From the Annals: Jamie Gillis Sets the Record Straight

[Almost exactly three years ago, ran the following piece by Jared Rutter concerning the impact of Jamie Gillis' classic series On the Prowl. It marked the last correspondence AVN had with Gillis. —Ed.]

AVN got a call from an adult movie legend the other day. Jamie Gillis, who rarely talks to the media, wanted to "set history right" after reading the January 2007 cover story, "The 50 Most Influential Adult Releases of All Time."

"I was a little surprised not to see On the Prowl mentioned," he told, and well he should have been. It was indeed an oversight. On the Prowl was absolutely one of the 50 most influential adult releases—probably belonging in the top 25.

AVN gave credit to Ed Powers' Bus Stop Tales, which though important in its own right as "one of the pioneering efforts of the nascent gonzo movement," was predated and influenced by On the Prowl.

In 1989 Gillis took starlet Rene Morgan and cameraman Duck Dumont on a limousine cruise of San Francisco's North Beach, picking up various men who had sex with Morgan in the car. The result, On the Prowl, was the most influential early example of what has come to be known as "reality porn."

It has remained a cult favorite, gaining extra notoriety when it was parodied in a scene from the mainstream movie Boogie Nights some eight years later.

Gillis pointed out that Powers himself was the first to acknowledge its influence. "On the very first Bus Stop Tales—I don't Ed has removed it, but I have a copy of the original—it has a little message at the end thanking Jamie Gillis for—I forget the exact wording—but thanking Jamie Gillis for introducing a whole new genre."

Powers, he said, "was very excited about On the Prowl and he immediately went out and shot Bus Stop Tales."

Gillis, it should be mentioned, also shot the first scene for Dirty Debutantes, which would become Powers' signature line. It was with Mia Powers, the girl on the box cover. "Ed knew nothing about it," Gillis said. "She was the first Debutante. I brought the scene to Ed and said, 'This is what I'm doing.' He said, 'Oh, this is terrific, this is a fabulous idea, please do it with me.'"

Gillis and Powers became The Nasty Brothers, collaborating on the first half dozen or so Dirty Debs before they parted company.

"It's some relief to me to be able to tell the history," Gillis said. "That's sort of historically the progression."

Most "reality porn," then as now, is set up in advance. Gillis deliberately set out to do something different.

"I'd been in the business already for many years and I just said oh my god, they're so boring, these stupid movies with their stupid scripts. So I said let's just take a girl and bring her out and find somebody who wants to fuck her and is excited about it. I literally brought girls out to the public, and whoever came along, that's what we shot.

"Now that to me was fun because it meant that we didn't know exactly what was going to happen. I always liked reality. I hated the old moans and groans type of porn."

On the Prowl, shot by Duck Dumont, the RedBoard Video owner who passed away last year, was an experiment.

"We wanted to do it, and we got Rene. We thought we'd shoot a scene and see what happened. It was all very casual. The only other girl in it was a friend who I met, I said, hey, we're doing this crazy thing tonight, want to come along?

"So she came along for a few minutes and you see her in the limo, but she was obviously kind of nervous, so she left. She never did anything or was expected to do anything.

"But Rene was a real trouper. She was up to do pretty much anything. We got a couple of sailors and then another group of guys, which dwindled down to the one guy who remained. She pretty much did a considerable amount of work that night."

Gillis got it out to the public immediately.

"We shot it, and then we realized we got 65 minutes—that's practically a whole video, let's just release it. Then I got on the phone and sold it, and I had a wonderful time even selling it because I was very excited about it."

But first he thought he'd better check with a lawyer, so he called First Amendment attorney John Weston.

"'We just went out and shot this tape, is there anything we need to do?' And he said, 'Are you crazy? Burn it! Bury it!' Because there was such a fear that we would pick up some straight kid, a mayor or a senator's son, and here we were going out and dirtying the public and bringing the public into porn. There was going to be an outcry and they're going to come down on everybody.

"So I said, 'Thanks, John,' and hung up the phone, and I put on the label: 'This tape is so hot that our lawyer said, Burn it!'

