The Gentleman of the Golden Age — The Escapades of R Bolla aka Robert Kerman
Walking the dirty streets of Times Square in the mid-1970s was a world away from the glitzy Disneyland it has become today. Hookers, pimps, peep shows and dirty bookstores were the predominant form of business in the area. 42nd St was an endless gauntlet of theatres, each with marquees displaying a mixture of sensationalist and lascivious titles; this was the era of Grindhouse.
In the wake of Deep Throat (1972), the porn industry became fashionable, as upmarket couples slummed it in the filthy fleapits, dressed to the nines as they occupied the same seats that the raincoat brigade had shuffled in for years previously. The money began to roll in, and soon enough everyone wanted a cut. The number of films in production skyrocketed and the scene in New York became an entity unto itself. This is a story of one man who was there for the whole thing.
There have been very few actors with a career as varied and fascinating as Robert Kerman, who became known in the X-Rated business as R. Bolla; making over 200 features during the heyday of porno chic. A classically trained drama student from Brooklyn College, he has starred alongside Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall in multi-million dollar blockbusters, as well as appearing in almost every major TV show of the ’80s. He has achieved massive cult success from his appearances in a series of Italian cannibal movies which have become some of the most notorious and controversial titles in the last forty years of cinema, as well as treading the boards as a Shakespearean actor in numerous Off Broadway productions.
The seasoned aficionado of adult cinema will certainly recognise him as the likeable everyman who starred in Harley Mansfield’s Joy (alongside Sharon Mitchell), the Shampoo pastiche Blowdry; epic cabaret feature Blonde Ambition and the grimy Amanda By Night. Even the casual viewer of the classics will know Kerman as Mr. Greenfield; the man who did what an entire generation wanted to do when he got his hands on Bambi Woods during the climactic scene of Debbie Does Dallas.
Kerman was one of the legendary ‘Class of ‘65’, and narrowly avoided being sent to Vietnam along with many of his peers. “It was a very tentative time to be a student in America” says Kerman, “People were dying by the thousands and Vietnam was the sword of Damocles hanging over us all.” Initially given a college deferment, but when that was abolished, the teenage acting hopeful was sent to Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn for the medical and academic tests. “I ended up getting rejected because I had been seeing a psychiatrist.” Kerman recalls, “He wrote me a letter saying that it wouldn’t be good for me, or the army, if they took me. People acted crazy to try and get thrown out all the time. They’d have sex with their rifle and things like that, but I was being prescribed an anti-psychotic called Thorazine, which they also gave to people who’d had bad trips on LSD. I wasn’t actively taking it, because it makes you chemically castrated; a real strait jacket, so I avoided it. It was anti-psychotic, but I was simply neurotic.” says Kerman, “By the end of the day I had my 3Y, which was not permanently rejected, but rejected unless they get to the bottom of the barrel. They’d have drafted me if the Vietnamese landed in Coney Island.”
Now that he was off the hook, in terms of military service, Kerman became embroiled in some of the biggest student protests of the day. “People were protesting everywhere,” he continues. His stance was vehemently against the war in Vietnam. “I got beaten up by police a few times at protests. The only violent thing I ever did was bite a cop’s ankle, because he was beating on a girl. She was just this kid at a protest in Brooklyn College. We were having a sit down in the library. The cops were all excited and started going to town on us. He was on the ground, on top of the girl, and I wanted to hamstring him, so I bit down hard on his ankle. They had to drag me off. This was around the same time of the Kent State incident, which took place in Ohio, in May of 1970. The cops were just brutal back then.”
Looking for an agent to help get his career off the ground that year, Kerman got a job driving a cab a few nights a week, covering many of the same mean streets as Travis Bickle would in Scorsese’s 1976 hit, Taxi Driver; surviving on tips and food stamps. “A lot of drivers in New York were getting killed at that time.” explains Kerman, “and that’s when they put the glass windows in the cars. I never had too many problems, but it could be a real rough beat.”
Something else was going on as well, with the advent of free love and sexual liberation; the way in which young people interacted had been completely revolutionized. “You didn’t really date back then,” notes Kerman, “You just made arrangements to meet up and have sex. Everyone was cool with that, and it was just how it was. It became very interesting for me when I started going to swinger’s parties, which were basically orgies. They were surreal experiences, but I felt completely comfortable in those situations. You just went with it, as no one wants to be the only non-naked person at the orgy.”
