Joe Tiffenbach: The Early Years

posted by Madame Bubby

By the 1970s, the golden age of gay porn in the heady days in the aftermath of Stonewall, already Joe Tiffenbach was achieving a type of iconic status as “grandaddy of gay porn.” Who was this person who encompassed in his life many different roles in the LGBTQ community? In many ways, his life and work is a microcosm of the lives of many gay men since WWII.

Joe's varied career warrants an IMDb entry, and what it says is quite telling if one applies a historical and social context. Joe Tiffenbach, Jr. was born on December 23, 1923, the son of Joseph and Mary Tiffenbach, somewhere in Los Angeles County, California. He was to remain in California for the rest of his life.
 

Joe Tiffenbach's grave
Source: findagrave.com

Joe enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1943; I don't know if he ever saw combat, but one could perhaps surmise his experience in the army, like that of many gay men during this period, may have exposed him more fully to other gay men. California at that time was to some degree a mecca for gay men, because many could obtain employment at different levels in the movie industry. The closet door was closed, but in that closet many gay men were able to thrive in the creative fields while participating in the sexual underground.

After leaving the service in 1946, Joe went to college (probably on the G.I. Bill, which opened up many opportunities for persons of all social classes during that period). While in college, a friend introduced him at a party to an important figure in LGBTQ history and Old Hollywood history, William “Billy” Haines. William was a star at MGM during the silent era of the 1920s. He became a lifelong friend of Joan Crawford, with whom he starred in some movies. He ended up leaving the industry in the early 1930s because he dared to defy the all-powerful Louis B. Mayer by refusing to hide his homosexuality and living openly with his life-partner, Jimmy Shields.

Subsequently, William became a famous interior designer (he designed the interior of Joan's home in Brentwood, the location of the “Mommie Dearest” incidents). His wealth and social status enabled him to make his home a center of LGBTQ culture during that period. In other words, Joe entered the realm of that era's A-list gays!
 

Joe Tiffenbach's grave
Joan Crawford, Billy Haines, Jimmy Shields, and Al Steele
Source: https://garbolaughs.wordpress.com/2011/06/23/william-haines/

At Billy's home that evening, Joe also met John Darrow, a former actor turned Hollywood agent, and John's lover Chuck Walters, a director and choreographer of many famous movies with stellar casts, including The Unsinkable Molly Brown with Doris Day and High Society with Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Grace Kelly.

What happened next sounds like the beginning of a stereotypical rags to riches movie plot. John and Chuck got Joe a job in the 20th Century Fox mail room after he finished college. He didn't exactly obtain the riches, but he ended up beginning a career in the mainstream film industry, producing travel films and obtaining various production jobs on studio shoots for major films. If he didn't enter the upper echelons of Old Hollywood, he was certainly “in the know,” and definitely had made connections with some of its more openly gay figures.

While Joe was working in the Hollywood studios, he was also participating in California's gay sexual underground. Beginning in 1950, he began posing for Bob Mizer's Athletic Model Guild publication, Physique Pictorial. Ostensibly a bodybuilding/beefcake magazine, Mizer was really producing homoerotic material. The muscle beach movement that burgeoned in California (that produced such sword and sandal/muscle icons as Steve Reeves and Dick DuBois) during that period served as a kind of “coded cover” for his images of semi-nude men, often photographed nude with the posing straps painted on before publication. (Not all Mizer's models were gay, but gay for pay was of course not a novelty in this subculture where, according to uber-hustler/pimp Scotty Bowers, Old Hollywood stars, living in the closet of fame and fortune, were able to pay for gay sex.)
 

Physique Pictorial, August 1952 cover
Physique Pictorial, v.2 n.3, August 1952
Source: https://bijouworld.com/Vintage-Physique/Physique-Pictorial-v.2-n.3-August-1952.html

Joe posed for the magazine for some time, as well as for other “physique photography” studios such Bruce of L.A. Then, in what seems to be a pragmatic move, in the 1960s he began taking his own physique photos. And in the more sexually liberated climate of the 1960s and after the famous MANual Enterprises, Inc. vs. O'Day case which established that such photos were not obscene, he began photographing and filming gay erotica.

In 1969 Stonewall occurred on the other side of America, and also that year, Richard Amory produced a groundbreaking soft-core gay erotic film called Song of the Loon (available from Bjiou Video). Joe, though uncredited, was one of the cinematographers. Joe would enter this era of gay liberation as a pioneering participant in gay erotic filmmaking, utilizing his extensive Old Hollywood background in photography and cinematography.
 

Images from Song of the Loon
Song of the Loon (1969)

Part two to follow next week, detailing Joe's involvement in other gay porn films and also his contributions to a couple of famous gay porn magazines.

