Roy Karch Passes Away

LOS ANGELES—Roy Karch, the prolific director who rode a wave from Porno Chic to Porn Valley, helming 200 movies over four decades, and becoming known as a workhorse, a sweetheart, a perfectionist, and a pain in the ass, died September 24 after a long illness. He was 73.

Born Roy Karchmer in Brookline, Mass., on December 21, 1946, to a “reformed” Jewish household, Roy spent his life loving the Boston Red Sox, even after his father, Israel, moved the family to New York in the early 1950s to start an upholstery business.

“My father, brother, and I wore our Red Sox hats to Dodger games and Yankee games, and then to Mets games,” Karch said in a 2006 interview. “Maybe that’s where I got my ‘contrary’ reputation.”

“Oh yeah, Roy could be a bit cantankerous that's for sure,” says Jeff Mullen who, when “an innocent kid from Milwaukee in 1983,” got his first adult industry job from Karch, scoring movies in the days before music libraries. As Will Ryder, Mullen is, like Karch, in the AVN Hall of Fame. “But to be Roy’s friend was a special thing. You loved him, you got pissed off by him, you wanted to help him."

“If it weren’t for Roy Karch, I might have become a doctor or a lawyer, so I have Roy to thank or blame for that,” Mullen adds. “The first time I stepped foot on his movie set and saw those naked girls having sex with complete strangers, any legitimate career pursuit was out the window.”

“Roy was a very high-strung guy,” says Penny Antine, who met Karch in 1985 and whose home was the setting for a dozen or more of Karch’s movies. Antine had a 30-year career writing movies for Paul Thomas and other directors, and she and Karch had a good time “talking shop” together. “But he always seemed on the verge of hysteria.”

Despite this, the performers who knew how to work with Roy worked with him again and again, and remember him for a sweetness and sense of humor that often poked out of the hysteria.

“You definitely did not show up on Roy’s sets unprepared,” says retired performer Mika Tan, who starred in Insertz, the movie Karch said he was proudest of, and several other “Roy Karch Riffs,” as he called his projects. “He would pounce on you.”


While it could seem that Karch was contrary for the sake of being contrary, he was a steady, top-selling director for decades.

“You couldn’t tell Van Gogh how to be; you couldn’t tell Roy how to be,” says Sunny Lane, whose first movie for Karch was The More the Merrier, filmed in 2005.

“I used to call Roy’s movies ‘talkies’ because they were more like mainstream movies with hardcore sex than porn movies with dialogue,” Tan says. “It was an honor and a privilege to work with him.”

The More the Merrier was an Adam & Eve movie with Carmen Luvana and Carmen Hart,” says Lane. “Roy said, ‘It’s going to be a Carmen Sandwich for Sweet Sunny Lane!’”

People who encountered Karch sensed his New York State of Mind early.

Despite rooting for his original home team, Karch thrived in New York, playing blues harmonica with neighborhood groups, earning a Master’s degree in education (he was a Phys Ed teacher in Brooklyn until the early 1970s) and, when the opportunity arose, diving into the nascent public access television scene in Manhattan. With host Michael Luckman, Karch produced the Underground Tonight Show, an edgier, budget version of Johnny Carson’s late-night show, which featured counterculture musical guests like Richie Havens and Phil Ochs as well as sex culture celebrities like Linda Lovelace, Gerard Damiano, and Betty Dodson, who masturbated on live TV (Dodson, 91, is herself in hospice care in Manhattan, not far from where The Underground Tonight Show was filmed).

“I always loved music,” Karch said, “and that lifestyle, and living in the city, and that hustle, got me into porn.”

Indeed, Karch’s New York experience shared something with contemporary Paul Thomas. Before making their way to the L.A. porn scene in the late 1970s, both performed in Manhattan live sex venues and appeared in stag “loops” that were often financed with Mob money, distributed clandestinely, and sold under the counter during the “Porno Chic” era. Both got into porn as an adjunct to other forms of artistic expression (and as “an interesting way to make money,” Karch said): Karch was a music aficionado and Thomas would tour the country in the rock operas “Hair” and “Jesus Christ Superstar.” 


