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December 1, 2010

“Happiness, too, is inevitable” - A Tribute to Jamie Gillis

By Heather Drain

Let’s face it, folks, the past two years have been horrible for losing great artists, especially for those of us who are into the fringe arts. Damiano, Lux Interior, Bill Landis, Ron Asheton, Brian “Smerdley” Shane, Jack Wrangler, Sky Saxon, Erica Boyer, Juliet Anderson and now Jamie Gillis.

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I can’t even convey to you properly how weird it feels to type out that sentence, especially since the news only broke out a few days ago. Death is always a surprise but this was a case of it being genuinely shocking. This was a man that lived life to its fullest and for being 66 years old, he looked damn good. Better than anyone has a right to. But it’s not just appearances. There was something truly bigger than life about the man. Part of that was persona. Any fan of blue films worth his or her salt should be more than familiar with “the dark Prince of Porn. But Gillis was more than that, both as an actor and as a man. This was someone you could never just write off as this or that. When you do that, you’re usually missing the most beautiful and brilliant part of the picture. It is the layers of Gillis’s talent and intelligence that has always fascinated me.

Being an actor in the adult genre is a thankless job. If horror is the redheaded stepchild of “respectable” film criticism, then adult film is the illegitimate child that gets locked in the basement. This brand of creative snobbery frankly should have died as soon as it reared its snot-nosed head. Gerard Damiano was a better director than Steven Spielberg and Jamie Gillis could out-act the majority of 70’s mainstream actors. How many actors could pull off the psychological damage and intensity of the main character Burt in Water Power (1977) and then be able to switch to romantic and even funny in so many other films? Watching him keep up with the equally underrated Jack Baker in New Wave Hookers (1985) is proof positive of someone with serious comedic chops.

I never got to know the man personally, save perhaps for a very sweet Facebook rejection where he explained that he wanted to limit his account to friends and people actually within his real social circle, which I can definitely respect. I wouldn’t have blamed him or anyone for hitting the ignore button, but just the fact that he took the time out to politely explain himself spoke very well of his character. The fact that he was dealing with cancer and kept it a secret until the very end is incredibly humbling. Most of us whine, blog and tweet if we have a head cold, so to carry that kind of secret around with as much privacy and grace has to take an almost superhuman strength.

I do have friends who were lucky enough to know the man proper and had the chance to work with him on various levels and all of them only had great things to say. The detail that sticks out the most for me was being told that Gillis was the kind of guy that could talk you out of jumping off a building in less than five minutes-calmly, coolly and with a sensitive type of logic. Others spoke of his intellect, humor, no bullshit approach to life and a love of the arts.

Judging by various interviews I have read and seen with Gillis, I would add unnecessary humility to that list. This was someone who really didn’t give himself a lot of credit for the great offerings he gave to film. Anyone can screw, but few could do it with as much tenderness, aggression, passion, anger, humor and acting chops like this man. This is someone who is already very missed by fans, friends and loved ones alike.

Stereotypes are for the unimaginative and uninformed and someone like Jamie Gillis broke any stereotype one could have about an actor in fringe cinema. Period.

Wherever he is, I certainly hope he realizes what a talent and star he truly was.

*It has been requested that in lieu of flowers, Jamie had requested that contributions be made to the NYC Police Athletic League, an organization that helped him out as a boy and continues to assist children in New York City. Visit them ONLINE to help.

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