Interview: Herschel Savage
By Jared Stearns
What do John Holmes, Tom Byron and Herschel Savage have in common? In addition to each being titans of the adult entertainment industry, this triumvirate of testosterone has the distinction of being the three men with whom Marilyn Chambers worked most. Each appeared in three films with Marilyn; however, Savage is the only one who appeared with her during two distinct periods of her career: her heyday in the ‘80s and her comeback.
Savage, originally a stage actor who trained under acclaimed acting instructors Uta Hagen and Stella Adler, is one of the most popular adult performers of all time. Entered into virtually every adult film hall of fame, Savage has appeared in over 1,000(!) films, including the seminal classic Debbie Does Dallas. He recently appeared in the successful Los Angeles stage production The Deep Throat Sex Scandal, a play for which Marilyn was slated to star just prior to her death. Savage first appeared with Marilyn in the 1983 hit Up ‘n’ Coming. Two years later they appeared in Marilyn Chambers’ Private Fantasies #4 and worked together one last time in Dark Chambers, the second of three comeback films Marilyn made for VCA, released in 2000. I caught up with him by phone recently to talk about his experiences working with Marilyn and how the porn business has changed through the years.
Let’s start with Up ‘n’ Coming, since that was the first time you worked with her. How did you get involved in that project?
Well, apparently they hired someone else to play my part and the guy didn’t work out, so I was a replacement. And here’s my Up ‘n’ Coming story: so I have to do a scene with Marilyn and I’m the big producer and I’m supposed to have sex with her and everything. They picked this location [to film] in Tiburon. Are you familiar with Tiburon?
So you know what kind of money is in Tiburon. This place was owned by a famous furrier. This place was beyond belief. So I’m hanging around the location and then Marilyn shows up with Chuck and she’s wearing a full-length fox coat -- it must have cost $20 grand -- like she was the queen. I’d never met her before. She saunters onto the set like a big star. So I said my pleasantries and we were in the master bedroom for a scene and while we’re getting ready, she’s directing the lights, the sound, this and that, like it was “The Marilyn Show.” An hour goes by, two hours. And Chuck’s standing there looking kind of threatening. Then she kept going and going. Finally I said “Marilyn, shut up.” And everyone just stopped. You could have heard a pin drop. Actually, I think I said “Marilyn, shut the fuck up.” No one said a word. Then Marilyn burst into laughter. And she said, “Oh, that’s so funny! That’s so great!” Then the crew cracked up and it just broke the ice and then we had a hot scene. I haven’t seen it in years but it’s a really hot scene.
Oh, it definitely was a hot scene! In fact, you have palpable chemistry that’s noticeable to the viewer.
Yeah, it was a hot. I was in my level seven tan days then too. I was so dark I looked Puerto Rican.
I don’t know if you’ve seen the print that’s available on DVD but it’s not a remastered print and the colors are very muddy and dark.
Really? Oh, that’s too bad. I probably saw the original on VHS, well, no, I think we had a premiere at the Pussycat Theatre. I’m not sure.
Then you did one of her videos, Marilyn Chambers’ Private Fantasies #4, in 1985. Do you remember that?
Vaguely. I guess I’m getting old. I do remember being on set with her and she was doing some R-rated project and said she’d like to have me on it, but it never came to fruition. I never saw her much after that but we spoke a couple times. I remember that we were both inducted in the Adult Video Association Hall of Fame in, I think, ‘86. I could be wrong about the year. We were at the same table at the Universal Hilton. We were both inducted the same day.
You worked with her on one of her comeback movies, too, called Dark Chambers in 2000. Do you recall that one?
Yes. I know she got paid a lot of money by VCA. I kinda felt sad, because you know, having to come back to porn, unless you make [pauses] well, yeah, she did make a lot of money for it. I don’t know what she did with it. The article I read today said she was pretty much destitute. I can’t believe she gave up half of her royalties to Chuck. I don’t get that one at all!
I know! And then they remained friends, which is sort of weird.
That whole article was weird to me. Why would you throw away money that you earned? I just don’t get that one.
I agree. So she came back into porn and I know you walked away from porn for a while too, right?
I walked away from 1987 to 1997. A full 10 years off and I never did one scene in that time.
So you took a decade off and she took about 15 years off. Did you find it easier to make the transition back into porn after 10 years?
