Porn's Pied Piper: Deep Throat Director Dies

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Actress Linda Lovelace dressed as a nurse in the 1972 pornographic film Deep Throat.

The movie had no-name stars — in fact, fake-name stars: Herb Streicher was going by Harry Reems, and Linda Boreman by Linda Lovelace. The writer-director, a Bronx hairdresser who'd never done a porno feature before, called himself Jerry Gerard. This was early 1972, and the people making hardcore sex movies considered themselves lucky to exhibit their wares legally, let alone have their real names on them. All "Gerard" had was a cute idea for a porno comedy, and a leading lady with a special talent. He also wanted to change the movie's title, from The Sword Swallower. The producer objected that no one would understand the new title. "Don't worry," the director replied. "Deep Throat will become a household word."

Every once in a while, an artist gets an inspiration that changes pop culture. Even if he's a slop artist, and the inspiration is a movie about a woman with a clitoris in her throat. Such a one was Gerard Rocco Damiano, aka Jerry Gerard, who died this weekend in Fort Myers, Fla., at 80, from complications after a stroke. With Deep Throat and his second film, Devil in Miss Jones, Damiano launched the 1970s movie craze of porno chic.

Deep Throat — whose $25,000 budget was covered by Louis "Butchie" Peraino, the son of a made man in New York City's Columbo mob family — went on to earn tens of millions of dollars. Maybe more: the 2005 documentary Inside Deep Throat puts the take at an extremely improbable $600 million. Anyway, it was quite a haul. One federal agent quoted a Peraino underling as saying of the Deep Throat take: "We've got so much money ... we don't even count it any more.... We weigh it."

As important as the profits were to the Mafia boys, and to FBI sleuths tracking their loot, Deep Throat did more. Long before home video, it took the recently legalized porn films out of the gutter and into the mainstream. It was the Citizen Kane of porn. Because of Deep Throat, the hardcore movie became a must-see item for the glamorati, a topic for serious debate in newspapers and magazines (including TIME; see the 1973 article "Wonder Woman") and a fun date for ordinary couples who'd never seen a sex movie.

For TV comics, Damiano's film was a grail: a Buttofuoco- or Lewinsky-like solid laugh line. "This is kinda strange country, isn't it?" asked Johnny Carson at the time when the movie was challenging Watergate as the topic du jour. "Judges can see Deep Throat but they can't listen to those [Nixon] tapes." Bob Hope said, "I went to see Deep Throat cause I'm fond of animal pictures. I thought it was about giraffes." When Bob Hope makes a joke about your porno movie, you've arrived.

What was all the fuss about? An hour-long raunch fest that was part slapstick comedy, part carnal carnival: it's a burlesque routine (Reems as a doctor, wisecracking like Groucho Marx) wrapped around a sideshow freak stunt (Lovelace's bedroom trick of controlling her gag reflex so she could perform glottal fellatio — a glo-job). "You had to be there," he said in Inside Deep Throat. "I'm thrilled that I was there. And I thank God I had a camera." Damiano gave this movie the tone of a mildly bright comedy, with an underscoring full of broadly ironic pop music, including a version of Mickey and Sylvia's "Love Is Strange" with naughtier lyrics. The movie, for which Lovelace was paid $1,200, and Reems $250, made both of them famous/notorious. Reems was found guilty of obscenity by a Memphis jury; the conviction was overturned on appeal.

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