He’s one of the fathers of gay porn. A member of the GAYVN Hall of Fame. A major influence on modern industry filmmakers. And he’s still going strong as he celebrates 40 years in the business, having built two successful careers in two different continents during two different eras.
Starting in 1978, William Higgins brought us a treasure chest of iconic works including The Boys of Venice, The Class of '84, These Bases Are Loaded, The Best Little Warehouse in L.A., Sailor in the Wild, Cousins, The Pizza Boy, Big Guns and dozens more during a dynamic decade in the United States. He has directed the likes of Jack Wrangler, Kip Noll, Rick Donovan, John Davenport, Mike Henson, Jon King, Jeff Quinn, Jan Dvorak and yes, Peter North (né Matt Ramsay) in one of his early gay porn appearances. It all started 40 years ago in an unlikely place.
“The last job I had before I got into adult was operating some hobby shops in Texas,” shares the director from his home in Prague. “One of the recessions came along in the 1970s, and the first thing the housewives did was stop going to hobby shops, and it put me out of business. I was left with about $5,000.”
Higgins had been “very much in the closet” all of his life, but in Texas he found gay porno at a twin theater in Dallas (the Kit Kat) that showed straight adult material on one side and gay on the other. He would buy a ticket for the straight side, then make his way through the restroom to an aisle on the other side connecting it to the gay theater.
“Many people did that, and I did it. I thought, ‘Well, these films are really horrible—certainly I can do better!’ I would also say that I was about 34 years old, and I had been a customer of Falcon in Dallas, and one day I received a letter from Falcon saying that no future orders would be shipped to Texas, Tennessee or Florida…and that really made me angry. So, I decided, ‘Well, the movies are so bad and Falcon won’t sell me their 8-millimeter films, I’ll just go out and I’ll make gay porn on my own.’”
By that time, Higgins was living in Houston. “I had bought a book that had strongly implied that porno is legal nowadays, so I put notices up on the bulletin boards in several of the gay bars in Houston looking for models, and one day I got a call saying that the Texas Rangers were on their way to my house and would be there in 45 minutes. I packed up my old red pickup truck and took off in about 42 minutes.”
Higgins drove west, deciding to settle in San Francisco and start making movies with his $5,000. He made it to Los Angeles, where he was going to spend the night.
“I was driving down Santa Monica Boulevard, and I saw all of these guys standing from corner to corner; it looked like they were hitching rides. And I would stop and say, ‘Do you want a ride?’ and they said ‘No, I’m working.’ Well, it did take me a bit of time to figure out what they meant…but I did figure it out, and I said, ‘To hell with San Francisco, you’ll just make movies here in L.A.’ And that’s what I did.”
He didn’t have much influence to draw upon.
“I think the best erotica that was available was the annual Sears Roebuck catalog. I remember there was one underwear section where the guy’s knob accidently stuck out of the underwear, and they printed it anyway…that was very exciting.”
The City of Angels
Higgins was always interested in filmmaking and photography (in high school, where he was the assistant photographer, classmates called him “Flash”). Part of the impetus for his career trajectory was a foreign film he sought out while he was in upstate New York in the ’70s: Vilgot Sjöman’s 1967 drama I Am Curious (Yellow).
“I drove all the way to New York City. It was a blockbuster…there were a couple blocks’ line to get into that movie—an old black-and-white movie from Sweden that somebody had imported, and the authorities tried to confiscate. And there was also a court case going all the way I think to the Supreme Court. But it was clear that it was not obscene and they could show the movie, so I watched it, and I think it was the first mainstream movie shown in the United States with full-frontal male nudity. Horrible movie. But when I walked out of that theater, I said, ‘That’s what I want to do when I grow up…shoot naked people.’ Well it took about 10 years, but I finally was able to do it.”
Once he decided he was going to make it in Los Angeles, he discovered the French Market on Santa Monica Boulevard.
“It was a gay hangout, and I met some gays—not local gays, I don’t think anyone was local from L.A. But they had all moved to L.A., and I told them I wanted to make gay porn. They were all excited about the idea, and they—knowing as little or less about it as I did—helped me out. I had bought a movie camera…it was a French camera and it had what’s called a guillotine shutter that went up and down. And that was what I was going to use to make my first movie.”
