Love & Sex

Checking in With Richard Pacheco, the Gem of Porn’s Golden Age

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"Something that you weren't going to get at home became the thing that everybody wanted to be looking at."

Howie Gordon, also known as Richard Pacheco, Hall of Fame Woodsman, is one of the gems of the Golden Age of Porn. Known as one of the adult film industry's most proficient thespians during a historical moment in which plot-based films abounded, the Berkeley free-love-communard-turned-sex performer made a name for himself working alongside John Leslie, John Holmes, Seka, and Kelly Nichols, receiving a multitude of honors and appearing as Playgirl's Man of the Year in 1980. A feminist, polyamorous, self-deprecating Jew who once might have become a rabbi, Gordon retired from porn in the mid-1980s to pursue a career as a journalist and public speaker, writing and lecturing extensively about pornography and AIDS. The irreverent 66-year-old lives in Berkeley with his wife, and has recently published a hilarious, thoughtful memoir of his time in the adult film industry: Hindsight: True Love and Mischief in the Golden Age of Porn. We checked in to see how life was with the living legend.

Nerve: You were a Bay Area hippie who saw promise in the sex industry. Were there many other like-minded individuals in porn at that time? 
Gordon: Well, there's a distinction here. Hippies were dope-smoking hedonists. Yippies, like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, were political activists who combined drugs and politics. I was more inclined to go that way, because I was trying to be socially conscious. My first movie was The Candy Stripers, but a year before that, I auditioned for Bob Chinn with a copy of Wilhelm Reich's The Sexual Revolution under my arm. Chinn looked at me like I was from outer space. 

What's interesting about my era, '76, '77, is that there were essentially two worlds of porn then: San Francisco and New York. People didn't shoot in Los Angeles, the legality was questionable. In San Francisco, you had college-level dropouts, like me, who were joining the sexual revolution, and it was all sunshine and innocence, and we were the age of Aquarius. It wasn't sleazy, we would just get naked and fuck! And the people making the movies just used it. The sex scene in New York seemed much harsher to me. I thought there was a bigger sleaze factor in New York that didn't exist so much in San Francisco.

It's interesting to me that Los Angeles wasn't really a player during the Golden Age; in some ways, it seems like porn has always been there, but of course it hasn't. Did you have any experiences with L.A. in the 1970's? 
I went down to L.A. in the early ‘70s, put my foot in the water, to see if I could make it as a regular actor. I found myself in these competitive situations for toilet paper commercials, and it was too much for me. I didn't belong in that world at all. In Berkeley, my clothes were hip; in L.A., I was a vagrant. L.A. did not get the 1960s at all. It bypassed L.A. It turned into something at the Troubador about cocaine, fancy music, and fancy clothes. While the rest of the country was doing love your brother and share your dope, the anti-greed, L.A. never got past greed. It was not even the same universe. 

But you became an actor anyway, in the unlikely setting of the X-rated industry. 
I was lucky enough to come along at a time when they cared about that. It was the end of the ‘70s – everybody had bigger budgets, and films had stories. You gotta know lines, you gotta hit your mark, gotta be sober. Lots of guys could fuck, and lots of guys could act, but not a lot of guys could fuck and act. 

I didn't major in acting in college. I had a double major in history and urban affairs. When I went up against people who had theatrical training, I was completely intimidated. But in porn, the sex made me so scared, I was insane. I was just terrible at it. So the place I relaxed was in the acting. I let loose all of that fear – and all of a sudden, I was Lawrence Olivier. Because I didn't have to get a hard on. I didn't have to come.

In your book, you describe at great length your on-set failures – specifically your difficulty in staying hard for long periods of time during filming. When Viagra came around after you'd retired, did you feel cheated? 
No. I felt lucky that it wasn't around when I was working, because I would have been all over it. I would have probably have been taking Viagra, and Cialis, and Levitra all at once, and ended up in the hospital from an overdose, because that's how terrified I was. I'm glad I didn't have to face it that way. 

Your dick is like a natural lie-detector test. You're either there, or you're not. And that's good, because men are alienated enough from their feelings. I think that Viagra's a godsend for people who can't sustain erections. A miracle and a gift from the gods. But as far as creating phony erections for business, no. It means nothing. It's not connected to the magic that makes desire real.  

You mention having considered becoming a rabbi, before getting involved in the porn industry. How did this develop?
I've always been a student of history. Just fascinated with it. Wanted to know what the hell happened. When it came time for all the hippies who had dropped out to drop back in, I was looking at graduate schools for the study of history. And ETS at Harvard had a great program that a friend of mine had gone to, and said, “You oughta do that.” I said, “Okay.” I applied. And then another friend said Hebrew Union Seminary, in Cincinnati, there are great history teachers there. I said okay, applied to that. As I'm waiting to hear for my answer there, and I get a call to audition for The Candy Stripers

It all came to a head at the same time: ETS (Episcopal Theological Seminary) wrote to me and said they weren't accepting non-Episcopal students at that time. The Jews said to me, we'll accept you, but the first two years of your program, you have to go to Jerusalem to study Aramaic. Well, I did not want to go be in that world at all. I had no desire to go to Israel. So I made the porn film. And I thought to myself, the kind of rabbi I would have become, would have been the kind of rabbi who would have made a porn film. 

