The Clown Prince of Porn: Deep Throat Star Harry Reems Dead at 65

The Herb Streicher Story: How a serious actor drifted into porn, became notorious and found God

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Ethan Miller / Getty Images

Adult film actor Harry Reems poses at the Video Software Dealers Association's annual home video convention at the Bellagio, on July 26, 2005, in Las Vegas, Nevada.

He was on the set as a member of the lighting crew. But when the actor cast for the male lead proved unavailable, director Gerard Damiano promoted Herb Streicher to a starring role in Deep Throat. He also gave Streicher a nom de porn: Harry Reems.

Deep Throat, produced for $25,000 in 1972, became the first above-ground sensation in movie pornography. It launched the brief, gaudy phase of “porno chic,” luring the mass audience into a sex spectacle, and lent its name to the inside-government secret-spiller for Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate exposes. The movie also earned tens of millions for its sponsor, Louis “Butchie” Peraino, the son of a made man in New York City’s Columbo mob family.

(READ: Corliss on When Porno Was Chic)

For Reems, who died Tuesday at 65 of pancreatic cancer in Salt Lake City, the picture earned a certain fame as the genre’s leading male star — and a 1976 guilty verdict on an obscenity charge from a Memphis jury. “For the first time in U.S. history,” narrator Dennis Hopper notes in the 2005 documentary Inside Deep Throat, “an actor had been convicted for merely playing a part.” The judgment was overturned on appeal.

Unlike his Deep Throat costar Linda Lovelace, whose particular gift was to adjust her breathing so she could ingest a male member in her throat (the movie’s original title: The Sword Swallower), Reems radiated the polish of a trained veteran of the stage and screen. He was an actor whose roles required him to have sex on screen, not a lusty, try-anything amateur who had to be taught how to act in the movies. Sporting his trademark bushy mustache, a la Groucho Marx, he infused the role of Dr. Young, medical hygienist, with a jaunty brio that told filmgoers new to porn, “I’m having fun, so you can too.”

(READ: Corliss’s FAQ about Porno Chic)

Born in the Bronx in 1947, Herbert Streicher served brief stints at the University of Pittsburgh and in the Marine Corps before becoming an actor. The Internet Movie Database credits him with unbilled roles in two mainstream productions: the Jane Fonda Klute and an inspirational urban drama, The Cross and the Switchblade, starring Pat Boone. But he took whatever work there was, including off-off-Broadeway. “I was doing Coriolanus in some marginal coffeehouse,” he recalled in his 1975 memoir Here Comes Harry Reems, “where they passed the hat around at the end of the performance.” Streicher got training of a more valuable kind when he signed on with two burlesque comics to be the set-up guy, or “third banana,” on a tour that included Staten Island and Atlantic City. It was there he learned “the crazy doctor bit” that he would use as Dr. Young.

To pay the bills, he drifted into porn in 1970, just as the courts had ruled that films with explicit sex could be shown publicly. Damiano was shooting a 10-min. loop, set in a hospital, with Reems as the patient (he has a bandage bow-tied around his ailing member) and a new performer — Linda Boreman, later Lovelace — as the ministering nurse. Then she performed her sleight-of-throat. As Reems recalled: “I couldn’t believe she ate the whole thing!… It was a frightening sensation. My first thought was, ‘Will she bring me back alive?’” (Spoken like a smart third banana.) “Gerry’s eyes nearly popped out of their sockets and the cameraman’s jaw brushed his shoes. I think all of us there knew we were present at a significant moment in sexual history.”

(READ: TIME’s Gerard Damiano obit)

The logical next step to showcase Lovelace’s specialty was a feature film: Deep Throat, an hour-long raunch fest that was part slapstick comedy, part carnal carnival. When Reems read an early version of the script, he recalled, “I saw a part I was dying to play —and my part was dying to play it, too.” (Cue rim shot.) Once he cast Reems, Damiano realized he had the man whose ingratiating nature could sell the project to a wide audience. “I really dug Harry,” the director said. “He’s a professional, he’s a romantic, and he’s an exhibitionist” — the porn-film trifecta.

Basically a burlesque routine (Reems, wisecracking like Dr. Schnorrer) wrapped around a sideshow freak stunt, the movie provided Reems with the chance to display his indefatigable performance skills, as a burlesque comic and sex worker. Even Federal agent Bill Kelly, who would lead the battle to put Harry in jail, offered the grudging praise that “He was the only redeeming thing in the entire movie, as opposed to Linda Lovelace, who’s got as much acting ability as a lamp.”

(READ: Bruce Handy on Porn0-stalgia c. 1997)

Damiano gave Deep Throat the tone of a borderline-bright comedy; he underscored the action using broadly ironic pop music, including a version of Mickey and Sylvia’s “Love Is Strange” with naughtier lyrics. For their efforts, Lovelace was paid $1,200, Reems $250. In a way, they both paid later: the actress with headlines about her having been forced to appear in porn (a charge that was widely disputed) and Reems with his obscenity conviction.

With Deep Throat a breakout hit, Damiano made a super-serioso drama: Devil in Miss Jones. And this time under his own name. Reading the script, Reems told his friend: “Gerry, it’s a steal. This is No Exit in its thinnest disguise.” To which Damiano replied: “Well, what do you expect? I wrote it in a weekend.” An existentialist drama about a suicidal woman (Georgina Spelvin, another refugee from the legit theater) who is given a last wish to explore every forbidden sin, the movie realized Damiano’s dream to be Ingmar F—–’ Bergman. And Reems had one of the major male roles.

(READ: John Leo on Porn in the Boudoir

The 1973 Devil in Miss Jones represented the modest apogee of porno chic, before the genre headed to California and spawned two other stars: Ivory Soap model Marilyn Chambers and John T. “Johnny Wadd” Holmes. Porn soon devolved into formula, and Reems was spending nearly as much time in court as in front of the camera. He also lost the role of the coach in the 1978 movie Grease when the producers decided his notoriety was too great a risk. (Sid Caesar got the part.) By the early ’80s, when home video had killed in-theater hard-core, Reems had surrendered to alcohol addiction — he testified that he had “developed two ulcers, chronic pancreatitis, a diseased liver” — and was panhandling on Sunset Boulevard.

(READ: TIME’s Marilyn Chambers obit

By 1990, Reems was in Park City, Utah, where he joined AA, converted to Christianity, got married (his wife Jeanne Sterret survives him) and opened a real estate brokerage. As his fellow XXX-star Jamie Gillis noted in 2005: “he is enjoying playing the role of upstanding, successful citizen.” Though he hadn’t done hard-core since 1989, he still used the name Damiano gave him. His business card read: “Harry Reems CRS [Certified Residential Specialist], GRI [Graduate Realtor Institute].” He also reminisced in the Inside Deep Throat doc, with an easy smile and a thick mop of white hair (sans mustache) that made him look like the Steve Martin of porn.

Make that ex-porn. And please pay our deceased artiste the tribute of avoiding the phrase “sex star.” Simply call him Harry Reems, actor.

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