September 8, 2014 | Posted in Celebrity by
Do you like barbarian movies?...
I always laugh to myself whenever one of our Carrie Nation-style Great American Moral Crusaders convinces themselves that they can rinse away all the smut embedded in our national culture. Yeah, good luck with that, pilgrim. Just as the only way that you'll ever rid society of drug use is to banish human despair and boredom from the earth, you'll only ever manage to exorcise pornography when you eradicate man's infinite capacity to sexually fantasize.
The truth is, you can turn just about anything into spank material, and you have to be industrious when you're a kid. Comic books, International Male, fitness mags -- they're all go-to compromises. Still, for me, it was -- and still is -- barbarian movies.
I'm of the opinion that some of us just never stood a chance with heterosexuality if we were raised during the early or mid-'80s. The whole Sword & Sorcery genre was big all over the map, and that meant lots of over-pumped guys oiled up like greased pigs and running around in loincloths. Between The Savage Sword of Conan, Masters of The Universe, Thundarr The Barbarian, and those goddamn Barbarian video game covers, is it any wonder that there isn't a closet big enough to shove all the post-Big '80s gays back into? Hell, many is the guy who'll confess to still being deeply in love with swarthy Ax Battler from Golden Axe.
Anyway, when it came to Sword & Sorcery movies that lined video store shelves, Italy was the main supplier. 1983's La Guerra del Ferro -- aka The Ironmaster -- was a real favorite of mine as a kid, due in no small part to the presence of its one-shot leading man, the beefed-out, tawny, glistening Sam Pasco. A central figure in my childhood sexual development, this man was a mystery to me for years. This was his only film, so I had long assumed that he was likely a bodybuilder either home-grown in Italy or imported from America to fill one of the many strongmen roles of the period. This was a time when producers had to hire real full-time muscleheads, not like today when mainstream actors just go on a steroid cocktail for filming. It would be years later that I'd learn Mr. Pasco's true significance in gay culture.
This is proof positive that for some of us, porn creep is deeply rooted in our lives from day one.
The fact that Mr. Pasco was far better known as Colt's aptly-christened Big Max from the company's, erm, seminal period is just too wacky for me to pass up. It actually wasn't atypical for both foreign and domestic adult film stars to feature in Italian Exploitation cinema -- this includes notables like R. Bolla, Paola Senatore, Karin Schubert, and even Jeff Stryker -- but Pasco/Big Max is a human cryptogram. Most accounts have him no longer of this mortal coil -- liver failure due to steroid usage seems to have claimed him around 1985, though suicide and AIDS also come up -- but his iconic look and aura have a ghostly quality for me. Between web cams and blogs, porn actors are too accessible now. They don't have the same mystique that they used to. It saddens me that someone can be so recognizable in his heyday and yet have so few people who seem to know anything meaningful about him after he'd drifted off into the dusty twilight world of vintage skin mags, old loops, and Italian trash epics with giant clamshell video boxes. It's a frightening indicator of just how many members of a generation were wiped off the map.
I try to imagine what it must have been like to be gay in the Big Apple during the late '70s and early '80s. It seems like a time fraught with menace and danger as the promise of the free and easy '70s Gay Lib high took a dark turn. Reagan was ascending to power; crack was just hitting the streets; Body Culture was taking its irrevocable hold upon gay life; men were being regularly attacked at night while cruising the city parks, the perpetrators sometimes police officers or freaks disguised as them; a series of disappearances and body parts wrapped in garbage bags washing up along the shore of the Hudson became known as the "Bag Murders"; and a terrifying stranger called Senor Sida was just arriving off the naval ships docked for the bicentennial, come town for an extended stay. Pasco was something of a West Village luminary -- his apartment was on Bank Street -- known for strutting about the neighborhood in white navy sailor duds. He frequented night spots like The Mineshaft and The Saint, pumping iron at midtown's MidCity gym, a haven for meatheads. He regularly ran ads for his services, billing himself as a "movie star" and "title holder." Reportedly, he was a real barbarian in the hay, and worth every penny.
Pasco -- I believe that this may very well be his real name, though he was also known as Mike Spanner and possibly Jim Craig in addition to his other nom de porn -- was promoted by Colt as having a master's degree in Victorian Lit. This sounds like quite the tall tale, but there may be some truth to it. Pasco purportedly studied English Lit at Alabama's Auburn University. As a graduate teaching assistant, he had an on-the-Q.T. thing going with a member of the wrestling team, something rumored to not go over particularly well with a senior professor who had him booted from the school. He split for the big city, hopping aboard the hustling/modeling meatrack and becoming one of Jim French's earliest and most revered discoveries. He did compete in bodybuilding, distinguished by his stature.
Just how an American gay porn actor ended up being cast in an Italian adventure epic only adds to his mystery. Director Umberto Lenzi has no idea how he became involved in the project. Portions of the film were lensed in South Dakota (the buffalo stampede in particular, I'm guessing), so the producers might've wanted a muscular American lead to round out the international cast. I have to appreciate the synchronicity of The Ironmaster playing on The Deuce's grindhouse circuit in 1983, this as Pasco's other films like Grease Monkeys and Dunes were likely available in decidedly smaller venues along the very same stretch of pavement. Porn and Barbarian flix -- now that's called synergy. This is a man who had a helluva life trajectory, and in a better world, Mr. Pasco would've pulled a Traci Lords and had a whole spate of Italian schlock credits to his name. If claims are true, he ultimately had only two years left to live. Another shade of New York.
Despite his impressive photographic tenure for Colt -- the shots are gorgeous and iconic -- it's two other images of Pasco that define him for me. The first is just a candid shot of him in his apartment. Looking happy, tanned, and ridiculously buffed-out, he seems so alive, standing there with his arms crossed and his belt unbuckled before a bookshelf with an old-timey TV and stereo, plus a photo of a movie star (Joan Crawford, I think). It's a beautiful snapshot of another time, a dandelion seed blown to the winds. A ghost in nether-light.
The second is the positively marvelous Italian one-sheet art for The Ironmaster, which for me immortalizes Pasco pefectly. Here he stands, indomitable, before a volcano-riddled Frazetta-style primordial landscape and an alien-looking moon, the sky blackened with ash. Mammoths lumber as pteranodons hover. A horde of beast-man marches with skulls impaled on pikes. Pasco, sporting a lion headdress and wielding a bloody battle-axe with a topless blonde piece at his side, is lovingly detailed, every one of his muscles painted to splendid effect. It's pure pop cult machismo. A warrior-god on the mountaintop. Instant afterschool hard-on. I like to think that he had this framed on his wall.
'Cuz I sure do.