If gold medals were handed out for making porn movies, Ron Jeremy would be the all-time champion. He has made close to 2,000 of them, including On the Loose: Viva Ron Vegas and San Fernando Jones and the Temple of Poon, as well as about 100 mainstream movies, such as The Boondock Saints with Willem Dafoe. He tells the story of his XXX-rated career in a steamy new book, The Hardest (Working) Man in Showbiz: Horny Women, Hollywood Nights & The Rise of the Hedgehog!(Harper). And yes, it’s illustrated. TIME senior reporter Andrea Sachs spoke with Jeremy from his Hollywood home.
TIME: How did you get your start in the porn industry?
Ron Jeremy: Like many Jewish boys, I was working up in the Catskills, as a waiter and the maitre d’ at the Paramount Hotel. I was doing theater, and it was a very difficult situation, especially in New York, where you couldn’t be an extra unless you were part of the Screen Actors Guild. I was making no money. We agreed — my girlfriend Alice and I — to take some pictures in the deluxe wing of the Paramount. We knew women could do Playboy and that might lead to a career in theater, film. I thought I would try it out and at least get some kind of exposure, pardon the pun. So my girlfriend took the photographs and sent them to Playgirl. I thought maybe they would agree to bring me to L.A. for a layout, and while I’m in L.A. I’ll try to get some work in Hollywood. Then Playgirl called and they said we have good news and bad news. The bad news is they weren’t going to fly me anywhere. The good news is that they were going to use the pictures we had taken.
How did the public respond to the photos?
I had used my real name: Ron Hyatt, from Queens, New York; likes to go hang gliding and sailing when he gets the chance, and working on his master’s degree in special education. A lot of people looked up R. Hyatt in Queens, New York, but they were getting my grandmother, Rose Hyatt, who lived downstairs. My poor grandmother was being woken up night and day, mostly by guys. Playgirl likes to think that their audience is mostly women, but no, no, the majority is gay. My poor grandma had to move. Then my dad sat me down and said, “I don’t know what cockamamie business you are getting into. You want to do something, fine, you’re an adult, but don’t you ever use the family name again.” So I used my middle name, which is Jeremy.
What was your path to the porn industry?
I quit teaching because I was making no money. After Playgirl I went to see a filmmaker I knew. Joe said he only did adult movies, so I said that’s kind of sleazy. Then I did theater for a few months and starved. So I went back to Joe and thought, it’s not so bad. I asked my family what they thought and they said, [we] aren’t crazy about the idea but if you really want to do this go ahead, if you think it may be a shortcut to the mainstream. So Joe put me in my first adult film, Tigresses and Other Man-eaters. I spent an hour in makeup and they never once saw my face.
Were you embarrassed during the filming?
Yes, a little. There were some professionals there who had done it for a while. I wasn’t getting the liftoff as quickly as they did. It was embarrassing. It’s funny because now, years later when I am not taking Viagra and the other guy does, I am still slow to the punch. I am the slow man on the totem pole. It was embarrassing because I was not used to being nude and having sex in a room full of people.
Were your friends shocked that you were doing this?
The funniest dialogue came from the Catskills, where I had been working as a waiter for so many years of my life. They had this thing called “Bungalow Bunnies,” where the women would stay up in the Catskills and their husbands would leave to work. They didn’t really care if their wives were messing around because they were doing the same thing with their secretaries back in Manhattan. We were up in the Catskills, and I had a very good sex life, to the point where when I was once late to dinner and told the maitre d’ I was with a girl. He said, and I remember his exact words, “Anybody else I would forgive but with you it’s like brushing your teeth. You’re late; you’re being docked pay.” So when they heard, Ron’s doing porn, they said, “That’s not a big shock, is it?”
What did you enjoy about making these movies?
This might sound corny or cheesy, but I just loved acting, doing dialogue. All my friends were still doing theater off-off-Broadway and I was doing film. Yes it’s porn, but it still goes into theaters. They still had acting back then. They had big scripts. There were no videos back then, no DVDs, no Internet. I came at a time they called the Golden ’80s.
Did you enjoy the sex or did it become tedious?
I did to an extent. The acting I always loved because it’s taking on a role, but the sex was 50-50. There is always a little nervousness that you are going to be naked in front of a room full of guys and a couple of makeup artists. You did some dialogue and then they would say, “OK, Ronnie, let’s go.” It was a bit uncomfortable in the beginning, but once your body and your mind told you you’ve done it before, you can do it again. It became kind of fun.
What kind of people were in the industry?
In the ’70s it was a hippie-dippie-sexual-revolution-Woodstock kind of gig. Flower children in many ways. Pot smokers, though once in a while you would see cocaine or a pill. Most of them had been to college. Some have come from broken homes, some from abusive homes. What I tell kids when I lecture in colleges is that porn is largely a microcosm of Hollywood itself. There were kids who wanted to do something goofy and crazy. Some were actors who wanted to go for an acting career, like me, and settled for this because acting was just a murderously difficult thing to get into. It’s thousands of people chasing so few jobs, with everyone driving a taxi, working as a waiter.
Did you get rich doing it?
I did well, not so much through porn but because of the marketing that came from porn: the rolling papers, the penis pills — which I’m on a lot of infomercials for — the skateboards and the T-shirts made me fairly wealthy. Also the reality shows, which came because of porn both here and in Europe. I go to topless clubs and nude clubs, crack jokes and do a burlesque act while the girls are stripping. I make jokes and then we do autographs, meet and greets, like the ambassador of good will. That has added real good money to the bank account.
Have you been able to have romantic relationships while living this life?
It’s very, very difficult. If you look at statistics, the majority of marriages around the world don’t work, which is very sad because they can work. Now let’s go to porn. Very rarely do they ever last a long time. There are a few I’m proud of that are going strong, but it’s so difficult because you have to have the alternative lifestyle attitude. I don’t know if we were meant to be totally monogamous. Early cultures weren’t; Greek, Romans, some Asian societies today, but it’s the Judeo-Christian attitude that came along that made us feel guilty of straying. You could love your wife to pieces and it’s only your genitals that are doing the traveling, but it’s a hard thing to understand. You can be emotionally monogamous and physically not monogamous. I think Viagra is one of the greatest gifts to monogamy. You may not need it to be with the blonde down the street or get a lap dance, but to be with your wife of 20 years or your wife who’s 50, you may need Viagra.
Are you still doing any porn?
I just did one a few days ago, a benefit for a great New York director who has serious colon cancer. We all did a free porn film. I did a sex thing with a sweet girl named Candy, she’s actually here because we did a scene and she is staying over. (Giggling in the background.) I am also doing a horror film in Arizona called Blood Moon Rising.
Is it still fun?
I would never admit this, and my dad warned me of this, but the libido does lose a little as you get older. Nature is cruel! As you get older, as you get into your 50s, it is more effort to get into liftoff. I’m 55, and it’s a bit of a strain, but it’s not to the point where it’s a chore because then I just wouldn’t do it. I don’t have to do porn anymore for economic reasons. However, I like to stay current. I don’t want to be an ex-porn star.