A lady friend of Kerman’s, who he met through these parties, introduced him to Dorothy Palmer, who had a reputation as one of the primary recruiters for adult film industry at the time. More importantly, however, she was still a fully legitimate, SAG registered agent. “My girlfriend suggested that I go and see her about getting work,” says Kerman, “I needed both the money and the work, and this was pitched to me as an acting gig, so I went to see Dorothy and she set me up with an interview. The interview, for Israeli porn director Joe Davian, consisted of receiving a blow job. “I felt pretty bad for the girl,” admits Kerman, “as she must have been there all day, just giving blow jobs to about fifty guys in a row that afternoon. She was pretty though, and the interview went well. Once we got into it, I wasn’t bothered at all; either doing it in front of people or the camera. I remember they were really pleased with me.” Kerman would go on to work with Davian on several occasions, but the relationship wasn’t always harmonious. “He was a crazy son of a bitch sometimes,” says Kerman, “he could be really stupid, starting fights with actors on set and things like that. You don’t want to get an actor riled up when he has to perform.”
This wasn’t the only time that there were altercations on set either, with egos, drugs and the general insanity making for tense bedfellows. “On one movie I nearly got into a fistfight. The director of photography got so angry with me for giving him advice on how to frame the shot that he attacked me while I was trying to take part in a sex scene. He started climbing over the bed and the girls to get at me. I was there with an erection and three girls in the bed and he came right at me, still holding his Panaflex camera. I was a wrestler in college so I wrestled him to the ground with a tackle. I was there to fuck, not to fight, but I would do both if I had to.”
Kerman met a performer by the name of Crystal Sync on the set of Blowdry in 1975, and they formed a long standing personal relationship, both on and off the camera. “I met her on a Xerox machine.” he laughs, “That was a strange scene. We spent the whole night trying to have sex on that stupid thing, which wasn’t easy. Working as a male actor in the X-Rated business was a bit like stunt work. Directors always wanted you to do crazy stuff to spice up the sequences, and they wanted the Xerox machine to be switched on while we were going for it on top. It didn’t work.” After wrapping the uncomfortable encounter in which Kerman’s extremities became somewhat scorched by the continuous running and scanning of the copier, he walked home with his new friend. “We shot until 2am and she invited me over for a drink.” Kerman remembers, “All of a sudden it was like being on a date, which we both found weird. We’d spent 8 hours trying to have sex on that contraption and at home having a drink, we didn’t know what way it was all going to go. That was the funny thing about the business; a lot of us were very shy off camera. That’s the difference between when something was work and when something was personal. It worked out a lot better back at her place than it did on the Xerox machine.”
It was with his appearance in Debbie Does Dallas that Kerman’s standing amongst the adult film industry skyrocketed. He couldn’t travel anywhere without being recognised. “My girlfriend was impressed by this.” he admits, “She used to notice people in restaurants looking at me and she would say to them ‘Did you ever see Debbie does Dallas? Well this is the guy who did Debbie.’” Incidentally, the film was shot on the grounds of Kerman’s old college in Brooklyn, with many guerrilla tactics being used to get scenes in the can as quickly as possible.
Now he was staring to make a name for himself, Kerman found that the amount of adult work that he was being offered greatly surpassed the amount of legitimate roles which he was getting, despite now being registered with the Marjorie Fields agency. “I think that, in many ways, it made me lazy” admits Kerman, “but it was such a wonderful, crazy time. The people I met doing X-Rated films were so weird. Their heritage was always fascinating. They came from so many different backgrounds. It wasn’t uncommon to meet people whose parents were doctors, lawyers and things like that. Very few of use were doing this for the money. The women usually did it for the thrill. They were mostly Christian and the men were mostly Jewish. I always said that there was a difference between Christian sexual guilt and Jewish guilt. The Jewish guilt was that you didn’t have enough sex and were upset about it, and the Christian, Catholic girls were guilty because they just couldn’t get enough of it, and felt bad about that. Actually, John Holmes was one of the few male actors who I met who wasn’t Jewish.”