Find two 1971 Jaguar classics directed by Tiffenbach, The Baredevils and Sudden Rawhide, through Bijou Video, as well as one of his much later directorial efforts, our newest release, Tall Tales (1986), starring Morgan Hunter, Cory Monroe, Gino DelMar, Dane Ford, Matt Forrest, and Chaz Holderman.

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Christopher
I hope you are well! I just found this blog, and I am really loving the posts. Joe Tiffenbach is certainly an interesting subject,... Read More
Sunday, 26 April 2020 14:57
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Interview with Director Tom DeSimone: Part 1 - The Early Years & Porn Filmmaking

posted by guest blogger Miriam Webster


Tom DeSimone behind a camera
Image Credit: Tom DeSimone

Mainstream film/television and porn director Tom DeSimone (also credited as Lancer Brooks) was one of the major figures who helped to form the adult industry in the 1970s, during the birth of hardcore pornography as a film genre. Initially shooting films for Shan Sayles of the Park Theatre in the L.A. area, DeSimone made some of the earliest gay porn films within the burgeoning industry, including the very first plotted, feature-length gay porn film, The Collection (1969). DeSimone's porn films typically centered around stories and he made technically high-quality productions - well-made narrative movies with developed characters and performers cast to suit their roles - that showed care for the craft.

Over the span of his porn filmmaking career, which also included sexploitation and bisexual films, DeSimone worked with many important contributors to the industry, including performers Gordon Grant, Al Parker, Jack Wrangler, Roger, Michael Christopher, David Ashfield, J.W King, and Fred Halsted, and filmmakers Nick Elliot, Jason Sato, William Higgins, and Jack Deveau. Deveau's New York-based studio, Hand in Hand Films, distributed several of DeSimone's films (Catching Up [1975], The Idol [1979], and others) and DeSimone also worked behind the scenes with Hand in Hand as the cameraman for three of their releases directed by Deveau (Ballet Down the Highway, Wanted: Billy the Kid, and Good Hot Stuff, all from 1975). (DeSimone extensively discusses his career in the newly released book, Good Hot Stuff, about Hand in Hand and Deveau.) DeSimone also made the historically notable film, Erotikus: History of the Gay Movie (1974), which is part documentary and part porn and which was released as a porn film and played in porn theaters.

DeSimone was one of a small number of individuals from the porn industry who successfully moved into working in mainstream film and television. (See the correction in our previous Casey Donovan blog, which left out mentions of those who did cross over into mainstream work.) This included Hell Night (1981) starring Linda Blair, Reform School Girls (1986) starring punk musician Wendy O. Williams, and extensive television work. (See the bottom of this blog for Tom DeSimone's filmography and links to his movies.)

DeSimone recently answered some questions about his career, which we are excited to share in this week's blog, the first of two installments, this one focusing on his introduction to filmmaking and directing porn films.

Bijou: What are some of your favorite films?

DeSimone: I can't really pick one favorite film out of the thousands I've seen and hundreds I love. On the list are Duel in the Sun, The Letter, 8 ½, The Little Foxes, The Rose Tattoo, Atonement, Pennies from Heaven, Incochine... so you see, I have a lot of favorites. A “favorite” is any film I can watch over and over and never tire of and also one in which I continue to find more and more elements of pleasure each time I view it. Among this list, The Letter is probably my most watched film and it never gets boring and I never cease to discover something new each time.

Bijou: Did you make short films while in school for film? What were those like?

DeSimone: At UCLA, where I got my master's degree, I made three short films. One of them, Wooden Lullaby, won best director at the Cine Film Festival in Washington D.C. Another, The Game, won me a scholarship to complete my studies in graduate school. Both films were screened for the public in the Annual Student Film Programs at UCLA. My film, The Game, got me an interview with Columbia Pictures at the time... but nothing came of that beyond the meeting.

Bijou: What were your goals and philosophy towards making your porn films (especially as one of the people who helped to form hardcore as a genre)? Did those persist or did they change over time as you continued to work in film?

DeSimone: Going into it, I didn't really have a philosophy. That came later. I got started because after film school there just wasn't an easy way to break into the Hollywood firmament. Film students back then weren't being sought after as they are now. I was tired of waiting tables and taking actors' portraits for their resumes.

At that time, adult film theaters were just starting to come out in the open. But they were all straight porn. No one was openly screening gay stuff. Then came the Park Theater near downtown L.A. They were showing “gay loops.” A loop, in the business then, was a short film, no plot or acting but just quickies featuring nudity and not much else... there was NO sexual activity, just implied, like holding hands, walking on the beach, or hugging at sunset... or looking longingly into each other's eyes while reclining – all sorts of innocent attempts to convey gay relationships or gay attraction. And NEVER erect!

