LANDIS: THE STORY OF A REAL MAN ON 42nd STREET
“A picture you won’t ever forget because it touches the full spectrum of the bizarre, the forbidden, the twilight areas of a life destined to be spent in shadow and agony. The screen may never again relate to this subject matter. It will certainly never again approach this treatment… The only ones left to mourn, the last witnesses to the execution; suspended in time by a puppeteer with blood on his hands. Little dolls that go on dancing after the music has stopped…”
— Ad copy, THREE ON A MEAT HOOK
It’s a sweaty Autumn afternoon in a motel in Nyack, and there’s a panic in the air. It’s 1985, the tail end of the Golden Age of Pornography; video has supplanted film as the genre’s preferred medium and the shoulder-mounted camcorders are humming. The problem: that all important climax is critically missing. Maybe it’s nerves; maybe it’s inexperience; maybe it’s too high a dose of the party drug of the day — ubiquitous, omnipresent cocaine, heaped around porn sets like mountains of Alpine snow free for the snorting; but the male star of the hour is unable to perform. His sequence has already been shot; stubble-beards are being stroked, damp foreheads dabbed. Thousands of dollars are riding on the ability of an overly-muscled, overly-narcotized man to blow his load for all of perverted posterity. The clock is ticking. Our leading man can’t be counted on any longer; it’s time to call in the ringer.
Out of the shadows steps a man short in stature and swarthy of complexion. He looks boyish in comparison to his fellow costars; doffing the oversized plastic sunglasses that swallow the upper portion of his face, his eyes bulge in manic anticipation of what’s about to transpire. In short order his shirt, jeans, and undergarments have joined the sunglasses on the loft floor in a costume change worthy of an oversexed Clark Kent. He is eager; he is willing; he is ready; and he is more than capable.
He is a man of many talents: writer; ethnographer; critic; historian; porn star; IT guy. His name today is Bobby Spector; he was born Bill Landis; he is twenty-six years old and he is one of the New York porn industry’s premier stunt cocks. When the man on the video box can’t finish the job, Bobby can — he has been in over a dozen pornographic films since 1982 and he has come in every one of them. Over the course of the next thirty-five years, he will add husband, father, trailblazer, influencer, and grindhouse icon to his curriculum vitae.
Today is his day. He will perform the scene admirably; hugs will be given, high-fives accepted. Tonight, he will return to his apartment on 14th, write a critical essay on a recent popular horror film, and spend the rest of the evening in a cocaine and heroin stupor. Before the decade is over, he will codify an entirely new school of cinematic journalism. In another two decades, he will write one of the definitive texts on exploitation film criticism. Before he’s fifty, he’ll be dead.
Bill Landis is a ghost.
He haunts not just the fabled 42nd Street that he chronicled at both its apex and nadir but the halls of genre journalism itself. His spirit manifests in fragments — a cautious mention here as a source of unlikely inspiration, a shuddering anecdote there as a malign presence whose malice still looms large over the lives of those survivors of the Deuce still left alive to tell the tale.
He haunts me. It was his book Sleazoid Express — written with his wife, collaborator, and muse Michelle Clifford — that gave me my first introduction to grindhouse cinema, peeling back the curtain on an entire subgenre of film and subculture of filmgoers that continues to influence and impact me as a creator almost two decades after I first entered Bill’s realm. For a teenager growing up in rural Oklahoma, in a small town still inhabiting the Reagan age sixteen years after it ended, Bill and Michelle’s words were nothing short of a revelation. I’d rented HEARTBREAK MOTEL — the more artistically minded, less rape-fueled producer’s cut of POOR PRETTY EDDIE — sight unseen and was both scandalized and fascinated by what I’d just watched. Where had it come from? What did it mean? Those were the questioned I wanted answered when I googled the film one frozen Oklahoma day in 2004. Among the first hits I got was an Amazon link to Simon and Schuster’s Sleazoid Express- A Mind=Twisting Tour Through the Grindhouse Cinema of Times Square. I eagerly ordered the book, and I was not disappointed. It was the window into a forbidden world every adolescent growing up in one of America’s lost backwaters dreams of.
I was no longer in Oklahoma; I was on The Deuce, inhabiting an entire ecosystem of the damned that felt more familiar and comforting to me than my Rockwellian surroundings. Bill Landis made me. Without his writing, I would have no bylines, no books, no awards. There would be no Our Lady of the Inferno, no Fangoria, no me. I owe my life’s trajectory in life to Bill Landis; and when I went to finally offer him my thanks, he was already dead. Since his death in 2008, I have tried to learn about the man who set me on my life’s path. Especially in the internet age, we can be so profoundly touched and guided by those we never meet; I wanted to know about the flesh and blood human behind the words responsible for where I’d ended up.
