Today sees the release of Arthur J. Bressan Jr.’s 1979 gay adult romance Forbidden Letters on indie streaming service PinkLabel.tv. Unavailable for four decades, it was hailed as “one of the most poetic, artistic gay porn movies of all time” by Porn Film Festival Berlin, where this new 2K digitally restored version – overseen by The Bressan Project, Outfest UCLA Legacy Project and Vinegar Syndrome – had its world premiere last year. The film stars Robert Adams (a lead in Bressan’s 1974 debut feature Passing Strangers, also available in on PinkLabel.tv) as twenty-something Larry. Alone in their San Francisco apartment, Larry longs for his older incarcerated lover Richard (70s porn legend Richard Locke), but also worries what will become of their relationship once he is released. Forbidden Letter’s original ad campaign billed Adams as “Young & Innocent” and Locke as “Hot & Macho”, but didn’t give an indication of the film’s more artistic qualities. For a detailed exploration, read critic Caden Mark Gardner’s recent article for The Queer Review, Forbidden Letters and Passing Strangers: The Adult Film Romances of Arthur J. Bressan Jr.
With the restorations of Passing Strangers and Forbidden Letters newly available, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke to the star of both films, Robert Adams, about his memories of working with the late writer-director Arthur J. Bressan Jr. (Artie), his experience with his co-stars Richard Locke and Robert Carnagey, shooting a sex scene in Alcatraz, his recollections of 70s and early 80s San Francisco and why the Hulu series Love, Victor made an impact on him.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Both films have been unavailable for for nearly four decades, have you watched these restored versions?
Robert Adams: “Yes. With Forbidden Letters, there was a shorter version that Artie made because a porn distributor got him to cut out all the plot parts and just leave the porn parts in. So that was the only copy I had of that film, and it was a degraded VHS copy. So I literally had not seen the film since it came out and there were some things that I was surprised by because I didn’t actually remember a lot of it.”
With Passing Strangers it’s not your voice that’s used in the film, whereas with Forbidden Letters it is. What did you make of that at the time?
“Yeah, with Forbidden Letters I wound up narrating most of the film. Artie thought I had the look of innocence that he wanted for our first movie together, Passing Strangers, but he thought that when I talked I sounded kind of sarcastic and that I didn’t talk in an innocent, youthful sort of way. But I think by the second film he realised I could do it and he just handed me the script and said, ‘read it.’ And I was able to draw that innocence out of myself for Forbidden Letters. So I think he was wrong, he could have used my voice for Passing Strangers too, but at the time that’s what he decided to do and it doesn’t matter.”
And it’s not Artie’s own voice either as the as the projectionist in Passing Strangers, so it wasn’t just your voice that was replaced!
“Oh, yeah, I guess you’re right. That is odd.”
I don’t think it’s any of the actors’ voices who appear on screen for Passing Strangers, so you weren’t singled out. Your character in Passing Strangers, also named Robert, says that he’s 18 but how old were you when you appeared in it?
“I was around 21 or 22.”
Your character in that film hasn’t really entered the gay scene yet, he’s still at high school and is cautiously coming out. Did it reflect where you were at all in your own life or were a few years on from that stage by then?
“Yeah, my coming out was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And it wasn’t too long before I left. I was around 18 when I moved to San Francisco and by that time I was completely out, and I was having more relationships than I wish I’d had! None of them lasting very long. So I had been out for a few years by the time I was in it.”
How did you come to meet Artie and get involved with with working with him on the two films?
“I was literally just standing in front of the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco and he walked up to me and explained that he was planning on making a movie and that I looked like one of the characters he had in mind. So we talked and it kind of just happened from there. It wasn’t hard to talk me into it because I’m a huge movie fan. My first job was at an arthouse theatre in Milwaukee, where I spent a couple of years just watching all the movies that came in over and over again. I ran a film society in Milwaukee and exhibited a lot of films before I moved to San Francisco. So when Artie approached me and said he wanted me to be in a movie I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ll do that!” I didn’t even ask what kind of movie he had in mind.”
Once you did know that there were going to be explicit sex scenes in it did you have any reservations?
“No, not really. I mean, I think that was just exciting to me. I was a rebellious kid. The son of a minister. I was at that stage in my life where I was out to do whatever the church would not have me do, basically!”
And it’s interesting what you were saying before about the distributor wanting to cut out the non sex scenes because there’s actually quite a lot of the film that doesn’t contain any sex. I guess it doesn’t really make any difference how you classify the films, it it’s up to the viewer to do that objectively, but to some extent they are gay films with sex in them rather than just what people might think of as porn aren’t they?
