Long before he was an adult film actor, Jamie Gillis (pictured on left with promoter Lou DiBella) was a diehard boxing fan. As a 14-year-old growing up in New York City, he remembers dreaming about the outcome of one of the numerous bouts between Sugar Ray Robinson and Gene Fullmer in Chicago in May 1957.
“This was before everyone had a TV, so I was used to using my imagination when listening to fights on the radio,” said Gillis, who is now in his early sixties. “I was always thinking about boxing, and I remember this dream being very graphic. There was a big number five in the dream, and I told all my friends about it. When the fight took place, it unfolded much like it did in my dream. Robinson was stopped in the fifth round.”
Like so many other former boxing devotees, Gillis lost interest in the game during the subsequent decades of fractured titles and multiple champions. For quite some time, he didn’t give the sport more than a fleeting thought.
“For me, boxing lost its emotional honesty,” said Gillis, who earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Columbia University in 1970. “I lost my boyhood image of fighters as gladiators.”
After graduating from college, Gillis, who always had a love of the theater, was determined to be an actor. After performing in numerous off-Broadway plays, he answered a newspaper ad seeking nude models.
It was 1971 and the entire porno industry, which was in its embryonic stages, was being run out of a dirty basement on the west side of Manhattan. Gillis had to make a difficult decision.
Should he embark on a career in the adult film business, which would probably nullify his chances of making it in mainstream stage, film or television? Or should he stick with a conventional path and hope for the best?
“It was a very exciting time because the entire industry was very new, and we felt we were involved in something really revolutionary, even artistic,” said Gillis. “There were no worries about AIDS or other deadly diseases.
“If you got syphilis, you’d get a shot of penicillin and that would be that. It was a very fun time. For the first time in history, you could have sex with no worries. If you got a disease, it was easily cured. And the [birth control] pill was new, so there was no fear of pregnancy.
“I was in hundreds of movies, and had a great time,” he continued. “It was a perfect occupation for me. Being a very sexual person, it was great being with so many women. Plus I only had to work a couple of days a week, so I had a lot of time to hang out. I had a special niche in an unusual business, and I was a big fish in a little pond.”
Asked who his favorite co-star was Gillis responded wryly, “Of course it was always the next one. The one I didn’t have yet.”
Gillis has also appeared in several mainstream films, including “Night Hawks” with Sylvester Stallone. However, when approached to do a scene in “Raging Bull,” he was downright humiliated.
“I knew Peter Savage, who wrote the book that the film was based on,” said Gillis.
“Few people know that he had been a pornographer at one time. Through casting director Sylvia Fay, I was offered the part of being Robert DeNiro’s erection in the scene where he pours ice down his shorts.
“I couldn’t imagine that DeNiro would allow someone else to ‘play’ his erection,” he continued. “That was the era of truth and honesty in film. As a joke, I said I’d do it under two conditions: I wanted no money, but I wanted a film credit. I knew they wouldn’t go for it, but it was my way of dealing with it. Another actor (Richard Bolla) took the role, and wound up getting a part in one of the greatest films of all time.”
Gillis still possesses youthful exuberance and a freewheeling sixties spirit. Although he has no regrets about the path he has taken, he did express concern about his daughter’s early reaction to his vocation. She was conceived the very first time he had sex, at the age of 17. Over the years they’ve had a complex relationship, but with her now in her forties they get along fine.
“My being in the business was an embarrassment to my daughter, no doubt,” said Gillis. “She always thought it was gross, disgusting. But as she got older, she grew more accepting, and today we’re OK.”
According to Gillis, in many ways the porn business is similar to the boxing business. The public perception of boxers and porn stars are not much different. Many people view fighters as mindless thugs, and adult film actors as drug-addled losers. Not so, says Gillis.
“There are some wonderfully intelligent and creative people in porn,” said Gillis. “As far as drugs are concerned, that’s over-exaggerated. In 1968, I took Angel Dust and got so scared I never touched drugs again. I had great visions and beautiful hallucinations, but it scared me so much, I said no more. There’s a lot less drug use in the industry than you might think.”
But the similarities don’t end there. When Gillis was young, boxers fought with a sense of purpose and pride that seems non-existent to him today. That was their living, and they were proud of it. In the early days of porn, there also seemed to be more of a sense of artistic purpose. While the technical quality of today’s films has certainly gotten better, it is now more about the money than the art.
“Old-time fighters fought because that’s what they did best,” said Gillis. “There was no sense of entitlement. Many of the (older porn) actors viewed themselves as revolutionaries, purveyors of a new art. Today, it’s like a factory. Kids just want to make money the fastest way possible.”
Gillis attributes much of his laid back, live-and-let live personality to his father, who owned a window cleaning business but was always dreaming of a life beyond the one in which he was mired.
“My father was a dreamer, who always had artistic aspirations” said Gillis. “In a way I fulfilled his dreams. He was a lot like me, but he could never get the girls.”
For the past few years Gillis has been working on his autobiography. While recounting his past on each new page he wrote, he was surprised when his interest in boxing was rekindled after meeting promoter Lou DiBella at author Budd Schulberg’s 91st birthday party several years ago.
He has since become a regular at DiBella’s monthly Broadway Boxing shows. More often than not he goes unnoticed, although it is not unusual for fans to ask him for his autograph and tell him their favorite scene that he was in.
“I get recognized just enough where it is enjoyable, not annoying,” said Gillis, while taking in a show at the Hammerstein Ballroom in Manhattan earlier this year.
“Being here tonight has been very enjoyable. It’s the first time in 30 years that I’ve been to a fight. This place reminds me of an old bull ring. It’s very nostalgic. The place really has a pulse.”
Gillis was the male face of porn throughout much of the seventies and eighties. He was actually more of a mainstay than the better known John Holmes, on whom the film “Boogie Nights” was based.
As laid back as Gillis is, his intelligence is as apparent as his love of the theater and performers of all levels and all genres. One of his favorites has always been James Earl Jones, who appeared as the legendary heavyweight champion Jack Johnson both on Broadway and in the classic film “The Great White Hope.”
Gillis had seen Jones in “Othello,” in an off-off Broadway theater, long before anyone had heard of either of them.
When he ran into Jones in San Francisco several years ago, he reminded him of that performance. “I’ve always liked your work,” said Gillis, fully expecting Jones to assume he was just another fawning fan.
“I like your work, too,” responded Jones, in his booming, telltale voice. “It has lots of fire.”