"I remember, I was selling it for $20, which was unheard of. I think most tapes at the time were selling for $10. So I was selling it for twice as much as anyone was asking. And I thought, this is revolutionary, this is exciting. And as it turned out I was right. It spawned the gonzo business—not that I had everything to do with it, but I had something to do with it."

(To back up his claim, he quoted a review from, of all places, AVN: "Jamie Gillis, the original gonzo pioneer is back. It's been a lot of years since the original On the Prowl introduced porn fans to a whole new genre.")

Gillis did "about half a dozen" more On the Prowls, most of them for Vivid, including one shot in Paris. The first one, however, is the only one he ever owned outright.

 "I thought I was going to go into business, I was going to be Jamie Gillis Video. It was going OK, but I didn't want to get into, I guess, being a businessman, doing a company thing. It didn't seem right to me. I was on the phone a lot. I guess I could have hired someone to do it. But somehow, after the first Prowl, I didn't feel like getting involved in business. I never had a business head.

"So I said, well, OK, in future Prowls, I'll still have fun doing them, but I'll just go and sell them, whoever wants them. So I think the second one was for General Video. And after that for Vivid."

Gillis emphasized that condoms were used in the first Prowl and in the 40 or so Prowl scenes he shot subsequently. "The condoms we used in each chapter were safer than an AIDS test. It was always a little tricky finding girls, but they were always offered condoms."

How did he feel when he saw Prowl parodied in Boogie Nights?

"Well, I was horrified, because for me the experience was a wonderful event. I loved doing it, it was a great adventure. But what happened in Boogie Nights was they took it and made it into a very depressing and kind of ugly thing. People were like beaten up when they got in the car. I mean, I've done a lot of sleazy movies and things in my life, but I never felt dirtier than after I saw Boogie Nights. I said, Oh my god, they're taking my little joy, my little treasure, and shitting on it, making it ugly and stupid and violent.

"And that's not what it was to me. To me it was freedom, it was about going out with a camera in public and seeing what would happen. I enjoyed it, and it was also hot. I still love the Prowls."

The first Prowl is available on DVD, but only from Gillis. "If somebody writes to me or wants it, nowhere else. In other words, somebody would literally have to contact me and I could burn a copy for them. Every once in a while that happens."

Gillis can be reached through his web site, "It's not really a big site. I think of it as putting myself in the phone book; if somebody wants to find me, I'm available."

As a sidebar to the story of his influential experiment, Gillis told what happened to the sailors who shared the limo with Rene on that eventful night.

"One of them eventually ended up in the brig because he'd done Prowl. And his lawyer called me. I said, 'Why did they single out this guy? He didn't even perform. The other guy did the actual sex.' And he said, 'Well, they don't like him much anyway, he's not a great sailor, so this is an excuse to get him out of the Navy. But they're keeping the other guy.'

"And I said, 'That doesn't seem fair. Listen, you tell the people who arrested him that I will go to the press and embarrass them by saying that they're only throwing one guy out and using Prowl as an excuse. It will be very awkward for the Navy to have to deal with that situation.'

"And the lawyer called me back like the next day and said, 'Thank you so much. As soon as I said that to them they dropped everything and let him out.'

"So that's the only time in my life I had a sense of what power was. It was like, Wow, the power of the media. It was a wonderful feeling to have saved that kid."

Postscript: Vivid sales chief Howard Levine, in a phone call to, challenged Gillis’ memory about the merchandising of the first On the Prowl, saying that the selling was done by Levine himself, not Gillis, when he worked for General Video in San Francisco. Though Gillis did retain ownership, GVA did the distribution. The tape was packaged in a plain black wrapper with no photos. Levine knew immediately the commercial potential of what he was selling—at $20 a pop, as Gillis remembered. He said he told GVA’s owner, who wasn’t so sure: "This tape is going to sell like crazy." It did. Levine also backed up Gillis’ claims about the movie’s influence on other pornographers. "Jamie really was the first to do anything like that," Levine said. -JR