Higgins says it was a daunting experience because he knew very little about it. For the first scene, he went to a rich person’s mansion-like house in the Hollywood Hills—but the owner had his property seized by U.S. Marshalls that same day after he had to declare bankruptcy.
“So he was not nearly so welcoming as he had been on the reconnaissance trip. We got to filming for a while, and he said ‘Leave the property now!’ Well, one of the girls who was a friend of some of the people I met at this French Market mall said, ‘Come over, you can film it in my apartment.’ The apartment was not really a substitute for this mansion, but I filmed it and I decided I wanted to make everything red, so I lit it all with red lights. Big mistake. If you’re ever doing filming, don’t do something experimental on something that’s very important. You do a test first.”
He then took the last remaining money he had and put the film (along with several other scenes) in for processing at a lab on Santa Monica—where the head technician came out with some bad news: “He said, ‘We’re gonna have an awful difficult time processing this film that was loaded into the camera backwards…it’s seven stops underexposed.’”
The technician suggested Higgins shoot it over; the director insisted he try to process it. Higgins won the battle. Meanwhile, through another French Market connection, he met the owner of a gay theater in Philadelphia that would finance his movie. Higgins spent the last of his money to arrange a showing.
“They put the film on and it was running—and the guy got up, walked back and stopped by me. The film was playing on his belly because he was right in the path of the projector,” Higgins recalls. “He said, ‘I don’t know who shot this piece of shit, but clearly they don’t know anything about making a porno movie.’ And he walked out. Well, that was a great letdown.”
But an angel appeared in the form of another financer, the owner of a prominent mainstream business in the United States (one still thriving today). He gave Higgins $5,000 to finish the film—which became A Married Man, headlined by Jack Wrangler (“Boy did we ever cross swords,” Higgins says of the performer. “He threatened to sue me several times over the song that he sang in the opening credits”).
Needing some help from a “movie doctor” to fix some technical mistakes he made, Higgins brought in a man (“I think his screen name was Steve Scott”) who told him three things that stuck with him.
“He said, ‘If you spend money, make sure it goes up on the screen, not for limousines, buffets and parties.’ Okay, I’ve lived by that. ‘2. If it’s ugly, don’t show it.’ Okay, I tried to live by that, but my photographers nowadays, I’ll say, ‘This guy has a big scar on the right side of his face, please show only the left side of his face’…they will always show the side with the scar. And not only that, they will zoom in to a closeup up with the side of the scar!
“The third thing he told me was, ‘Never spend your own money on any of these productions.’ Now, I took everything to heart that he said, but I thought if I never spend any of my own money on any production, then somebody else is going to walk away with all the profits…so I took a leap of faith and I decided I would finance my own movies, because that was the only way you could ever do anything—and also to always own everything.”
Trial & (More) Error
Higgins says he ascribed to the cinéma vérité style of filming, and noted that he operated the camera himself most of the time (although he did hire a cameraman for A Married Man).
“But then I operated it myself, and I got quite good at it. And I always tried for shots that would make the dick look very large—might as well admit it! You put a wide-angle lens on the camera, and that does make the dick look very large. And then something else I developed was the slow-motion cumshot from many different angles, which became very popular.”
The world started switching from film to video, and Higgins was one of the holdouts.
“My goodness, that would cost you $15,000 more to shoot smoothing on film then it would on video. And by the way…everybody shot on an old film called video news film—and it was a film that TV stations used in their cameras to run out and take pictures of car crashes. And football coaches used video news film to shoot films of the opposing team at games.”
That presented yet another challenge Higgins and his peers faced at the time—finding a place to get it developed. After a while, he says there was only one lab in L.A. that would actually process that specific type of film. To help curb the expense, he went to a company on Santa Monica that sold leftover film from big, mainstream film productions for cheap.
“So, let’s say a reel was 400 feet, you would get 100 feet or 200 feet, and then you would shoot that until it ran out. So I went and bought this second-hand film. It wasn’t used film, but it was leftover film—surplus film from other productions. And that’s how we shot.”