In 1975 Karch produced what could be called the first adult entertainment awards show, the Eros Awards, in Manhattan. (His parents collected tickets; Karch would later say, “my Jewish parents were just happy I was saving cash”). Among the “Tonguey” statues passed out was one for “Best Lips” to Mick Jagger (according to Karch, “we had to mail the Tonguey to Mick’s people”). Alongside his production work with theUnderground Tonight Show, Karch provided live-event videography for the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin and produced a video for Donna Summer.

Karch’s flurry of activity in New York was interrupted by a cocaine bust, for which he was convicted and served nearly 18 months in the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Conn. It was there that Karch immersed himself in the teachings of “Be Here Now” author Ram Dass and began meditating. (Karch, who could often be described as prickly and agitated on porn sets through the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, would tell friends that “before Ram Dass, I used to be worse”). 

With his video production skills and his New York teaching career cut short by his conviction, in 1977 Karch came to Hollywood, where he got a job as a production assistant with arthouse American director John Cassavetes. He can be seen as the cab driver in Cassavetes’ film The Killing of a Chinese Bookie in a scene opposite Ben Gazzara (three decades later, Karch would play Ben Gazzara’s porn magnate character in WoodRocket’s parody of The Big Lebowski).

It was also in 1977 that Karch had a chance meeting—at a Sunset Blvd. gas station—with Richard Dreyfuss. According to Karch, they talked about the movie Inserts, in which Dreyfuss played a brilliant film director reduced to producing porn loops in the 1930s. Karch’s final movie as a director would be Insertz (2007), a porn version of that mainstream movie about porn. He said he “sent a copy to Ricky’s people,” but Dreyfuss never got back to him.


Regardless of its dubious legality, the porn business was booming in Los Angeles in the late 1970s and early 1980s and, with 1988’s Freeman v. The State of California (known throughout the adult business as “The Freeman Decision”), porn became a money-minting machine and Karch, who had entered the business as a salesman, soon began a directing career that yielded hundreds of full-length movies on a road that led him to the AVN and XRCO halls of fame.

He was so prolific—writing and directing early parodies like Cagney And Stacey and Crocodile Blondee 2—that he gave two movies with different scripts the same title (Casual Sex) 17 years apart.

“I never cared about owning my movies,” Karch said, ruefully, in 2007. “I just wanted to get my movies done for Adam & Eve, or Gourmet Video, or SexZ, or Cal Vista, and know when my paycheck was coming in.”

So, for the liberated '70s, the coke-fueled '80s (despite his stay in Danbury, Karch continued using cocaine through the 1980s, and recalled little of that decade), the businesslike '90s (he produced and directed 14 6-to-8-scene movies in 1996 alone), and the transitional '00s, Karch generated a workmanlike but prolific body of work for a number of companies, none of which were particularly lauded, but each a useful snapshot of its time, reflecting the Porn Valley of the moment and employing hundreds of the Valley’s best-known performers and most capable below-the-line staff for decades.

“Roy knew how to write a script that worked,” says Antine. “He didn’t break any barriers or bring anything new or wondrous to it, but few of us did! He just loved the business and he gave a lot of his life to it.”

The problem was that, by the early 2000s, Karch’s crews were too big for the mid-level fare he was producing. He was not making epic productions for Wicked or Vivid, and he was not a dynamic shooter/editor of the kind companies like Digital Playground employed. Turning 60 in 2006, he was also not a one-man-band gonzo director, either.

“I think the last time I filmed anything myself was in 1975,” Karch said at the time. “For the last few decades I’ve hired someone to shoot camera.”

Karch found computers maddening and refused to get a smartphone. His schedule and records were kept on whiteboards and an intricate series of index cards bound with rubber bands.


Karch found himself priced out and aged out, and his interpersonal style, which he described with the Yiddish word “nudzhiness”—a kind of aggressive nagging—didn’t help. Too late, he financed two movies in 2007, the Inserts tribute Insertz, and the vignette film MILFology. The former turned out to be a fitting terminal bookend to his L.A. porn career, and the latter was no better or worse than any other Karch production of the past three decades. Both failed to sell in 2007 but would have flown off the shelves a decade before.