Someone suggested to me that I might make a few bucks if I tried something. I contacted the Park Theater, got the name of the owner, and got myself an interview. Long story short, he told me to go shoot something and come back and see him and he'd decide if he was interested in me as a filmmaker. I did a short “loop” and loaded it with sexual activity... nothing hard core but definitely sexual love making... all shot discreetly, of course. I screened it for him and he hired me on the spot, built me a studio with cutting rooms, a sound stage, and anything I needed to turn out features for his theaters. That was the start of feature films for the gay market. That film was The Collection... followed by many more small, insignificant ones to fill the screen across the country at his theaters.

It wasn't until I started out on my own that I started to think about what I wanted to say or do with my films since, by now, I had created a career out of it all and was becoming known. (Or, at least, Lancer Brooks was.)

I soon discovered that films about “relationships” were most successful. So The Idol, Skin Deep, Catching Up, and also The Harder They Fall were huge successes. (The Harder They Fall was also released under a different title, The Frenchman and the Lovers.) I was interested in exploring gays in love or at least relationships. My stories pretty much gravitated to those situations. I was tired of all the films that started with the pizza boy delivering and ending up on the couch. That's not to say I didn't make a few of those, too. But when I really wanted to do something creative and when I got juiced up to do something, it always seemed to go to the relationship stories.

The Idol poster
Catching Up poster

Bob Blount and Eric Clement in The Harder They Fall aka The Frenchman and the Lovers
Bob Blount & Eric Clement in The Frenchman and the Lovers

Bijou: Who was your producer (also credited as a performer in The Collection), Max Blue, from early in your career?

DeSimone: Max Blue was a pseudonym for my partner at the time, Nick Grippo. We often just used silly names on our films because in those days no one was using their real names for legal protection since it was still against the law to make these films. We were always hiding underground. He just pulled that one out of the air since there was a popular film playing then called The Blue Max and he liked it. I chose an even sillier name, Lancer Brooks (just totally made up), but fate took over. When we were meeting with the distributor who peddled our films to theaters, he said to be sure to use the same names we did on our previous one, because they liked our work and he could barter for more money if he told them it was from the same team... so we checked what we had used on our last feature and it turned out to be those two names.

Bijou: Did you shoot other films of Jack Deveau's besides the grouping from 1975: Ballet Down the Highway, Wanted: Billy the Kid, and Good Hot Stuff? Did you do much other film work in New York around that time or were you mostly working in L.A.?

DeSimone: After I did Erotikus and was shopping for a theater in New York, I met Jack. He was operating the 55th St. Playhouse at the time and was running the very successful Boys in the Sand, so he was looking for something to follow it up since he knew it couldn't run forever and he needed product to keep the theater operating. We met, he looked at the film, and was interested in us working together on several projects. Jack was pretty inexperienced in filmmaking but wanted to get into the production side. He figured I could bring something to Hand in Hand. I spent a summer in New York working with him on several projects, then returned to L.A. and did The Idol for his company to release. We remained very good friends up until he passed way due to cancer. He was a great party guy – loved to party hard and long, into the New York underground scene, a lot of drugs and sex and a terrific guy to know... if you had the stamina!

Bijou: Did you know Penelope Spheeris (director of The Decline of Western Civilization and Wayne's World) around the time of Confessions of a Male Groupie (1971)? A couple who are the focus of two of her early short films (I Don't Know and Hats Off to Hollywood) appear in the party scene in Groupie. I was curious about the community of people who make up the cast of that film – I read somewhere that they were a community or group of friends you were affiliated with.

DeSimone: I met Penelope only once at a film festival in L.A. We spoke briefly about the emergence of underground films but we never were involved beyond that meeting. The two people you mention just happened to be in the party. I didn't know them personally.

That big party scene was the reason I made that film. I ran with a pretty eclectic crowd back then and many of the actors who appeared in my films were drawn from that crowd. Many others, who didn't really want to appear having sex in a movie, also wanted to be “in one of my films,” so I decided to make a film featuring all of the crazies I knew and loved. So The Groupie came about – and when I announced I wanted them to all appear in that scene, all hell broke loose and you can see in the film what we were all about. I should mention that, unfortunately - or not, I was on acid while we were filming that scene (most of us were), so I didn't cover as much as I wanted, but what I got was enough to throw together what's up on the screen.
 

Confessions of a Male Groupie party scene
Party scene from Confessions of a Male Groupie

Bijou: It's interesting to learn how many friends you worked with in your movies.

