Golden Age Icon Johnnie Keyes Dies

LOS ANGELES—Adult legend and AVN Hall of Famer Johnnie Keyes, best known for his role opposite Marilyn Chambers in the iconic 1972 Mitchell Brothers film Behind the Green Door, died Sunday in Seattle, Washington, from complications following a recent stroke, AVN has learned. He was 78.

Born in 1940 in Cleveland, Keyes was a jazz and blues musician most of his life, which became his main endeavor after his adult career. A few of his other notable triple-X credits included 1976's Femmes de Sade, also from the Mitchell Brothers, 1977's Sex World from Essex Video, 1981's Aunt Peg's Fulfillment from Metro Video, and a number of volumes in Caballero's famed Swedish Erotica series. He also made a cameo in director Paul Thomas' 2013 quasi-remake The New Behind the Green Door for Vivid Entertainment.

Keyes' colorful life included stints as a boxer, a musical theater actor, a sex surrogate and a U.S. Army soldier who fought in Vietnam, all of which he discussed in a 2016 interview with Golden Age history site that can be found here.

At a 2009 memorial for Keyes' Green Door co-star Chambers, late industry pillar and histrorian William Margold said of Keyes, "When he entered the screen in 1972, he basically ripped American morality asunder when he took Marilyn Chambers on. Our industry was never the same, and it was born that day in the [Mitchell Brothers'] O'Farrell Theater in San Francisco in August of '72."

The significance of Keyes' landmark scene with Chambers in Green Door—perhaps the most famous interracial sex scene in history, and certainly among the earliest—was underscored by a 2015 commentary during Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update" segment in which anchor Michael Che argued that Keyes deserved to have his face on a U.S. postage stamp for having been "the first black man in interracial porno." (The bit came during Black History Month, when a number of other black pioneers have been given their own stamps.)

"Could you imagine what Johnnie Keyes had to go through in those days?" Che quipped. "I mean, Jackie Robinson got death threats and he was just playing baseball with white people. Johnnie Keyes should be on every stamp!"

At the time, Keyes told AVN that Che's remarks weren't that far off the mark. "I got death threats, I had to take security," he said. "I got death threats from the Ku Klux Klan, I got death threats from all kinds of people who were upset about watching me fuck Marilyn Chambers."

Other interviews with Keyes about his experiences during and post-adult can be found in AVN founder Paul Fishbein's 2014 documentary X-Rated: The Greatest Adult Movies of All Time (produced with former AVN CEO Darren Roberts and directed by AVN Hall of Famer Bryn Pryor), and the 2017 documentary After Porn Ends 2, directed by Bryce Wagoner.  

Longtime friend Mahdea Simmons told AVN, "I had the pleasure of calling Johnnie Keyes 'pops.' He was the same on screen as he was in everyday life. He was magical."

Thomas, whose New Behind the Green Door marked Keyes' final appearance in an X-rated movie (albeit in a non-sex role), commented that at the time of its production, "He was remarkably youthful and energetic and probably a better, calmer, more connecting person than he was in his youth. He gained a lot of gravitas and wisdom to understand how to listen and react. He was very good company. 

"I knew him when he was younger," Thomas continued, "and he had changed for the better. But he maintained ... he was Bojangles, man. He was Bojangles. And during Green Door, we went over to Sausalito on the day of, and he went to I think it's called the No Name Bar and got up on stage and did a song. He had really, really great energy. 

"He definitely regarded himself as a pioneer in the X business. We'd be out and he'd make sure people knew who he was. He wore that shark tooth thing he wore [in the original Behind the Green Door]—he still wore it. He said it was the same one, I know that it wasn't the same one. But he still wore a shark's tooth around his neck."

Photo of Johnnie Keyes at the After Porn Ends 2 premiere screening by Greg Doherty/