By 2008, when all directing work had fallen off, Karch said, “I should have made a few movies for myself each year since the 1980s; then I wouldn’t be begging for work.”

He earned a few hundred dollars licensing a Phil Ochs clip from The Underground Tonight Show in the early teens, by chance one of the only pieces of his decades-long output that he owned, and likely the only passive income he ever got.

Retrospective projects, like a planned biography, sputtered over details he found “unflattering,” like his prison stay. Like many pornographers of his vintage, such as the late Bill Margold, Karch felt as though history didn’t remember his contributions to the culture well, if at all.

“(The Other Hollywood author) Legs McNeil followed me around CES (the Consumer Electronics Show, of which what is now the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo was once a part) for two days, and all I got was half a paragraph in his book,” Karch said in 2010.

Friends like Mullen stepped in to offer assistance. Retraining, rebranding, financial help. Karch worked backstage on a few movies, and even on camera in cameos, but he was overwhelmed by learning the new ways of a business in which he’d thrived for so long. Surprised to be feeling so obsolete after three decades of relevance, Karch eventually retreated from the adult industry, but leapt at any chance to speak about it.


Karch loved the blues, his British Invasion bands, Bob Dylan, Love’s seminal 1967 album “Forever Changes,” and going to the In-n-Out Burger by his old apartment in Hollywood.

“My favorite memories of Roy are from when we would meet at the In-n-Out on Sunset,” says publicist Wayne Hentai. “He was always particular about the fries (he liked them extra crispy). We'd talk about the state of the industry, of course, but I always enjoyed when he'd talk about the industry when it was new. There's something about getting in on the ground floor of something, when there are no rules and no conventions as how things should be done, and you're just winging it as you go along. Those were the stories I liked best. That's how I want to remember Roy—a good, wise man who had a lot of advice to give.”

Karch also loved quoting films like The Godfather series and even appreciated how Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 Boogie Nights reflected the SoCal porn world he entered in its second wave.

“There’s a scene in Boogie Nights where somebody says to Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds’ character), ’There’s a guy out there shooting porn on videotape,’” Karch often said. “That guy was me.”

(In truth, there was a scene in which film stalwart Jack Horner is told that a videotape revolution was imminent in the porn industry, but it was never attached to one “guy.”)

But Karch’s movies were never grim, flouting the self-conscious Porn Valley trend of porn that took itself too seriously. As “nudzhy” as Karch could be on set, he always cared about his movies, adding humor and references to the things he liked outside of the sex industry.

“All my shit’s got shit in it,” he said in 2004. “Just watch past the sex scenes.”

After the end of a stint as a tour guide with a Hollywood bus company, Karch in 2011 suffered the first of a series of strokes. He bounced back, continuing to play basketball at the Hollywood YMCA, where he’d been a member for decades. But more health and financial setbacks ensued, and Mullen feels Karch was beginning to suffer from dementia.

“He was less and less ‘Roy,’” Mullen says.

In 2018, no longer able to afford the apartment in which he’d lived for 26 years, Karch moved to an elderly housing complex east of Downtown LA. His condition worsening following more strokes, Karch was bedridden the entirety of 2020. Mullen says that the last time he heard Roy speak was in March.

Roy was predeceased by his parents and his only sibling, his younger brother Leslie, died last year. Mullen, who was Karch’s caretaker, has organized a GoFundMe for Roy’s headstone, to be unveiled in the Jewish tradition a year from now.

“Roy was a proud man,” Mullen says. “He just needed some help in the end and I was glad I was able to step up and take care of him and I know he was grateful to his friends that donated when the need was there. I want to send him off with the dignity all of us deserve.”   

Says Sunny Lane, “His smile is everlasting and he will forever be in my heart.”

Antine, 80, marvels at Karch’s constitution and laughs recalling her old friend’s humor and irascibility. “He must have been strong as an ox to have held on as long as he did,” she says, adding, “There’s practically no one in the industry left from when we were in it.”

To contribute to Roy Karch’s headstone GoFundMe, click here. For a memorial tribute video to Roy, click here.