DeSimone: I rarely socialized with the models in my films if they weren't already part of my group. For a number of reasons I preferred not to get too involved in their lives and vice versa. If I used friends, they were already friends and in my social group. In Hot Truckin', the redheaded boy at the end – the one in the threeway – was my partner at the time. He was SO hot for Gordon [Grant], I agreed to let him be the trick they lured into the truck. Everyone was happy, particularly my friend, Bob.

My reasons for being separate, if I could, with the models was only because I didn't care to have them know too much about my life or where I lived, etc. I was strictly interested in them as models/actors. For me it was strictly a business situation. Very few outside my inner group even knew what I did or who Lancer Brooks was.
 

Bob Snowdan in Hot Truckin'
Bob Snowdan in Hot Truckin'

Gordon Grant in Hot Truckin'
Gordon Grant in Hot Truckin'

Bijou: I guess Groupie was a rare exception, as your film utilizing members of your friend group, in that case.

DeSimone: Yes, Groupie was an exception... but as I mentioned, I made it specifically to make a film and use many of my friends. Sweet Lady Mary was a dear friend, Elaine. The rock group, The Electric Banana, was another trio of buddies who fantasized about being a rock group, so I made them into one for the film. All the players were close friends who had wanted to be in a picture, so I concocted one so that I could use them. The party scene was the culmination of all the gang we ran with in West Hollywood at that time. Of course, there were several in the party scene who just showed up to be in the film. Sadly, 90% of them are gone now. The plague taking most, unfortunately. We had no idea then that what we were experiencing would have such consequences... who did? The cute redhead, Bob, was also a victim years later.
 

Elaine aka Myona Phetish in Confessions of a Male Groupie
Elaine aka Myona Phetish in Confessions of a Male Groupie

The Electric Banana, fictional rock band in Confessions of a Male Groupie
The Electric Banana, fictional rock band in Confessions of a Male Groupie

Bijou: How did you get such strong performances out of your porn actors who had no acting experiences?

DeSimone: Getting performances was always a challenge. I always blocked out all the action in my films in advance and also broke down the script, scene by scene, even indicating where the dialogue would be in close up, two shots, or masters. That way I could get what I needed to edit the film and the performances in a cohesive work. I knew these guys would never be able to carry an entire scene in a master shot (a mistake many filmmakers made back then). So I would film short sections, working with them on just those few lines at a time, then cover the scene with the other actor or actors in the scene, and it would all play together nicely. If one of them screwed up or was lousy, it was simple to shoot several takes of a close up until it was good, rather than shoot the entire sequence over and over. I was a master at editing and it was fun cutting together a performance from very little. Many times the actors would be amazed (and impressed) when they came to the screening to see the film.
 

Filming The Idol
Filming The Idol
Filming Kevin Redding & Nick Rodgers in The Idol

Bijou: Which is your favorite of your porn films?

DeSimone: I guess I could say Catching Up, Skin Deep, and The Idol. These, to me, have good plots, good acting, and really decent production values for porn.

Read part two of this interview, focusing on on Tom DeSimone's mainstream film/television career!
 

Tom DeSimone
Image Credit: Tom DeSimone

Tom DeSimone's Partial Directorial Filmography:
(From IMDb and Gay Erotic Video Index)
Links to movies available through Bijou Video