Having worked with many of the great leading men on the New York scene, such as the late, great Jamie Gillis and Herschel Savage, it was only when he travelled to California (to work in what he terms the San Pornando Valley), that Kerman ended up meeting Holmes. “John was directing films and I was working for him quite a lot back then.” says Kerman, “He had this sleazy guy who hung around him all the time and I think it was the same guy who got him really into drugs. He was shady and there was something going on there. John was making videos, and there was this beautiful girl on the set named Laurie Rose. I didn’t know if she was in the business, or if she was an actress, so I just started talking to her. I asked her out and she said ‘I’m sorry I’m married.’”
What Kerman didn’t know at the time was that this was John Holmes’ wife. “She was this sweet little Jewish girl” he says fondly, “John knew I liked her and so he put her in a film with me. She was in the business, and he was happy to do it. She wouldn’t go out with me, because she was married, but this was work. When she told him about me asking her out, he handed her to me to work with. You might as well put those feelings in nature to good use. It was very noble of him, and worked well on screen too. I was surprised. I worked on a few films with him and he was a really sweet and pleasant guy. He was extremely good hearted.”
All of this, however, took place before Holmes’ harsh decline. “I mean there were drugs, but everyone was into that.” says Kerman, “I had my own problems with them later on as well. You know something though? Whatever was going on in the X-Rated business was nothing compared to what I saw when I got to Hollywood and started working in television. I never saw drug use like it, before or since. Everyone was constantly disappearing into the closet to take a hit. It was terrible. I thought ‘That’s it, we’re all going to die.’”
Before Kerman explored Hollywood, however, he was back in New York when an offer came in to appear in a low budget action film named Concorde Affair ’79, directed by an eccentric Italian named Ruggero Deodato. His performance was so successful that the director hired him again a few months later to star in his upcoming project; Cannibal Holocaust. Pitched to Kerman as an adventure film, in which he was to play the lead character; an intrepid explorer. “I thought that this was my big break!” he recalls.
Kerman was flown to Miami, whereupon he boarded a subsequent flight to Bogotá, Columbia, where tensions in the country (amongst other things) were high at this time. ”I was expecting them to give out Martinis and Cocaine” laughs Kerman, “They warned me to be careful. I brought all my costumes which I had bought in New York and, of course, they never got there. “I’m in Bogotá with no luggage and I’ve been warned to stay in the hotel. They told me that if you step outside the people will cut your arm off to steal your ring. I was interested in that danger. I was instructed by the driver, who met me at the airport, to stay in the hotel until the following day. I was then to take a one hour flight crossing the equator the next morning. Then we would be deep into the jungle.”
It was at this point, he decided to take a walk through the city to look for some company. “I asked one of the bell boys when I arrived at the hotel where I could find some women, and he told me. I ended up walking down the middle of the street that night. I was supposed to go to bed, as I had a 5 am alarm call, but I figured I was a movie star now, so was allowed to misbehave. I was acting the tough guy; I really didn’t give a shit. I chose the middle of the street instead of the sidewalk as I figured it was safer, as there were so many alleyways you could be dragged into. That’s what cowboys always did though, wasn’t it?”
Kerman believed that if he projected a tough image, then no one would mess with him and, miraculously, it worked. Spending the night in bars and houses of ill repute, he returned to his hotel just in time for his wake up call. “I must have been psychotic.” he says of the experience now, “I wasn’t on drugs then, but I think I let the whole thing go to my head a bit.” His evening of debauchery in one of the most dangerous cities in the world had set his adrenaline racing for a trip into the jungle, and it was just as well, for it was to be a harrowing and chaotic time ahead.
Cannibal Holocaust would cause a huge amount of controversy, which saw its director being taken to court and charged with animal cruelty, obscenity and even suspected of murder. The origin of the ‘found footage’ genre, the movie was so real that people couldn’t handle it. As a publicity stunt, Deodato had made the lead actors sign secrecy deals, which meant they’d stay out of the spotlight for a year after its release. He had to bring them out of hiding to prove he hadn’t slaughtered them in the jungle.
