.” Though only an actor, Reems was named as a co-conspirator in a national conspiracy to distribute “Deep Throat.”

This was the first time the federal government had tried to charge an actor for the results of a film’s distribution, and it raised issues so serious for the creative community that Alan Dershowitz joined his defense team, and everyone from Jack Nicholson to Gregory Peck contributed to fundraisers.

The trial in Memphis, held in the same courtroom as the Scopes trial, lasted nine weeks, and though Reems was found guilty, the charges were eventually dropped. Still, the experience of the trial, of being lumped together with the brutal men who controlled the film, of people “screaming, spitting, throwing eggs at me” outside the courthouse, had lasting effects.

“The heavy drinking,” he says, “began in Memphis.”

Reems’ stories of being what he calls “a very, very low bottom drunk” in and out of hospitals and jails, of at one time living “in the back of an Albertson’s dumpster in Malibu,” are no less compelling for having been told before in churches and meetings. “I was so dismally depressed I became a 2-quart-a-day vodka drinker. I’d buy half-gallons by the case,” he says. “My mother died while I was in jail. It’s by the grace of God that I’m alive today, and that’s a fact.”

Reems says he was “a blackout drinker. I’d start drinking in New York and wake up in jail in Los Angeles in my own vomit and puke and not know how I got there.” After one of these episodes in 1986, Hugh Hefner bailed him out of jail and a friend sent him a ticket to Park City. He continued drinking there, but in 1989 he decided to go to a 12-step meeting in the local police station. He almost didn’t make it.

“As soon as I walked into the building they slapped the cuffs on me for not answering a warrant,” he remembers. “I pleaded with them to let me go to the meeting, it was my first day sober.” The meetings took, and the program’s emphasis on a higher power led Reems, born Jewish but never religious, to a charismatic Methodist minister and a decision to convert and be baptized.

Today, though he shaved his trademark mustache at his wife’s request, Reems has embraced all of his chaotic past. “I’m proud of what I’ve done. I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I had not gone through all that.” A similar feeling led him to keep his adult film stage name when he started Reems Real Estate. “I didn’t want anyone coming up to me and saying, ‘I know who you really are.’ I’ve been really forthright about what I’ve been through. And nobody likes the name Herbert anyhow.”

Though Reems allows he’d “probably test the waters” if any acting opportunities came to him as a result of this new wave of publicity, being a public figure is not really what he’s after. “I’ve had my 15 minutes of fame,” he says with his familiar grin. “What I want now is my 15 minutes of retirement.”

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Los Angeles Times, Calendar Live, USA
Jan. 22, 2005
Kenneth Turan, Times Staff Writer
www.calendarlive.com

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