It wasn’t something I really relished. I enjoyed my time. I had a good reputation. I got along with everyone. I always treated women with respect. To come back, well, I had financial difficulties, my marriage fell apart. I really didn’t know where to turn. I was already 44-years-old. A good friend of mine said “Go back to porn.” And I said, “But I’m 44.” But she said “It’s just like riding a bike.” So I made a few calls and some people who had heard of me before said “Sure, we’ll give you a shot, Herschel.” You know, that type of thing. And I was functional, which was shocking to me, and then I started having a blast!
I think I enjoyed my second career more than my first. The level of women in the business was just off the charts; incredibly beautiful girls. So it was an interesting transition. In the year 2000 I did 232 scenes at 48-years-old. It was a challenge for sure. But I had fun and I never had any whitewashed image of the industry. I never thought it was an industry that had any real compassion or caring; it was all about the buck. No matter what level you rise to, unless you control your financial destiny, you’re just a pawn. So you have to leave with an empty feeling unless you were smart with your money and created something that you could bank on, which I didn’t. Apparently Marilyn didn’t either. There’s a lot of walking wounded who created this industry and made it thrive. There was of course no security blanket, no residuals, nothing. It was an underground business and it made a ton of money but if you didn’t have your hand in the contract [negotiations] and you didn’t have part ownership you’re pretty much screwed.
Man, I hear 232 scenes in one year and I’m exhausted.
It’s crazy, man. I mean thank god for Viagra. I came back in ’97 and Viagra came out in ’98. I was good but I wasn’t what I was like in my 20s and 30s…that’s a lot of Viagra. Imagine 230 scenes times 100 mg of Viagra. That’s 23,000 mg of Viagra; I think I lost part of my hearing taking that much.
Did you really?
I think so. I heard that there was a potential for that in the early Viagra days. But I did what I did. I was always a strong performer but Viagra definitely gave me a second lease on life…So for a 48-year-old to do 232 scenes in one year is just astonishing! I can’t believe I did that.
Totally! It’s incredible. I’m in awe. I wanted to ask you about Chuck Traynor and what you thought of him.
Honestly, I really never got to know Chuck beyond the Up ‘n’ Coming thing. He seemed kind of cold and distant and stern but we never had any words. I shook his hand but that was about it. I really didn’t know much about Chuck except what I had heard. Then the play that I did certainly painted him in an incredibly ugly light. I don’t know how true it was. From a theatrical standpoint it was probably more interesting to do it that way but from that article I read Marilyn was defending him ‘til the end so I don’t know what the truth is. I always took with a grain of salt what Linda Lovelace had to say about her ordeal. Knowing Gerry Damiano I can’t believe anybody would be working under those kinds of threatening circumstances. But who knows? She made a little money of that Ordeal book, touring the circuit and going anti-porn but I don’t really know what the truth is.
Certainly for a woman in the ‘60s and ‘70s to step over that line [and do porn] was potentially catastrophic in terms of her family life, societal views and things like that. And I know it came as a shock to Linda’s family and loved ones when she did it so I’m sure that was a burden to carry. I’m sure Marilyn was much more adaptable and open and free in that regard and didn’t lay a trip on herself.
How did the play go? I wanted to come down to L.A. to see it but I didn’t make it.
Oh, you should have! It went really well. It was a six-week run extended to 12. I don’t know if you read the reviews but [if you] look them up, I got quite a few good reviews from the L.A. Times and a few others. And the rest of the cast was good. It’s an entertaining play.
I know you were a trained stage actor and had a career on stage before entering porn. How did you find acting opposite Marilyn?
We really didn’t have many scenes together beyond the sex scenes. But the times I was with her she was very professional. She had a fun attitude, Marilyn. She had an energy that I really dug. We got along well. We stayed in touch over the years. Occasionally we’d speak on the phone. You know, only among people like us [in the porn industry] do we truly understand the life we led and if we haven’t put together something of value, at least even financially, it’s really an empty feeling. She had great pride in her daughter just as I have great pride in my son. I think my saving grace is that I practiced Buddhism for many, many years…That’s kept me grounded.
Do you remember the last time you spoke with Marilyn?
It had to be probably 2007. I remember I was on the phone. I don’t know why we were on the phone but it was a really nice conversation. We always had warm feelings for one another. We were in the trenches together, you know? But she was a much bigger star than I was.