The next few years saw Kerman jet back and forth to Italy, as well as making another cannibal film in Sri Lanka. It wasn’t long, however, before he found himself in New York again and on the receiving end of another peculiar opportunity. “I did a piece for Raging Bull.” Kerman notes, “There’s a scene where he’s making out with his wife and he pours water down his underwear. He’s not supposed to have an orgasm before a fight, as it will sap his strength; old Roman bullshit. Anyway, I got a phone call from Marlene Willoughby. She was a thin, attractive brunette in the X-Rated business. I worked with her a few times and she was great; she liked it and really got into it. The casting director of Raging Bull had got in touch with Marlene and asked her if she knew a male who could take the role of De Niro for a penis scene. I was a stand in for De Niro and at the time I was exactly his size and weight. She called Jamie Gillis, but he turned it down. I was more than up for it though”
Kerman was offered the rate that he was getting on X-Rated films; $500 per day. “They wanted me the following day and so I went down to the set. They were shooting the boxing scenes in this little studio downtown. The casting director looked at me and said ‘You’ll do.’ I asked what they needed and they told me they needed a hard on. They wanted me to pour my water on my erection. I thought I was just going to pour the water into my shorts, but I said I had no problem with it. I did, however, say that I needed a fluffer.
I was able to get Marlene in to help me out. I made them close the set, but they all wanted to watch. I’m sorry now I didn’t let them. They gave me De Niro’s trailer. He was away for the day. They had me dress in the slippers and a bathrobe, which was my costume. It all fit and so I went back on set so the casting director could look at me. I was in good shape at the time and I fit into his underwear. I dropped my robe and she was impressed. She inspected me a bit closer and the bravado kicked in.
I knew that these scenes couldn’t be used; they were too extreme. This has to be for a joke. They were going to insert it into a screening for the cast or something. They’re going to put my dick in there and it’s going to be funny. They asked De Niro about it apparently, and he said he wasn’t having anything to do with it. They made me stick it out of the gap in my underwear and pour the cold water on it. I knew they would never put it in a Hollywood movie.”
Scorsese wasn’t on set at the time, and it is unlikely (according to Kerman, that he knew about what was taking place), especially when the subsequent incident is taken into account.
“Afterwards, one of the crew approached Marlene and asked her to give the producer a blow job, because it was his birthday.” says Kerman, his mood changing from jovial to angered, “I was really upset with that. She didn’t want to do it, but she didn’t want to seem ungrateful to these filmmakers. I went straight up to the DP and said that this is not how it’s done. It wasn’t nice and it was against the rules. I told him that they really didn’t want to do this, and that we’re not prostitutes. ‘I’m not going to blow him,’ I said, ‘so why would you ask her?’ They tried to shrug it off by saying ‘Well look at what she’s doing’, and I explained to them that was business. We got an apology and left. I don’t think Scorsese or De Niro knew anything about it.”
Appearances in Simon and Simon, Cagney and Lacey and Hill Street Blues cemented his status as a regular face on network TV during the 1980s. Then everything took an unexpected turn for the worse. “My agent just told me that she couldn’t work with me anymore,” says Kerman, somewhat mournfully, “She just dropped me and wouldn’t explain why. It just destroyed me then and there. I was lost, and didn’t know what to do. I started getting really into drugs and drinking and I just spiralled. It took years to get out of that. When finally I quit, I just gave away my last little bottle of it. I went to a diner and had cookies and milk. That was the end of my cocaine use. I had done it for years at that point.”
Kerman spent the next decade rebuilding his life, returning to theatre, his first love, and generally just getting by. When the DVD boom came along in the late ’90s, he suddenly found himself sought after again, by both fans of his Italian and adult films. He was inducted into the AVN Hall of Fame in ’98 (the same year that David Foster Wallace attended and wrote The Big Red Son) and appeared in Sam Raimi’s Spider Man in 2002. Since then he has been appearing on the convention circuit, and providing accounts of his adventures on various XXX and exploitation commentaries.
One thing is for certain, and that is while R Bolla might be long laid to rest, we haven’t seen the last of Robert Kerman. The actor, who has lived just a few feet off Times Square for over thirty years, has seen it all take place before his very eyes. He’s seen a scene develop, expand and implode. So, what does he think of the industry today? “It’s so strange how mainstream pornography has become.” he says, “There are civilians making X-Rated features now, which seems very peculiar to me.”
One of the most striking aspects of Robert Kerman, and it is something which comes across in his work, is the fact that he is an archetypal gentleman. “Honour is a very important thing. There’s no price on it.” he says before concluding with a quote from A Tale of Two Cities; “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”