The Collection (as Lancer Brooks) – 1969
One - 1970
Dust Unto Dust (as Lancer Brooks) – 1970
Peter the Peeker – 1971
Lust in the Afternoon - 1971
Gay Tarzan – 1971
Confessions of a Male Groupie – 1971
Black and Blue - 1971
The Gypsy's Ball - 1972
Prison Girls – 1972
Chained (as Lancer Brooks) – 1973
Swap Meat (as Lancer Brooks) – 1973
Sons of Satan (as Lancer Brooks) – 1973
Black Heat (as Lancer Brooks) – 1973
Games Without Rules (as L. Brooks) – 1974
Erotikus: A History of the Gay Movie (as L. Brooks) – 1974
Station to Station (as L. Brooks) – 1974
Everything Goes (aka Anything Goes) (as L. Brooks) – 1974
Duffy's Tavern (as Lancer Brooks) – 1974
Blue Movie Auditions (aka How to Make a Homo Movie) - 1974
Assault (as Lancer Brooks) – 1975
Sur - 1975
Good Hot Stuff – 1975
Aphrodisiacs in the Male Animal (1975)
Catching Up – 1975
Chatterbox! - 1977
Hot Truckin' (as Lancer Brooks) – 1978
The Harder They Fall (aka The Frenchman and the Lovers) – 1977
Gettin' Down (as Lancer Brooks) – 1978
The Idol – 1979
Bad, Bad Boys (aka Bad Boys) (as Lancer Brooks) – 1979
Hawaiian Eyes (aka Gay Guide to Hawaii) – 1979
Private Collection – 1980
Heavy Equipment (as Lancer Brooks) – 1980
Wet Shorts – 1980
The Dirty Picture Show (as De Simone) – 1980
Flesh and Fantasy 1 – 1980
Dirty Books - 1981
Hell Night – 1981
The Concrete Jungle – 1982
Skin Deep (as Lancer Brooks) – 1982
Bi-Coastal (as Lancer Brooks) – 1985
Bi-bi Love (as Lancer Brooks) – 11986
Nightcrawler: A Leathersex Fantasy - 1986
Reform School Girls – 1986
Angel III: The Final Chapter – 1988
Freddy's Nightmares (TV Series, 4 episodes) – 1988/1989
Super Force (TV Series, 6 episodes) – 1991/1992
Dark Justice (TV Series, 18 episodes) – 1991 - 1993
Swamp Thing (TV Series, 3 episodes) – 1992/1993
Acapulco Bay (TV series) – 1995
The Big Easy (TV Series, 4 episodes) – 1996/1997
Coming Distractions (as Lancer Brooks) – 1997
Pensacola: Wings of Gold (TV Series, 1 episode) – 1998
She Spies (TV Series, 1 episode) – 2002

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Casey Donovan on Stage: The Theater Career of the First Gay Porn Superstar

posted by guest blogger Miriam Webster


 

Tubstrip poster

 


Casey Donovan, who became a legend after his lead performance in Wakefield Poole's Boys in the Sand, was easily the very first true gay porn star. Released in 1971, the film made its debut in the early days of gay liberation as well as the early days of hardcore (the era of “porno chic”), making a significant impact. It premiered at New York City's 55th Street Playhouse, which typically screened foreign and art house cinema, and was the first gay porn film to achieve crossover success, to garner considerable attention from the press, and to be reviewed by Variety, even making it onto their listing of the top fifty grossing films its opening week. The wild success of Boys rapidly helped to launch Casey, with his charm and glowing good looks, into underground fame and turn him into a gay icon. There was talk, at the time, that Casey might be the adult star who could fully break into mainstream film. Casey had aspirations of realizing this potential, and also of appearing in Broadway productions. He had been, and continued to be, involved in theater all his life, as an actor and as a lover of the medium.

Casey, born John Calvin Culver and typically known (and credited outside of his adult career) as Calvin Culver or Cal Culver, was raised in upstate New York. He did theater throughout high school and college, after being encouraged and mentored by his beloved high school English and drama teacher, Helen Van Fleet. (Roger Edmonson's biography Boy in the Sand: Casey Donovan, All-American Sex Star, source of the majority of this material, says he called her Auntie Mame, writing to her and sending her tickets to his plays throughout his life. “He took her backstage to meet Ingrid Bergman when he was in a play with the legendary actress. He took her to the Tony Awards, arranging for her to sit front and center in the audience.”)

When he eventually relocated to New York City in the late '60s, Cal made sure to attend as many plays as possible, from Broadway to small productions. He briefly moved to New Hampshire to do summer stock and joined the reputable Peterborough Players as an apprentice before returning to NYC, where he was chosen as a replacement for an actor in the off-Broadway play Pins and Needles. The success in 1968 of Mort Crowley's play The Boys in the Band, which directly focused on gay characters, paved the way for gay-themed plays. Cal was hired as an understudy in an early gay-themed play, And Puppy Dog Tails, in 1969. Around this time, Cal says (in a TV interview on Emerald City) that he was broke and searching for jobs in a paper and saw an ad hiring performers for non-hardcore roles in straight sex films. He wound up doing two "very strange little films" called Dr. X and Twin Beds, making $20 a day.

In 1970, he was cast in a raunchy low-budget thriller, Ginger (dubbed “a female James Bond”), with Cal in a role featuring some nudity. The film was critically panned, but Cal's performance received one of the few positive mentions: “Only Calvin Culver as the thrill-seeking jet set blackmailer shows any indication of better things to come.” Following Ginger, he was featured in a short run of the play Brave, following which he met Jerry Douglas. The two would go on to work together numerous times and in several capacities over the years. Douglas was directing a production of Circle in the Water, another gay-themed play, and brought Donovan on board. Douglas was impressed with how professional and charming Cal was, but commented that he was mysterious: “He always vanished promptly after each performance, not to be heard from until his next call.” Cal had a busy social life, was hustling and cruising after hours, and still making time to frequently see plays and operas.