After shooting Kip Noll Superstar with this cheaper film, Higgins took it to the one lab that would process it. The attendant told the director that his roll was Kodachrome—and could only be processed by Eastman Kodak, which had an exclusive patent. But if he did that, the attendant said, Kodak would confiscate it and call the police once they saw what was on it.
“So he said, ‘I’ll tell you what I’ll do: Every now and then, I get a big batch of Kodachrome that has to be processed by sports coaches, so I’ll splash your reel of the Kodachrome into the middle of a batch of these sports films—and with thousands and thousands of feet, they’ll never notice what it is when it runs off the end of the machine. And when I find it, I’ll give it back to you.’”
Once Higgins got the film back, he rushed home and put it on a 16mm projector—"and I looked at it, and here was an old grandma and an old grandpa with about six grandkids sitting at a picnic table all the way though. And I go, ‘Oh…my…God.’ And I thought, I don’t want to be there when grandma and grandpa put their film on the projector and look at what they shot!”
Unfortunately for Higgins, that film had most of the cumshots for Kip Noll Superstar. But he had enough extra footage to finish the project.
On a mission to get exposure for his work, Higgins spend $100 on a round-trip Amtrak ticket to visit seven gay theaters across the country.
“I rooted my journey through each city so that I could stop and try and peddle the movie there. I get all the way to New York, and I went into the big theater then which was called the Adonis…a guy named Nick Justin ran it, and he was very formal. He wore a three-piece pinstripe suit with a bowtie. I went in with my two cans of film under my arm, walked into his office and I said, ‘Hello Mr. Justin, I have a film for you that I would like for you to show.’ And he said, ‘Well, tell me who’s the star of the film?’ And I said, ‘Jack Wrangler.’ And he says, ‘Jack Wrangler?! Nobody wants to see that tired old dick.’ Talk about let down.”
He had more success at the 57th Street Playhouse. “I made a deal where they played A Married Man. As there was no other product at the time, it was a pretty good hit. So I came back to L.A. and I decided, ‘Well, that’s it for porno for me.’”
Higgins quit making porn, then met a guy at a bathhouse and moved with him to his apartment in Venice.
“I saw all these guys roller-skating on the boardwalk of Venice. I thought it was very interesting and started filming it with the leftover film from shooting A Married Man—and I stuck it in the closet.”
When he ran out of money, Higgins took a job at a bathhouse—and suddenly got a call from the owner of the Century Theater. Impressed after seeing A Married Man, he wanted a new Christmas release from Higgins—who initially relented.
“I said ‘No, I’m all through with porno, it was really a disaster and I’m not going to do anymore.’ And he said, ‘If you will make the film for the Christmas release, I will finance the whole thing and I will own the L.A. rights to it in perpetuity, and you will own all the other rights.’ And I said, ‘Well, that sounds interesting. I’ve been shooting some footage in Venice and I want to make a film called The Boys of Venice.’”
Then while visiting his mother in Oklahoma, Higgins got a call from the owner of a bathhouse in New York who wanted to buy the video rights to The Boys of Venice for $3,000. “This was an astronomical sum to me as I had no money, but I said, ‘You know what, I think I’ll pass.’”
Back to California he went, with a prosperous decision on the horizon.
The Rise of VHS
During the Golden Age of gay porn, Higgins recalls three prongs of movie production: Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York.
“L.A. was people who were producing feature films with lots of stories for the seven gay porno theaters around the country, and the people who were shooting them all had day jobs in the ‘real’ movies, so it was very important to them that nobody—and I mean nobody—found out that they were shooting gay porn. I was down in L.A., and I followed that policy up in San Francisco, which was I guess Falcon and Brentwood at that time. They were producing 8-millimeter loops, so they would shoot one scene on a loop.
“And in New York, they were producing very arty gay films with lots and lots of story. I think the story that was produced down in L.A. was just enough story so that you could say it was art and not pornography if you got busted by the police. But Hand in Hand Films in New York was producing very arty films, and they were still in business. They actually worked from a penthouse of a hotel in New York City, and one of the guys on the team had been one of the main editors on the Woodstock film.”
