10 True Porn Stories and Details We Hope Show Up On ‘The Deuce’

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The Wire alums David Simon and George Pelecanos’s new series The Deuce premieres Sunday night on HBO, and the short review is it’s straight-up terrific, a nuanced, engaging, character-based drama that is, oh yes, set during the birth of the New York City porn scene. You’ll hear plenty more about the show in the weeks to come; your film editor will be sunlighting (you’ll learn what that means) as a TV recapper for its eight-week run. But one thing that’s important to know going in is that it’s fictionalized – but its characters are based on real people, and its situations are drawn from the history of sex work and adult film in the Times Square district, circa 1971. And if we’ve learned one thing from Mr. Simon’s previous work, it’s that he’s all about the research. So we took a fresh look at the invaluable oral history of adult cinema, The Other Hollywood, by Please Kill Me author Legs McNeil, Jennifer Osborne, and Peter Pavia (buy it here, trust me, worth it) to find some of the true stories and details that may show up in episodes – and, hopefully, seasons – to come.

The mob bankrolled it – from several angles.

Early in The Deuce’s first season, we meet the character of Rudy Pipilo (played by The Sopranos’ Michael Rispoli), a mobbed-up businessman who puts protagonist Vincent Martino (James Franco) to work. Though their transactions are initially confined to bars and construction sites, it’s easy to see how he’ll end up an investor in erotica; New York organized crime families had several thumbs in the porn pie. In fact, as FBI Special Agent Roger Young explains in The Other Hollywood, early porn entrepreneur Reuben Sturman “would sell the actual peep show booth through Automated Vending, but he still maintained a percentage of showing the film in the booth. He had another company, called Diversified, that did the distribution of the videotapes for the people who bought the booths. And the collection of the quarters was done by another company.”

Porn was very profitable. Like, comically profitable.

The Peraino crime family put up the (tiny) budget for Gerard Damiano’s 1972 feature Deep Throat, the film that made porno “chic,” playing in real movie theaters to sophisticated audiences, and making money hand over fist. As FBI special agent Bill Kelley told McNeil et al., “After Deep Throat was released, I had an informant in the Perainos’ office in Wilton Manors, Florida—in their lawyer’s office—and he calls me and says, ‘You are not gonna believe this, Kelly. We got so much damn money in the main office up here, we can’t move around. The money is getting in the way. We got it in garbage bags stacked up in here. We don’t even count it anymore.’

“I said to my informant, ‘What do you mean, you don’t count it? What do you do with it?’

“He said, ‘We weigh it.’”

Unsurprisingly, they took their money very seriously.

An FBI wiretap once caught mob accountant Chuck Bernstene explaining the collection methods of this unorthodox group of film “distributors”: “The money was coming in like, you have no idea—we used to walk out with stacks, you know, from the theaters. Maybe some weeks it was a hundred and fifty thousand—but we’d have to take fifteen G’s off the top to pay the checkers—but I was getting like a G-note a week.”

FBI man Kelly adds more, um, colorful details. “The checker would go up to the owner of the theater and say, ‘Five grand now, or else,’” he recalls. “The owners of the theater would say, ‘What do you mean, or else?’ The checker would say, ‘You don’t pay me, you’ll find out what else.’ I remember about maybe four ‘or else’s.’ A couple of them only had to do with the Perainos sending somebody out to take the film off the projector and giving it to a competitor across town—or burning down the theater.”

Theater owners weren’t the only ones who felt the pinch. According to a 1975 New York Times article detailing mob involvement in porn, Deep Throat director Damiano was an equal partner in the production company behind that film – with mob figure Louis Peraino. “When the film was released and began to make money, Louis (Butchie) Peraino bought out the interests of Gerard Damiano for $25,000. When a reporter remarked to Mr. Damiano that he seemed to have received unfavorable terms in the deal, Mr. Damiano replied, ‘I can’t talk about it.’ When the reporter persisted, Mr. Damiano said, ‘You want me to get both my legs broken?’”

That money was then put into some other, non-porn films of note.