Were there many Jews in porn in your era? 
Quite a few: Jamie Gillis, Harry Reems, myself, Herschel Savage and Ron Jeremy. Maybe some others. Once I tried to explain to a writer named Danny Shocket, from Screw Magazine, what drew Jews to porn. My thought was that Jews had no central authority. No Pope. If you operated outside of the purview of Pope, you were excommunicated. In Judaism, if you didn't like the way the Orthodox were doing it, you could move down to the conservative. And if you didn't like their shit, well, there's the reform. 

And Jews like food, they like dancing, they like sex. There's no prohibition about it, unless you get to the ultra-Orthodox, and they're the fucking Taliban. 

You write bluntly about issues of body image. I found it really refreshing to hear an honest, neurotic male perspective on his own body. How important was this to you during your time in porn? 
Gigantic. The whole porn career was like a ticker-tape parade down Central Park, on 5th Avenue. I had finally recovered from an entire childhood of shame. I had the largest breasts in the 7th grade. I had all my male friends pointing at my tits and laughing at me, because I jiggled. The scars of that were horrible. For me, being a porn star was the reward for turning myself into an attractive male, after being Quasimodo. What a joy it was to be invited to be in Playgirl. My god, I'm so happy that at the peak of my physical powers, I had a professional photographer, and a good one, too, do me. Because I have all those pictures, and I look at them now and I think, fuck, I had abs! I had abs! Jesus Christ, I never knew they were in there. 

You worked with many of the leading actresses of the Golden Age – Marilyn Chambers, Kelly Nichols, Kay Parker, Shauna Grant, and Nina Hartley . . . 
Yes, but to me, the biggest miracle was that I was able to be married while I had those experiences, and not destroy my marriage. That was a gift from the gods – I married a remarkable, remarkable woman, who could handle that. 

We began with free love as the operating principle: nobody wants monogamy, and we'll cope with situations where it's like, wow, this is painful. In the early days, she matched me tit for tat, so it wasn't like she didn't know the waters we were swimming in. 

There was a gradual change in attitudes, but things were pretty loose until two things happened. One was herpes, which came in the late ‘70s. A lot of the women in the business started having herpes. Men too, but I didn't have it. And I learned in studying the disease that an outbreak of herpes was the difference between a vaginal birth and a Caesearan section. Well, we were trying to get pregnant. So I had to protect us from getting herpes. But that was short-lived before AIDS came on, which was '84, the first headline about the heterosexual transmission of AIDS. Then herpes looked like a day in the park, compared to AIDS. 

Being on the front line of the AIDS scare must have been frightening. 
It was. First time you get tested, it's a death sentence at that point. My test came back negative. All sex after that became hooded. Put the hat on. It was interesting, when that issue broke to us (performers) – who landed on which side. Because some people were very existential about it: fuck it, I don't care. Well, I cared. I never was attracted to live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse. I wanted to get old. Die slow. Be happy. 

Do you have an opinion about the debates that are going on today in pornography, in regards to the mandatory condom rules? 
I can't say that I'm really very well informed. But I'm all in favor of saving your life. That, I'm never going to argue against. Nobody should be asked to risk their life for a fuck film. Or for anything else. I'm not fond of fighting in wars, either. I like Erasmus, who said, "The truly brave man runs from the battlefield." 

Many performers have sided against the mandatory condom regulations – can you understand that mentality at all? 
Well, it's the outlaw consciousness – there's always been that mentality in porn: we don't care. It's drugs, it's booze, it's Hells Angels consciousness. We're wild; that's what we're here for. In 1984 and 1985, it generally became clear that anal intercourse was probably the fastest way to communicate AIDS, short of sharing bloody needles. And the industry became obsessed with it. That's when Ginger Lynn appeared. That's when Hal Freeman's Caught From Behind series took off. Anal sex was very rare, for the most part, in my whole career. As I was walking out the door, that became the hottest thing – the most forbidden fruit. It was that death wish shit: the scary erotic. Something that you weren't going to get at home became the thing that everybody wanted to be looking at. 

Do you have any relationship to porn these days? Does it interest you? 
For a while, people just didn't want me around. I was ignored, because I talked about AIDS. That lasted maybe 10 years. Then I got inducted into the AVN Hall of Fame in 1999, and Free Speech Coalition gave me a lifetime achievement award. I'm very much involved these days, since I've written the book, because I'm one of the better faces of the industry. I've become one of the few bugs that didn't end up on the windshield of life. 

I'm still reveling in it. It's part of my identity. I'm proud of it. Because sex is something that is so significant to the human experience, and so belittled by an ignorant culture. You can't lose here: if you play it straight, you're gonna win. Because everybody fucks. The difference is how you talk about it publicly.