Higgins thought he was going to make a living distributing to the gay theaters, but the wheels started turning in his mind after Falcon released The Other Side of Aspen.
“It played everywhere all the time. And actually, Chuck Holmes told me he didn’t film it in Aspen, he filmed it in Tahoe, but since nobody in the rest of the U.S. had ever heard of Lake Tahoe, he called it The Other Side of Aspen—and the whole idea of filming it was so he could pay for his skiing vacation and take it off on his taxes,” he says.
“So I thought, ‘If I’m going to make any money, I ought to concentrate on this video thing.’ And that’s what caused me to decide to release The Boys of Venice on video, and I did—and I think that’s what put me in the business.”
With the royalties he had coming in for A Married Man, he spent $550 to place an ad selling VHS copies of Venice for check or cash by mail order (much to the chagrin of his sister, who pleaded with him not to spend the rest of his money that way). He rented a maildrop at the French Market, then waited several days before sitting at a restaurant across the street and staring at the drop box.
“I wanted to make sure there were no postal inspectors or FBI agents watching the entrance…I finally decided there wasn’t, so I went in and I said, ‘Do you have any mail for this post box?’ and she said yes, and she pulled out one of these big canvas sacks of mail and put it down on the counter. I threw the thing over my back and started out the door, and she said, ‘Wait! I’ve got two more for you,’” recalls Higgins with a laugh. “I dragged all three out to my old red pickup truck, and I went back to my sister’s apartment where I was living and started opening them up—and there was $80,000 there. I thought, ‘My goodness!’ And I have to say, that’s the best day I’ve ever had in the porn business before or since.”
The director says that the one lab that would print pornography wanted $35 per VHS copy, “which was no problem because we were selling them back then for $150 a copy. That was kind of what got me started.”
The Good (and Bad) Old Days
Needing to get his business out of his own name, Higgins found some inspiration.
“I had been on an outing to Catalina Island—I can’t remember when it was—and I just love that name, so I stared a corporation and we called it Catalina. Now strangely enough, fast forward 30 years later, I ran into a person who was kind of a bigshot on Catalina Island, and he was a fan of my movies and ‘in the closet,’ and he said, ‘You know, they have a chamber of commerce there, and they decided they wanted a website for the island of Catalina. So everybody said, ‘Let’s call it Catalina.’ And the guy said, ‘Well, unfortunately we can’t call it Catalina because some porn company already has that title.’ Oops!”
Along the way, he notes they had some big hits and some big failures—and plenty of problems with the models.
“One of the big problems with the models is not showing up for a shoot. Back in the day, we would schedule a shoot and we would tell the models ‘Meet us at the location’—which was a very dangerous thing to do, because if the police found out, we would have a nice raid. And we would sit and sit there for eight hours or longer waiting for the models to show up.
“And of course, in those days, there were no cell phones. One of the models, they were staying somewhere where you could hardy contact them, and you would ring their home number and it would ring and ring. After eight hours, you would have to call the shoot. And guess what? The other model and the rest of the crew would want to be paid.
“I understand that you have a no-show rate of about 20 percent now, which is low. I was talking to a producer for another studio the other day, and he said he has a no-show rate of about 50 percent. But I can tell you, now you have WhatsApp, you have iMessage, you have iPhones, telephones, everything. And you can usually find out that you need to call a shoot within an hour or two, which makes it a lot better. I think that’s the biggest struggle that I had.
“After a while, I thought everything was legal, and there was a huge raid during the Carter administration. My buddy and I took everything from the company and we put it in the trunk of my big car and we drove around for about three days waiting to be raided. But we were never raided because we were too new in the business.”
It was at that point Higgins decided he better consult an attorney.
“I go to the attorney and said, ‘I thought porno was legal because of the First Amendment,’ and he laughs and says, ‘Oh how naïve you are! What’s amazing to me is that you’ve been in the business this long and haven’t had any encounters with the police.’”
Those words would later prove to be prophetic.
The End of an Era
It’s a simple question, but it doesn’t have the easiest answer. Why did William Higgins leave the United States in 1988 when it seemed like his career was in full swing, not long after his hit Big Guns? He tells his story.