“Yeah, absolutely. When I saw Forbidden Letters again it actually seemed to me that there was more plot than sex, which is pretty unusual for the porn market. And so I could see why they would ask him to cut it for distribution, and I guess Artie was just trying to make his investment back and they offered him a deal. But of course, it ruined the film.”
There’s a time capsule element to these films isn’t there? Watching them now, looking back at gay San Francisco of the 70s and aspects like cruising on the street.
“You’re right, it really is a time capsule. I was always proud of the films and I didn’t want them to get lost, and I thought they kind of would be. I never expected this to happen, I never expected them to be restored and in such a beautiful way and it’s just an amazing experience for me at this age.”
LGBTQ film historian Jenni Olsen and Artie’s sister Roe Bressan formed The Bressan Project and they’re doing a great job of restoring all of his films like Gay USA and Buddies, but I think it’s also important that they’ve restored these adult movies too, because that would have meant a lot to Artie I think wouldn’t it?
“Oh, absolutely! He had no qualms about doing porn. He had an interesting attitude about sex. It was very matter of fact to him. I never detected anything like the guilt that most of us grew up with about it. He just seemed like a bohemian free-spirited guy. He kissed his dad on the lips, which was an interesting way for father and son to greet each other I thought, I remember that about him. He was an interesting person. He never hit on me or anything either. It was not the casting couch sort of thing. Even as a porn director, I never felt like he was expecting me to have sex with him or anything like that. Cinema was his life, it was his passion. Some of the great filmmakers of past were his influences, people like Frank Capra and Preston Sturges, and it shows in his films. I mean, he did this thing for the adult film market, but the artistry shows and that’s what makes it interesting. And that’s really why I did it. It was the story and the artistry that I was really attracted to.”
And and talking about not being ashamed of being attached to a porn film, Artie of course used his real name, did you use your real name too, or did you come up with a…?
“…porn star name? Oh, no. Robert Adams is my real name and that’s the name on the credits. Yeah, I think everybody did actually. Is Richard Locke a fake name? I don’t think so.”
No. I read an interview with him where he’s quoted talking about when someone asked him ‘what do you want your screen name to be?’ And he just said something like, ‘Locke, that’s me and I’m proud of what I’m doing.'”
“I wanted my name on it.”
What are your memories of working with the with Richard Locke, he was quite a major porn star at the time wasn’t he?
“Yeah, he was a big porn star before he did that film and then also after. He was really a sweet person, that’s what I remember. He was this big guy, sort of macho looking, but he was very gentle. He was not somebody that ordinarily I would be attracted to. In playing the role I found my attraction to him, but he wasn’t the type of person that I would have gone home with after meeting on the street, and I don’t think I would have been his type either really.”
And what about Robert Carnagey who plays Tom in Passing Strangers?
“Robert was very different. He was kind of flighty, a little bit queenie, actually. And he suppressed that for this role. Outside of the film we had no relationship at all. I mean, we weren’t naturally drawn to each other as friends or as sex partners outside of the film.”
You saved it all for the camera.
“Yeah, it was all for the camera. That’s just the reality of it. You know, when they talk about chemistry between actors, you kind of just get into the role and you find the chemistry because any human being is something that you can relate to. I actually had a little bit of a crush on him, but he didn’t respond, so the only time we were sexual was in front of the cameras.”
These films were both made during what’s tragically quite a short window in queer history, post-Stonewall riots and pre-AIDS crisis. So I think they’re interesting films from that point of view. When you were rewatching them do you think that they captured some of that what it was like to be a gay man back then?
“Yes, I really do. You know, I think it certainly captured a part of me. Forbidden Letters was an odd story of this guy who had fallen for a mugger, I don’t know how Artie came up with that, but I mean it was certainly not something out of my life. But yes, in answer your question, it was a depiction of that time. In Passing Strangers there’s the gay parade footage too. So it is sort of a window into that time.”
The scenes we see of you at Gay Freedom Day, was that your first time at a march or parade?
“Oh, no I was at all of them. I went to the first one in 1970, and I was politically active. I knew Harvey Milk very well. And Cleve Jones and I are still friends. In fact, Cleve was the one that told me about The Bressan Project and that’s how I was able to connect with them. So I lived through all of that history and the AIDS part of it was really, really terrible. Eventually I just had to escape. I went and lived across the bay in Alameda in the Sierra Foothills for a while, because literally everyone I knew was dying. How I escaped it I don’t know. I’ve remained HIV negative to this day, but I was going to the baths and doing all the risky behaviour things too. So I was either just lucky or maybe…you know, I have a couple of ex-lovers who also remain HIV negative, and it’s possible that some people are resistant to the virus and I might be one of those people. I hope it works for Coronavirus.”