Just before Boys in the Sand, Cal broke into the hardcore porn world at age 28 when he starred in the 1971 film Casey, originally produced by Palm Features, later picked up by Hand in Hand Films, and currently distributed by Bijou Video. This film, though produced before Boys, wasn't substantially screened until after the release and success of Poole's landmark film. A co-star from one of the sex films Cal made in 1969 had a friend (Donald Crane) who was writing and directing a gay hardcore film and was looking to cast the lead. Cal needed cash and they were paying well, so he took the job. Though he described the shooting of Casey as uncomfortable because of its largely straight and tense crew and cast, Cal carries the film, attempting to create eroticism in the (mostly faked) sex scenes, exuding plentiful charm, and expertly delivering the film's clever and incisive dialogue, full of commentary on gay life in the era. Casey was well-reviewed when it did get distribution. Edmonson's biography says, “Aside from Cal's timelessly watchable good looks, there was his performance. It was a tour de force of its type... Cal not only plays the callow hero, but he also plays [in drag] the role of Wanda Uptight, his own fairy godmother... He played the role to the hilt without a trace of embarrassment, making it one of the more memorable star turns in the history of porn films.”
 

Stills from Casey
Images from Casey

Casey is notable not only for being Cal's first hardcore porn – as well as one of the few films to properly make use of Cal's acting chops – but also, significantly, for giving him his pseudonym and alter ego. As he was modeling for a “legitimate agency” at the time and acting, Cal took the name Ken Donovan for his credit in this film, modifying it to Casey Donovan for his later porn appearances.

Because of Casey, Cal received a call from a friend who knew someone - a former dancer, theater director, and choreographer - who was making "some experimental movies" on Fire Island. This was Wakefield Poole. Cal met with him, saw some of what he'd been shooting, and agreed to take part in this beautifully photographed porn film, which was ultimately to become the classic, Boys in the Sand, that would transform Cal/Casey's life. He received glowing reviews of his performance and his image in the film and there was talk all over New York City (and, eventually, across the nation) about him.
 

Boys in the Sand still
Boys in the Sand poster

 

In 1972, Cal was cast in a small part in the George Bernard Shaw play Captain Brassbound's Conversion starring Ingrid Bergman, who described Cal as “having the same kind and as much charisma as Robert Redford.” A photograph of them together during this production became one of Cal's prized possessions and he said he learned a great deal from getting to watch Bergman act.
 

Cal with Ingrid Bergman

 

Cal with Ingrid Bergman

Jerry Douglas, his Circle in the Water stage director, contacted Cal about appearing in his porn directorial effort The Back Row (1972) co-starring George Payne. In Douglas' Manshots article “The Legend of Casey Donovan” in April of 1992, Douglas, who worked with Cal multiple times in both theater and porn productions, describes how Cal “approached stage and film work in much the same way. He began by creating the character... and by studying the script, even on porn films. Rehearsals and shoots were always filled with his laughter, easy and laid back, even in the middle of an intense sex scene. But performing or filming was always a job to him, and a job he took very seriously.”

Shortly thereafter, Douglas was adapting his swinger play, Score, for the screen and Cal was cast. The film – a talky and very entertaining, nearly-hardcore softcore bisexual film – was made by notable director Radley Metzger. Metzger had come from straight and lesbian softcore films and was soon to move into glossy straight hardcore films (including one of his more well-known works, 1976's The Opening of Misty Beethoven, which would feature Cal in a small role). The sex scenes between Cal and co-star Gerald Grant are the most explicit and erotic in the film, the chemistry and tension between the two palpable, and Cal – here, as in Casey – deftly handles a significant amount of dialogue and delivers a compelling, nuanced performance.
 

Cal Gerald Grant in Score
Cal Gerald Grant in Score
Cal with Gerald Grant in Score

In the following few years, Cal appeared in a handful of small non-porn film parts and met with a number of producers in mainstream film about potential large-scale projects. Stage and screen co-star Michale Kearns said, “He was really, seriously talked about as potentially crossing that invisible line into the mainstream world of Hollywood films. His acting was immaterial. He was a star. He had that ineffable quality...” A Variety article said Cal could be “the bridge from hardcore to legitimate features” and Cal believed he could make that transition. His friend and then-roommate, Jake Getty, says, “He really didn't see – and I honor him for it – the difference between the two mediums. To him it was all an expression of theater... There was a great deal of legitimate theater with nudity and sex, implied sex in any case. Cal felt that there was no difference, that it was just a matter of how you perceived it. For him it was all a matter of the expression of emotion. He saw no difference between the nudity in Hair and the nudity and sex in Boys in the Sand.” But Cal's Hollywood roles never quite manifested.