But Bill Landis is a ghost.
There is no comprehensive biography of him. In the wake of his passing he left behind a scant IMDB bio, a few obituaries of the sincere and sarcastic variety, an extensive pornographic filmography, and a body of work that remains largely out of print for reasons that have as much to do with the legal as they do with the esoteric. The vast majority of his friends, enemies, acquaintances, and cohorts predeceased him; more leave us every year. He inhabited and encapsulated an era defined by a live-fast, die-young ethos that would astound Joplin and Hendrix.
So I decided to chase the ghost — to follow it down the neon-drenched remnants of the Times Square he loved, through the scattered remnants of his own writing, into the memories of the few surviving compatriots he left behind.
In that lost, damned, golden age we call the ’80s, there was a porn star named Bobby Spector and a writer named Mr. Sleazoid. Most importantly of all there was a man named Bill Landis. This is his story.
PART 1: BILL
“The writer must be a participant in the scene… like a film director who writes his own scripts, does his own camera work, and somehow manages to film himself in action, as the protagonist or at least the main character.”
— Hunter S. Thompson
William Zachary “Bill” Landis was born in France on May 21st, 1959; his father, Zachary Landis, a WWII veteran, was serving as a master sergeant in the United States Air Force at Landes de Bussac airfield. An only child, his closest generational cohort was his cousin Patti Pallidin, of Johnny Thunders fame. Although it’s unclear whether his father’s stationing there was intentional or a request inspired by filial piety, it was the very region that gave the family its surname — “Landes is the Euro spelling — like Corleone in the Godfather movies” Landis would recall to Creeping Flesh contributor Jan Bruun. What little information about his childhood is available is focalized through Landis’ own heavily negative and traumatized lens. He would write about it in perfunctory detail only later in life, in a heartrending Village Voice article published in the 1990s, after a decade of chronicling the misery and degradation of those around him with precious little comment on the circumstances that had made him so at homes in the Times Square criminal underworld. He described his father as veteran of “numerous Far East bloodbaths,” his mother as a prescription pill addict content in her addiction because — like so many housewives of the 1950s encouraged to blindly accept their doctors’ advice — her abuse was medically approved.
Following his birth, Bill’s family found themselves transferred to England, where he spent the first five years of life in the Douglas Club- today, the Lancaster Gate Hotel — a “home-style service” residence catering to the families of Air Force veterans stationed in the UK. Despite the invective with which Landis would recall his childhood, it’s easy to read between the lines and see a story not unfamiliar to many a Boomer born to Greatest Generation parents: a distant, PTSD riddled father who buried the horrors of war beneath copious amounts of booze; a codependent, enabler mother who looked the other way on her husband’s crippling mental affliction while self-medicating with, per Landis, a combination of prescription pills and martinis.
Between one parent unable to cope with his own personal trauma and another unable to recognize it, Landis found himself, from an early age, tasked with caring for the both of them. “My father the sergeant would lie on the bed and command me to ‘take care of it,'” he later recalled of his mother’s dinner table blackouts. “I felt loyal to my country because I did my job correctly and precisely.” As his own coping mechanism, Landis found escape in the cinema — specifically, the JAMES BOND franchise, which proved an early foray for the young boy into a forbidden adult world of sex, violence, and glamor at once familiar and exotic. His recollection of playing with a toy 007 briefcase — whose toy gun he supplemented with his own passport and military ID — betray the rapidly crumbling inner life of a child incapable of coping with the pressures of the adult world foisted onto him from too early an age.
It was an inner life that went from crumbling to annihilated when the elder Landis was transferred yet again when Bill was six, this time to New Orleans. Here, the circumstances of Bill’s life become even murkier; he spoke about this period rarely, and only in ellipticals, using the bluntest yet vaguest of language. “I had my first blackout experience, which was not induced by any drug. I was raped — I never knew by whom… no one in my family would acknowledge it. That day ended my childhood. I was a six-year-old man, and in the military men are taught to tolerate the pain — to take it like a man.” Those few words — almost an aside in a larger profile of his time in the adult film industry — encapsulate the entirety of his adolescence, and yet speak volumes about the man they would produce and the damage that he would carry with him for the rest of his life. It was an epoch event that, in ways almost too tragic to articulate, would set the pattern both for Bill’s life trajectory and the way he would interact with other human beings. The perpetrator(s) were never caught. Bill’s father quietly retired from the Air Force, and with no recognition of the trauma the boy had survived, the Landises moved to New York City circa the mid-1960s to be near his maternal grandparents.
