The Free Speech Issues Involving Harry Reems

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from – Harry Reems, star of the landmark 1972 porn movie Deep Throat and a free-speech cause célèbre following a federal conviction for obscenity in the mid-’70s, died Tuesday, March 19, at a Salt Lake City hospital. Reems, who had been suffering from various ailments including pancreatic cancer, was 65.

Born Herbert Streicher in The Bronx in 1947, Harry Reems entered the entertainment industry after serving in the U.S. Marines. It’s a classical show business story, (somewhat) along the lines of the Ruby Keeler / Bebe Daniels switch in 42nd Street: when Deep Throat‘s original male lead failed to show up on the set, writer-director Gerard Damiano got lighting director Harry Reems to go out an unknown and come back a star.

Deep Throat featured Reems as a doctor who discovers that the clitoris of a sexually frustrated patient (Linda Lovelace) is located at the back of her throat. Therapy ensues.

Unhappy with the medical procedures found in Deep Throat, Manhattan judge Joel J. Tyler called Damiano’s film a “feast of carrion and squalor,” “a nadir of decadence” and “a Sodom and Gomorrah gone wild before the fire.”

Tyler fined Mature Enterprises, the company that owned the Times Square theater screening Deep Throat, $100,000. (The fine was later reduced on appeal.)

In large part thanks to Judge Tyler and his ilk elsewhere in the United States and other countries, Deep Throat became such a cultural phenomenon in the early ’70s that it inspired the nickname for Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s secret source (later revealed to be W. Mark Felt) during their investigation of the Watergate scandal, which eventually led to the resignation of disgraced Republican president Richard Nixon.

In 1976, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman played, respectively, Woodward and Bernstein in Alan J. Pakula’s Best Picture Academy Award nominee All the President’s Men.

Ironically, the same year All the President’s Men depicted a series of obscene threats to American democracy, the U.S. federal government convicted Harry Reems on charges of “conspiracy to distribute obscenity across state lines” as a result of his participation in Deep Throat. Frightened by the anti-free speech precedent — Reems reportedly became the first American actor to be convicted on obscenity charges — Gregory Peck, Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, and other Hollywood celebrities came to his defense.

Celebrity attorney Alan Dershowitz represented Reems during the appeals process. As mentioned in a Los Angeles Times editorial blasting the U.S. government’s case against Reems, “The Anti-Freedom Conspiracy,” Dershowitz declared that “if this conviction stands, no actor and no writer anywhere in the country will be safe from prosecution.” Ultimately, the charges against Reems were dropped and the conviction — which could have led to a five-year prison sentence — was dismissed.

Made for less than $50,000, Deep Throat went on to gross millions at the worldwide box office and later on home video. How many millions is debatable: the $600m figure espoused by some is patently absurd. Either way, despite the film’s financial success none of the talent involved in the making of the ultimately mafia-controled sex comedy became multi-millionaires.

At least at first, Harry Reems took his celebrity in stride: “You could call me the Shirley Temple” of adult films, the actor was quoted as saying at the time. “Take an X film and make it an R because I have a PG body.”

Following Deep Throat, Harry Reems was featured in dozens of porn films, most notably Gerard Damiano’s other epoch-making X-rated movie, The Devil in Miss Jones (1973), co-starring Georgina Spelvin, and not to be confused with Sam Wood’s 1941 socially conscious comedy The Devil and Miss Jones starring Jean Arthur, Robert Cummings, and Charles Coburn.

Harry Reems was also seen in the American edited version of Roberto Bianchi Montero’s giallo So Sweet, So Dead, starring Farley Granger and Sylvia Koscina (1972); Shaun Costello’s Forced Entry (1973), as a woman-killing Vietnam veteran; Sean S. Cunningham and Brud Talbot’s sex mystery Case of the Full Moon Murders (1973), with Sheila Stuart; in the title role in Victor Milt’s sexually charged Sherlock Holmes (1975); and, inevitably, Deep Throat Part II (1974), directed by Joseph W. Sarno and once again starring Linda Lovelace (who, along with fellow government witness Damiano, testified against Reems at his trial).

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