I read that Harvey Milk was supportive of Artie and these films and helped promote them in his camera shop.
“You might be right, but I don’t remember anything about that. I don’t remember talking to Harvey about about the films, but there’s no reason that it wouldn’t have come up. I certainly did talk to Cleve about them. I do remember that Passing Strangers premiered at the Powell Cinema, a theatre right on the cable car turn around on Powell and Market, and we had a searchlight right there, right the heart of the tourist area!
That’s pretty cool. So you had quite glitzy premiere for it?
“Yeah, for that kind of film. There was definitely a flair that only Artie could have brought to it. And afterwards I had people stop me on the street and say, ‘Oh, I saw you in that.’ So I had my 15 minutes of fame.”
Did you do any other films after these two?
“No, I did not. Well, I did one negligible film with Toby Ross, something called Do Me Evil. But I don’t honestly know why I did that. I think it was just a case of, he saw me in in the other films and he asked me if I would do one with him. You know, I was at a stage in my life where everything was like, ‘why not? It’s something to do!’ So I think it was kind of like that. But my interest in film continues. I have a YouTube channel, Natureboy1, and since I’ve moved to an Austin, Texas, I’ve made music videos for local bands. I’ve kinda gotten into the behind the camera side of things.”
I love the the outdoor scenes in the films like Lands End in Passing Strangers, which would’ve been a gay cruising area at the time.
“Yeah, you could go and pick someone up there. There was a nude beach actually and it was technically right in San Francisco, but it was kind of secluded.”
And did you run into any onlookers or lost tourists?
“Well, Doug Dickinson, you’ll see him on the credits as one of the people filming, he was a park ranger and he is the one that got us on to Alcatraz and got that whole section of the prison closed off so we could film Forbidden Letters. And Angel Island, he had something to do with our being there too. I’m not sure how that was set up, but there wasn’t anyone else there and no, we didn’t run into anyone while we were walking around naked!”
I was wondering about the Alcatraz scenes, whether you’d just shot them quickly while there wasn’t a tour of visitors going around?
“Clint Eastwood was filming a movie on the other side on the island at the same time, Escape from Alcatraz, but no one was allowed to go from one area to the other. Doug got a section closed off for us, and he had people watching to make sure nobody came in while we were doing our sex scenes. Alcatraz is the weirdest place I’ve ever had sex! Well, it was just masturbation, I guess, because it was the fantasy scene. My character wasn’t actually there, I was imagining being with him.”
When it comes to the sex it’s generally very sensual and languorous isn’t it and more lovemaking than what some people might expect from sex in a porn film. Was that something that was talked about much while you were making the films?
“Yes, that was the intent. He would do long sex scenes so that he could be in the porn market, but both of them were love stories really and that was obviously the intent.”
There’s that nice line that you have in Forbidden Letters about wanting to be in your own love story, like the ones in the movies, a big romance, but “boy meets boy”. That’s very sweet and it’s really what Artie was creating with these films wasn’t it?
“Yes, very much so.”
What’s your favourite LGBTQ+ either film, TV series, play, book, piece of music, artwork, or it could be a person. Something or someone that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years, or it could be something current.
“That’s easy actually, I think the one that has really made the biggest impact on me was Call Me By Your Name. That just really got to me. But you know, I just recently saw Love, Victor on Hulu and that’s amazing too. That is a really excellent story of a 16 year-old boy coming out and all that he encounters. It’s just really well done. It does have that kind of Disney like thing, but it gets to you emotionally. And the characters are pretty real. It’s it’s definitely an optimistic view overall.”
Yes and you imagine the kids now who are growing up with something like that available to them. It’s pretty amazing isn’t it.
“Absolutely. The thing is, when I was growing up and in the time when I made the films with Artie, whenever gay people were depicted in films they were always murdered or they died or something terrible happened to them. And so when I see something like Call Me By Your Name or Love, Victor it’s just thrilling to me to have them not die! Even in Brokeback Mountain somebody dies in the end, so to have a happy, realistic gay love story is special. And that’s what we were going for back then too. I mean nobody died Passing Strangers or Forbidden Letters either. As you said, that was a unique window in time from the free love hippie era extending into the LGBT community, and just before AIDS. So it was a special time, it really was, where we were just discovering ourselves and then this virus came along and changed everything.
By James Kleinmann