In 1973, Cal played a series of small parts in a Lincoln Center production of The Merchant of Venice starring Rosemary Harris and Christopher Walken. One of his roles was as Jesus Christ, wearing only a crown of thorns and a g-string and carrying an 8-foot cross. This production featured, also in small parts, Robert Tourneaux of the theater and film versions of Boys in the Band. Tourneaux was in a similar predicament to Cal, even without a porn career – his notoriety as a gay actor and from a well-known gay role was putting a stop to his film career.

As Cal was beginning to realize, the dual stigmas against porn and out gay actors were preventing his Hollywood aspirations from manifesting. Wakefield Poole said he also experienced this inability to move into mainstream film directing because of his porn work: “The legit film line couldn't be crossed. They would exploit you, but they didn't dare let you do a legitimate movie. The ugly truth was that there was no crossing over. None at all.” (Correction: There were some exceptions; gay porn director Tom DeSimone successfully crossed over into mainstream film/television directing. See our recent interviews with him about his career.)

Cal, in a 1983 Men in Film interview, said “Perhaps I was naive but it was a rude awakening for me to find out that Hollywood is one of the most closeted and hypocritical cultural centers in the world. I learned that an openly gay actor like myself was not welcome to gay directors and producers who believe it is essential to keep their sexuality a secret. Once an actor has made a porn movie, it is very difficult to 'cross over'. And it all has nothing to do with how much talent one has. It is all about how an actor is perceived and prejudged. In a limited sphere, my films made me famous, but in another sense, they were a handicap. I tried to maintain separate names and identities at first... It got increasingly confusing... Besides, the secret could not be perpetuated endlessly.”

Cal gave up his Hollywood hopes eventually, but continued to perform in porn and in theater. He was dropped from a production of Frederick Combs' play The Children's Mass, in which he was to co-star with Sal Mineo (also a friend of Hand in Hand Films heads Jack Deveau and Robert Alvarez), but he worked with Jerry Douglas once more in 1974 in his bathhouse play Tubstrip, also starring Score's Gerald Grant and a fellow early porn star, Jim Cassidy.
 

Tubstrip playbill

Cal was the biggest attraction and the play had a long run in New York, then runs in L.A. and San Francisco, and Cal performed in it to the end. Fans were excited to see Casey Donovan live and Cal “made time to meet with fans who gathered at the stage door every night after the performance.” During this era, he would reportedly screen his porn films for his theater cast-mates at after parties (Boys in the Sand for the Merchant of Venice cast and Poole's 1974 film Moving, co-starring Val Martin, for the Tubstrip cast). Michael Kearns commented on one of these viewings: “He acted like it was Gone with the Wind. He really behaved like a star – not temperamental but like a real star. He didn't feel a bit of shame about what he did on the screen. Even when he was getting fisted, there was a certain elegance about him. He had incredible aplomb.”

Between porn and theater gigs, Cal continued to work as an escort, periodically served as a gay celebrity tour guide on international trips (including to Italy, Egypt, China, and Peru), and did a stint running a bed and breakfast (“Casa Donovan”) in Key West. In his porn career, he worked with with major directors, stars, and studios, including Falcon (The Other Side of Aspen, 1978, co-starring Al Parker and Dick Fisk), the Gage brothers (L.A. Tool & Die, 1979, and Heatstroke, 1982), Christopher Rage (Sleaze, 1982), Poole again (Hot Shots aka Always Ready, 1982, and Split Image, 1984) and Steve Scott (Non-Stop, 1984), and he performed in the 1985 safe sex films Inevitable Love (with Jon King) and Chance of a Lifetime.

After a break from the stage and from New York City, Cal planned a return with a 1983 off-Broadway revival of the Terrence McNally play The Ritz. The play, which originally ran on Broadway in 1975 starring Rita Moreno, Jerry Stiller, Jack Weston, Kaye Ballard, and F. Murray Abraham, was based on Bette Midler's rise to fame at The Continental Baths in the early '70s. (An additional connection to Cal: McNally originally called the play The Tubs, but when it was to be produced on Broadway, its name had to be changed because it was too similar to that of Douglas' Tubstrip.) Cal was brought onto the play's revival as a co-producer, as well as a star, and helped to finance it. Cal played detective character Michael Brick, who spoke in a falsetto voice throughout, and Warhol superstar Holly Woodlawn was cast in Moreno's leading role. The revival wound up a critical and financial disaster, the director receiving the largest amount of backlash, and only ran one night. Woodlawn said, while that performance was a mess, “Everyone panicked too soon. The opening night was a horror, but if given a chance, things would have settled in and worked out... We just needed more time to make it work.”
 