The New York of this age, on the cusp of 1950s I Love Lucy sophistication and TAXI DRIVER urban hellscape- “The MIDNIGHT COWBOY era” as Bill himself would phrase it — proved to be a fertile environment for fostering the imagination of a traumatized, naturally inquisitive and preternaturally intelligent child (by the time he reached high school, he’d already been skipped ahead two years due to his academic abilities, making him a very young Freshman at thirteen). The constant moves and sense of placelessness and lack of cultural identity (Bill was of mixed French and Greek ancestry and, due to his dark complexion, would later pass for Hispanic amongst New York’s Puerto Rican population) made a major impact on him; as he would later tell writer Clayton Patterson, “I have always identified with surrealists like Alejandro Jodorwosky and Fernando Arrabal of the Panic Theater — you’re born in one nation, spend your childhood in another country, then move to yet another one, with your ethnicity having nothing to do with any of it. So no place is home; you get a sense of permanent displacement. A feeling that contributes a quality of unreality.”
Initially living in Brooklyn, the Landises soon found themselves on Staten Island. Here, Bill would accompany his grandfather to a Greek men’s social club, slipping away to sneak into the adult movie theater next door, where he struggled to reconcile his own burgeoning sexuality with his assault in Louisiana. It was around this same time that the young Bill would see his first film by notorious exploitation director Andy Milligan (GUTTERTRASH, as he remembers it), and, together with his adult theater forays, the twin cinematic experiences proved formative. Indeed, the specters of sex and violence — sometimes separate, sometimes intertwined- loomed large over Landis’ formative years. Growing volatile in retirement, his father began lashing out at the men around him, including Bill’s grandfather, who was eventually placed into a nursing home for his own protection. His subsequent death there — elderly and isolated from his loved ones — had a profound impact on the young Bill, who “resolved to do everything in my power not to age… film seemed like a medium that could preserve my youth forever.”
Concurrently, Bill developed an emotionally and sexually complex relationship with another girl his age who lived in the same apartment building and who shared his growing fascination with the intersection between the erotic and the violent. Perhaps as a natural inclination, perhaps in an attempt to reframe and gain control over his own experiences, Landis developed an early fascination for S&M — particularly the submissive role — that would not only define his adolescence but go on to impact the perspective of his later film criticism and the trajectory of his young life. “It was overwhelming, sexually exciting, and involved physical pain, which made me a bit afraid,” Landis would recall of his young girlfriend, whom he gave the pseudonym Kelly in his Village Voice piece. “The vague notion of death was in there, but I didn’t know quite how.” The pair’s relationship was characterized by childish games that escalated in intensity and adult undertones, from her encouraging him to spy on her through his peephole while she played in the hallway to his holding her ankles while she dumpster dived to, ultimately, her ritualistically whipping him with her jump rope in what proved for Bill to be his second foundational sexual experience, further establishing for him a link between emotional and physical pain and pleasure, acceptance, and love: “I had an involuntary orgasm; I just couldn’t help it. When she got rough I associated it with affection and excitement.”
Bill’s relationship with Kelly proved unfortunately short lived. By virtue of his being skipped ahead, Landis found himself forced to associate with boys and girls older, more mature, and more worldly than himself, resulting in a loss of the normal rites of passage that define an adolescence and further instilling in him a sense of loss, isolation, and otherness. Watching Kelly going to school in her uniform, to experience a normal childhood with all its social opportunities, was another traumatizing incident in a steadily increasing chain of them. By the time he was sixteen, Landis had already graduated high school — where he’d found some solace as the paper’s film critic (a teacher wrote him a note encouraging him to “expand beyond reviews,” as he recalled to Bruun). He was soon enrolled in the NYU Stern School of Business, further alienating him from his peers and thrusting him into the quasi-adult world of campus politics and social mores, barely old enough to drive, five years too young to drink.