As Kelly explains, “The Perainos made so much money on Deep Throat that they went out to Hollywood and developed their own legitimate motion picture film studio—Bryanston Films.” Their idea was to develop and produce their own projects, which never quite came together, but they bought distribution rights to several “legit” titles, including Bruce Lee’s The Way of the Dragon (retitled Return of the Dragon for American release), Paul Morrissey’s Andy Warhol-produced Flesh for Frankenstein and Blood for Dracula, John Carpenter’s debut feature Dark Star, John Travolta’s debut feature The Devil’s Rain, Ralph Bakshi’s controversial Coonskin, and, most profitably, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

“I don’t know how much money they made off of that, but I’m sure it was a lot,” Kelly says, which is an understatement; it grossed more than $30 million in it is initial run, off a $300,000 budget, but thanks to the Perianos’ aforementioned shady bookkeeping practices, the filmmakers barely saw a dime. Production manager Ron Bozman later summed up the experience: “We made a deal with the devil, and I guess that, in a way, we got what we deserved.”

Being a male porn performer required a very specific skill set.

The Deuce’s emphasis on male pimps and female prostitutes establishes several potential adult film actress characters, but we’ve not really seen any potential male performers. As Deep Throat star Harry Reems noted, there were very few guys who were initially starring in “loops” (basically, plotless short films of X-rated action), and they kept very busy. ”Smitty [an early producer] paid Sean Costello a sum of money to produce five loops a day,” Reems explained. “The first thing Sean did was to hire me and Fred Lincoln to help him produce, direct, and act in these films. Sean, Fred, and I must have made 150 loops that summer. We earned our nickname of ‘The Dirty Three.’ We created a whole new atmosphere. The Dirty Three were about as reliable as anybody in the industry for getting it off on cue—perhaps the most reliable. That’s why we had all the work we could get and why we kept hiring one another when we were commissioned to make loops.”

It wasn’t just a way for actors to break into filmmaking.

Reems, Costello, and Lincoln were all guys who came to New York to be legitimate actors, and often had training and even gigs off- and off-off-Broadway, who did porn to pay the bills. Female performers often had the same backstory – and directors had their own version of it. As Damiano explained, porn was one of the few places where a novice filmmaker could get a shot: “The only reason most of my films dealt with pornography was because at that time that was the only media an independent filmmaker could work in. I was gearing my films to sell to a specific market because there was not enough money involved to gear it to any other market. Working within a limited budget—under $25,000—you could not do the great American love story. For that kind of money you had to stick to the bedroom and then every once in a while you’d get an opportunity to express an emotion other than sex.”

Those filmmakers were very resourceful.

Not that they were all there to make art. Chuck Traynor, who was Deep Throat star Linda Lovelace’s husband, manager, and abuser, recalled one particularly prolific early pornographer: “Bob Wolfe made a million loops. He was a nice, black-haired guy. I think Linda and I made probably between ten to fifteen loops at that time for him. It’s really hard to say because with someone like Bob Wolfe who shoots with two cameras you never know how many you’ve made.”

It was, in much of the country, quite literally a criminal activity.

One of the key complaints that porn-makers who lived through the era have lobbed at Boogie Nights over the years is how the threat of jail is never even mentioned, when they spent much of the ‘70s in constant fear of getting busted. “At that time, just shooting an X-rated film was subject to a bust for pimping and pandering,” said Bob Chinn, director of the “Johnny Wadd” films and one of the inspirations for Burt Reynolds’s Jack Horner. “And if you had drugs on the set, that would definitely mean jail. So I wouldn’t tolerate drugs on my shoots.”

And police weren’t the only ones targeting pornographers.

When James Franco was cast as twin brothers on The Deuce, plenty of porn historians assumed he was playing some version of the Mitchell Brothers – who weren’t twins, but were the most famous adult filmmakers on the West Coast, thanks to the smash success of Behind the Green Door. They also had an antagonist in a future California Senator, according to writer Jack Boulware: “San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein acted as a schoolmarm to the Mitchell brothers. She would attempt to regulate them, and they would gleefully thumb their noses at her. They were harassed by her so many times—via the police department—that they actually put her home phone number on their theater marquee that said, ‘For a good time, call Dianne.’ She had to change her number—and then they got her new number, and they put it on the marquee again!”

In fact, there was this whole FBI operation…

In the late 1970s, FBI agents Pat Livingston and Bruce Ellavsky – family men and self-proclaimed J. Edgar Hooverite conservatives – went undercover as porn distributors in an attempt to bust the industry wide open (mostly the mob ties). Their operation, dubbed MIPORN, had some success, but at a cost: Livingston and Ellavsky spent too long, too deep undercover, sucked into the clubs-and-girls life, and Livingston in particular had a very hard time shaking his good-time alter ego. In fact, this shouldn’t be a subplot; this should be its own movie, or even a series. Pitch it as Boogie Nights meets Donnie Brasco. Be right back, I need to call my agent…