“Well, I had scout, and I’ve said to all the scouts, ‘Whatever you do, don’t mess around with anybody underage.’ Well, I had a suspicion about him and subsequent scouts. So, I was recruiting with him for models in Ft. Lauderdale, and we drove along the street—I think it was Birch Avenue where the guys hung out—and I saw a kid who was obviously underage, and I said ‘Don’t look at him.’ And he said, ‘I’m not looking at him.’ And I said ‘I know you’re looking at him.’
“Well, John Travis, who unfortunately recently passed away, told me to me meet him up in Atlanta—he had some leads for some guys there. So I told this (scout), ‘Here, take this camera, I’m going to Atlanta. And whatever you do, don’t pick that guy up! He’s underage.’ He said, ‘I won’t pick him up!’ And I said, ‘I know you’re a lying so-and-so, so when you do pick him up, don’t take any pictures of him.’ And he said, ‘I won’t take any pictures of him.’ And I said, ‘Well I know you’ll take pictures of him, so when you take pictures of him, just take pictures of his torso down to below his dick, and nothing else.’”
Higgins said he headed to Atlanta, where they discovered a major star (“I can’t remember his name”) and then went home to Los Angeles, where the scout soon joined him.
“And I said, ‘Where’s the film?’ And he said, ‘Well, I’m going to send the film to this very special lab—they run ads in The Advocate, and [the ads] said, ‘Send us your film that you don’t dare send anywhere else to process.’ So I’m going to send it to them.’ And I said, ‘No you’re not, send it to my lab that I’ve been doing business with all of these years. You always get in trouble when you say yes and you mean no.’
“He went and took it to the lab that he had seen advertised in The Advocate. Turns out it was an FBI scam lab, and guess what? He had shot pictures of the guy I told him not to pick up, not to shoot…so one day, I wake up at my house—where he was also living—and there were about 15 police cars out front, and they raiding the house with shotguns and nightsticks and everything else; it wasn’t a full SWAT team, they didn’t have that back then. And the cop came in and said, ‘Do you know what this is about?’ And I said no. And he said, ‘Well Mr. So and So—he gave the name, which I’m not going to give, which was my scout—took these pictures and he sent them to a lab, and the lab had to call us by law.’ And he showed me the pictures and he said, ‘Do you have anything to say about that?’ and I said, ‘Yes, take the cuffs off of me and I will murder him right in front of you. Can you can arrest me for that?’
“Well anyway, they took my picture, they took his picture, and he told them a story…he came up with a very good lie. He said, ‘Well, I was at this party motel in Ft Lauderdale and the camera was lying there on the table all the time and everybody was running in and out. I have no idea who took those pictures. As a matter of fact, I haven’t seen them until this moment because I turned the film into that lab, and now you’re bringing up that somebody apparently got my camera and took picture of this lad without my knowing.’
“In the meanwhile, I decided to go on a long vacation and take him with me. We went first to Australia, made a movie, didn’t like it; went on to Thailand, liked it, but didn’t see any opportunities there; went to Frankfort, and then I drove through from Frankfurt to Spain and Portugal and on up to Amsterdam, where our European distributor was, and I decided, ‘I want to open a store in this town because the real money is in the stores.’
“Meanwhile, the FBI had actually gone to Ft. Lauderdale, and they found the kid and they showed him my picture and they showed him the other guy’s picture, and he said, ‘Never saw either of them.’ The charge dropped, and they called me and said, ‘Okay, you can come back to the USA now.’ And I said, ‘You know, I don’t think I will.’
“Then there’s another instance while I was off on this vacation: Ronald Regan said to (Attorney General) Ed Meese, ‘I want you to find the 10 top pornographers in the United States and put ’em all in jail.’ And I was like No. 9 or No. 10 on the list, so they started after me. And there are only two people on that list that didn’t go to jail…one was me. And it took until a couple of years into Bill Clinton’s first term for them to drop that investigation. And in the meantime, I was very well established in Europe and had no intention of going back to the United States.”
In Part 2 of our interview with William Higgins, the icon chronicles his second life and career in Prague.