In a desperate effort to achieve some sense of normalcy he began dating a classmate whom he remembered as a “well meaning but neurotic girl;” however, the courtship proved to be disastrous. Though, by his own recollection, she attempted to give Bill something approximating a normal teenage dating experience, he found himself crippled by her sexual overtures, unable to bring himself to undress in front of her in spite of his own eagerness — the classic sexual abuse survivor’s paradox of wishing to at once reclaim and deny one’s own sexuality. Bill found himself, instead, finding mental if not physical solace in the presence of his girlfriend’s immediate family: “What I enjoyed about visiting my girlfriend was when I’d be the only man in the house, the center of attention for her, her younger sister, and her youngish divorcee mother… I wanted them to gang up and get as rough as they wanted on me.” Ultimately, the relationship couldn’t sustain, and the pair broke up. The failure of one of his first attempts at a normal, healthy, adolescent experience presaged his descent into obsessively watching hardcore pornography at adult theaters and reading S&M literature, a foray that culminated in his contacting a prostitute via an ad in Screw magazine and having his first consensual sexual experience, on his own terms: “I didn’t want to be with a nervous teen. I never liked the thought of a girl collecting my cherry, so I collected it myself.”
Though the experience apparently offered Bill some catharsis, like so many assault survivors, he still found himself with a sense of helplessness and lack of control. His first encounter with consensual sex had left him hungry for more; combined with the volatility of being pressured into business school by his parents and the mounting sense of a lost childhood, it proved a vicious combination, especially for an angry young man in an era the encouraged anonymous sex as a badge of masculinity and which didn’t even have a vocabulary for treating male sexual abuse survivors. In Bill’s own words, “I got angry. I stopped going to school; I just read the books and passed the tests… I had just turned 18. There were all sorts of freaky scenes to explore. Clubs for every persuasion. I participated in gang bangs, pissed on strangers lying in troughs, fisted masochists in front of enthralled voyeurs. I punched, kicked, and shoved. There was never a shortage of willing victims, although more of them were male than female. Manhattan was a floating Roman orgy, but it was a cold and anonymous party.”
From the perspective of genetic criticism, and assessing his later perspective on gender roles in the media and his deconstruction of modes of masculinity and machismo in film. Indeed, one could argue that Bill was both unironically embodying and exposing toxic masculinity in his writing decades before that became an acknowledged concept. It’s fascinating to note that it was around this period he began exploring his own bisexuality, although it’s a word he never used to self-describe. While his writings are filled with erotic assessments of the male form and praise for the physical beauty and sexuality of male actors and porn stars, and he himself would document his own sexual encounters with males and females, ‘bisexual’ appears, literally, to have been a word not in his vocabulary; Landis himself seemed reticent to acknowledge the psycho-sexual realities of being attracted to both sexes, even if he readily discussed the mechanical practicalities of it. Whatever the case, his emotional drive seemed always to have been towards achieving the sexual approval of women, as he himself recalled: “I tried to give myself confidence; I seemed to need a lot of it. My one consistent admirer was one of my mother’s friends, a schoolteacher who would slip me $50 bills when I’d tell her salacious stories about New York’s wild side. She never demanded any sex. I never offered. But I did get the MIDNIGHT COWBOY delusion of getting kept by an older woman.”
In 1980, Bill Landis was arguably — at least on the surface — among the most privileged young men of immediate pre-Reagan New York City. He already had a master’s degree and would, in short order, find himself employed by Merril Lynch and Con Edison (to hear Bill tell it at least; no two sources consulted for this article were able to identify him as working the same job at the same place) There, his knowledge of business and technology proved invaluable as one of the first generation of men to integrate the computer into the 9-5 workday. Now living on his own in Manhattan, free from the yoke of his parents’ expectations, Landis found himself in a situation imminently familiar to many young people who spend their formative years enduring trauma, struggling to survive it, and finding themselves controlled by more powerful forces than himself: Now that he was finally free, he was paradoxically more at a loss than ever before to make his own destiny. “I just couldn’t deal with the prison of an office,” Landis would later write. “The hourglass of my life was always in my face. Apart from that vague childhood ambition of becoming a movie star, an international sex symbol like Ursula Andress, I didn’t know what to do with my life.”
At the age of twenty-one, Bill Landis was finally absolutely free — and absolutely trapped…
Come back tomorrow for Part 2 of 5 of Landis: The Story of a Real Man on 42nd Street!
Special thanks to Anya Stanley, Pennie Sublime, Ron Roccia and Paul Freitag-Fey for their contribution of time and materials to this article.
Tags: 42nd Street, Andy Milligan, Bill Landis, Features, Golden Age of Pornography, Grindhouse, Guttertrash, I Love Lucy, Michelle Clifford, Midnight Cowboy, Simon & Schuster, Sleazoid Express, Taxi Driver, The 1980s, The Deuce, The UK, The US, Times Square, Village Voice