Following PinkLabel.tv.’s restoration of Arthur J. Bressan, Jr.’s “Passing Strangers” (1974) in June, the director’s other gay adult feature, “Forbidden Letters” (1979), is available August 22 for streaming on the PinkLabel website.
In “Forbidden Letters,” Larry (Robert Adams) is a young man in San Francisco whose older lover, Richard (Richard Locke), is serving jail time for assault and robbery. As Larry awaits Richard’s release, he reflects on their relationship. Bressan films the explicit scenes in “Forbidden Letters” artfully — one arresting sequence has Larry and Richard naked and masturbating on opposite sides of a jail cell wall. But he also includes tender, romantic moments, as when Larry recalls seeing Richard at a Halloween party or being in Richard’s arms at San Francisco’s Lands End.
Adams, who also appeared in “Passing Strangers,” spoke with Gay City News about making “Forbidden Letters” and remembering Arthur J. Bressan, Jr.
GARY M. KRAMER: How did you meet Artie and decide to star in his adult films?
ROBERT ADAMS: Artie saw me standing in Union Square in San Francisco. I was the picture of the character he had in mind. He asked me if I was interested in doing this film. I don’t know that I knew what kind of film it was, but when he did tell me it didn’t matter to me. The sex was not a turn-off. I was full of hormones in my 20s.
KRAMER: Was there any impact of these films on your career? Did you have plans to cross over into Hollywood films?
ADAMS: There wasn’t. I never pursued an acting career. I’m not sure why, exactly. Artie wanted to make it a trilogy. At the time [of the proposed third film], I wasn’t feeling great about my body and I was self-conscious. He didn’t care, but it never really came together. I’m curious what he’d had in mind. If I had it to do over, I would have.
KRAMER: Can you talk about Artie and his style of working?
ADAMS: He was first and foremost a lover of movies, too. His influences were Preston Sturges and Frank Capra, and I think you can see that in how he framed shots. He had a real artistic eye for creating a look. His music choices create a mood through sound and image. There are moments of melancholy. He was very gentle. He was a large guy — tall and big-boned and kind of a hippie, but very outgoing. He was very optimistic. I was 24, and there were times when I was kind of a little bitch, frankly, and he would look at me like I was breaking character. I respected him as an artist and looked up to him. He definitely liked sex — that’s apparent in his films — but he never hit on me. Artie played against type — most folks would think I’m the bottom, the younger, submissive one, but in the anal sex scenes, I was the one on top. Even on the carousel, I was kissing down and [Locke] was in the female role. I am sure Artie set that up on purpose.
KRAMER: What is it like now, seeing these films and watching your younger self have sex?
ADAMS: That’s just really hard to describe. How many people get to do that — go back in time and watch themselves having sex in their 20s? It’s a strange experience. I liked it. He certainly was obsessed with cum shots. I lost count how many times sperm was spurting out of me.
Some of the porn distributors balked at the film because of the story. Artie wanted to tell a story. He did cut a video version with only the sex scenes. They put a different actor on the cover, and they marketed it that way, as just sex scenes with a rudimentary story. When I saw the full version, I didn’t remember a lot of it.
KRAMER: Can you describe filming the scenes in the jail cell? It is very atmospheric.
ADAMS: “Forbidden Letters” was shot on Alcatraz. Doug Dickinson, who appears in the first scene in the film, was a park ranger there. He got a section of the park cordoned off so we could do the jackoff scene in there. Clint Eastwood was filming a movie on the other side of jail. If they had known what we were doing!
When I’m watching it, I’m so enraptured by the artistry of his shots, it’s not even sexual to me. The focus is not “this is sex” and making me horny, but what a beautiful silhouette. It is unclear if it is Robert’s fantasy or my character’s.
KRAMER: There is a fabulous sequence at the San Francisco Halloween party, as well as scenes in gay porn theaters and in the Castro and elsewhere. What do you recall about being in San Francisco in the 1970s in the pre-AIDS era?
ADAMS: It was an exciting time — the Castro was becoming this hub of gay activity. It was sort of at the tail end of Haight-Ashbury Summer of Love. There were remnants of that around, and this was a new emerging movement so it was exciting. It was before AIDS, so no one thought about safe sex — you just had sex, and if you got gonorrhea you got a shot and everything was curable.
There was a downside to everyone experimenting in their new-found freedom, that there was a shallowness in terms of making friends and relationships; sex could become an obsession. It wasn’t very fulfilling.
One weird thing about these films is that I’m the only one left. Doug Dickinson died of AIDS. Richard Locke, Artie, and Robert Carnagey [Adams’ costar in “Passing Strangers”] died of AIDS. I look back and wonder, how did I escape this?
KRAMER: Are you a big romantic, like Larry is?
ADAMS: Yeah, definitely. I drew on that side of myself for the film. I didn’t do very well with it in real life. I’m single now.
FORBIDDEN LETTERS | Directed by Arthur J. Bressan, Jr. | The Bressan Project | Available for streaming Aug. 22 via pinklabel.tv/on-demand
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