Poster for Woodlawn and Donovan in the revival of The Ritz
Holly Woodlawn and Cal

After this disappointment and its financial impact, Cal returned to Florida and was never to appear on stage in New York again. However, he couldn't give up on theater and – when not away traveling – attended and began acting in community theater productions in Key West. There, he was in a production of The Prime of Miss Jean Broadie and in William H. Hoffman's pioneering play about AIDS, As Is.

Woodlawn called Cal “the most gracious man I've ever encountered.” His friends remarked upon how dedicated he was to his fans and, while an enigma and a mass of contradictions, how sensitively he received the people he interacted with – strangers, fans, clients, co-workers, lovers, friends. Douglas' Manshots article says Cal “knew that he was a pioneer, a role model, and a superstar with obligations to his public. And so, he took great pains always to appear in public well-groomed and sober. He charmed his fans in every public appearance by listening, again and again, to their personal tales as if each of them were his closest friend. He corresponded with many, sent out hundreds (maybe thousands) of photographs at his own expense, and was never in too much of a hurry to sign one more autograph.” Bijou owner Steven Toushin similarly recalls Cal's appearance at the Bijou Theater. He was booked there to promote a film, dance on stage, and to meet fans and sign autographs. He says Cal had a great time interacting with the customers and stayed hours beyond the time he was scheduled and paid for, enjoying having conversations with his fans.
 

Signed Casey Donovan headshot from his Bijou appearance

Cal's hardcore and softcore films serve to immortalize his charm and his talent, as both an actor and a sexual performer. Though his porn roles modified his acting career, in a Men in Film interview, Cal said, “I enjoyed the idea that I was doing something that very few people had ever done... My life was made much more exciting by having done those films... I did plays, I was on magazine covers, in national fashion ads... I think porno worked in my life because I was so honest about it... Once I realized that my appearance in gay films was held against me in some quarters, I decided to put sex to even greater use – not less – in augmenting my income. We live in a society with deeply rooted feelings of guilt and shame about sex of any kind. If somebody makes a porn film, they are automatically beyond the pale. If somebody hustles, there must be something wrong with him. Maybe for some, not for me. I'm the living proof that it doesn't have to be that way. I'm still pretty much 'the boy next door' that I always was... I think my greatest accomplishment so far is something that doesn't show up in lights or get reviewed – and that's simply the sexual sanity that I have tried to contribute to over the past twenty years... I've tried to be honest, kind, and understanding with as many different people as possible, and I think that's much more important than just being gay.”

Cal's friend Jay McKenna wrote in a memorial article in The Advocate, “To myself and other young boys who were coming out in the early '70s, Cal Culver was a gay Adam – the first widely embraced gay symbol to appear during the post-Stonewall years. Back in 1971, when Cal's first film, Casey... was released, the gay movement was just beginning to amass some collective energy and wider acceptance, but gay existence was still underground and closeted. Coming out was a heartfelt and courageous choice. It was a calculated professional and social risk. So to teen-age boys like myself who were struggling to come to terms with it, Cal's spectacular emergence as Casey Donovan, unapologetic star of gay films, bordered on the heroic... My memory of him isn't obscured by false nostalgia. Cal had star power. He celebrated his gayness. He made me and others proud to be gay, so contagious was his spirit. Of course, like any human being, he had good days and bad days. But to be in his presence was to breathe a rarefied atmosphere.”

In 1985, two years before his death of AIDS-related complications, Cal returned to his home town to help his beloved drama teacher, Helen Van Fleet, celebrate her retirement. He visited with old high school classmates who all knew about his career in “the legitimate theater” and some about his porn career. Cal wanted to play a big part in Mrs. Van Fleet's celebration. Her daughter said, “it was really wonderful. He had written a parody of the title song from the musical Mame, and he sang it to her. It was an account of all the things they had experienced together over the years. It meant the world to her” and it received a huge ovation.

Sources:

Roger Edmonson, Boy in the Sand: Casey Donovan, All-American Sex Star

Jerry Douglas, “The Legend of Casey Donovan,” Manshots, April 1992

Jay McKenna, “Casey Donovan: To an Idol Dying Young,” The Advocate, October 27, 1987

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casey_Donovan_(actor)

https://newyorkcityinthewitofaneye.com/2013/05/20/mondays-on-memory-lane-1981-one-night-only-at-the-ritz-with-holly-woodlawn-2013/

Emerald City TV #47, Wakefield Poole & Cal Culver

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