John Holmes was known as the "King of Porn" and helped bring pornography into the mainstream. Then he fell victim to drug addiction and HIV.
The life of John Holmes plays out like the script of one of his movies: full of twists and turns, and drugs and women — copious amounts of the latter two. After all, what does one expect from a man known as the “King of Porn,” with over 2,000 hardcore films under his belt and a bedpost with about 14,000 notches on it?
Despite the ridiculous number of films he’d made and women he supposedly slept with, Holmes still felt the need to embellish. During conversations, he’d invent facts and figures about himself so often that the real facts were often lost in the mix of wild tidbits.
Tidbits like the fact that he had several degrees from UCLA, that he had been a child actor on Leave it to Beaver; and that he had a 13.5-inch penis that had rendered him unable to wear underwear, and had, in fact, killed several people were all pieces of information that he felt compelled to tell whoever would listen.
So imagine people’s surprise when they realized that that last one was true, at least in part. While it never actually killed anybody, John Holmes’ fame, his glory, his prowess and his downfall could all be attributed to one thing: his 13.5-inch endowment.
Before making his big break in the pornography industry, John Holmes worked in relatively mundane jobs. He worked as an ambulance driver, a shoe salesman, a furniture salesman, and a door-to-door brush salesman. He had tried his hand at a job stirring chocolate at a Coffee Nips factory and he’d driven a forklift at a meatpacking plant. For several years he tried just about everything there was to try, each of them working out worse than the previous one.
Then, while at a poker parlor in Gardena, California, his luck changed.
While in the bathroom of the poker parlor, he met a professional photographer named Joel, who noticed that he was extremely gifted and suggested he put his natural “talents” to good use. Before long, he was doing pictorials and dancing in nightclubs where he was making more cash than he ever dreamed possible.
Meanwhile, his wife Sharon had no idea and believed her husband to be an average, working-class citizen. Then, one day she walked in on him measuring himself with a tape measure and dancing around giddy with glee. That was when Holmes told his wife about his extracurricular activities and that he had a new plan for his life.
“I’ve got to tell you I’ve been doing something else,” he told her. “I think I want to make it my life’s work.”
He wanted to be the best at something, he explained, and he believed that pornography was it. It was the 70s when pornography was starting to emerge into everyday life.
Mainstream cinemas were showing erotic movies and porn stars were being considered famous as much as movie stars were. Even household names like Johnny Carson and Bob Hope were making jokes about sex and porn on air, encouraging the cultural phenomenon.
When he explained his career goals to his wife, Holmes was surprisingly cavalier about it, almost excited to get started. Sharon, on the other hand, wasn’t as enthused. She was a virgin when they met and had expected a conservative, conventional life with her husband. Diving headfirst into the porn industry, she felt, was not quite what she had in mind.
“You can’t be uptight about this,” John said. “This means absolutely nothing to me. It’s like being a carpenter. These are my tools, I use them to make a living. When I come home at night, the tools stay on the job.”
“You are having sex with other women,” said Sharon. “It’s like being married to a hooker.”
That argument would continue for the next 15 years through their tumultuous and eventually estranged marriage. Despite her displeasure with his career path, Sharon loved John Holmes and stayed with him until she just couldn’t bear it anymore.
Meanwhile, Holmes tried, for the most part, to stick to his promise and separate his work life from his home life.
After work, John Holmes was a handyman for his small apartment community in Glendale, living in one of the ten units that Sharon managed. He would renovate the apartments, collect junk, create sculptures out of animal (and the occasional human) skulls, and spend his free time drawing and sculpting out of clay.
During the day, however, John Holmes became Johnny Wadd. Johnny Wadd was a detective who seemed to solve absolutely no crimes but somehow sleeps with everyone he came across during his investigations, men and women alike. Johnny Wadd wore three-piece suits, ostentatious jewelry, and diamond belt buckles, drove an El Camino pickup truck, and earned $3,000 per day at a minimum.
Though he attempted to maintain his double life, eventually, the Johnny Wadd lifestyle became too enticing, too exciting to give up, and began to overshadow John Holmes’ quiet handyman husband lifestyle. Particularly after the young, impressionable Dawn Schiller moved in across the way.
At 15 years old, Dawn Schiller was everything that Sharon wasn’t. She was adventurous and young, and most importantly, thought his career was something to be admired rather than hidden. Before long, she became his girlfriend, a relationship which would be tumultuous at its best, and dangerous at its worst.
Around the time he met Dawn Schiller, John Holmes developed a cocaine habit, which started affecting his work life. He’d show up to shoots strung out, and his high would render him unable to perform when he was expected to. Before long he was losing jobs, and despite once making $3,000 a day, Holmes soon found himself broke. Broke, but craving drugs.
In an effort for cash, Holmes prostituted Schiller, beating her into submission and using his hold over her to scare her into getting him drugs or cash. Schiller, too scared to leave him, stuck it out, doing almost anything Holmes asked of her. She would make him money, then turn it over and be forced to wait in the car while he bought drugs.
Schiller was there, waiting in the car, the night that Holmes allegedly witnessed the Wonderland Murders, a drug-fueled bloodbath that took place in a swanky Los Angeles neighborhood and involved Holmes’ regular drug dealer. She remembered later that she had been at the house, though she wasn’t involved in the murders.
Holmes, however, had claimed to see the entire thing go down, held in place with a gun to his head while the perpetrators bashed in his drug dealer’s brains. After witnessing the bloodshed, he fled to Sharon’s house and confessed the entire thing. It wasn’t until years later that Sharon would tell anyone of the confession. This series events would inspire the 2003 movie Wonderland and the portrayal of John Holmes by Val Kilmer.
The Wonderland Murders seemed to mark the beginning of the end for Holmes. Schiller and Sharon both left him. He’d been charged with murder and put on trial, though was later acquitted. The trial (and his cocaine habit) did put a damper on his film career, and soon he was no longer the star, only making cameo appearances in films for small fees.
In 1986, Holmes was diagnosed with HIV, likely a result of his cavalier approach to making porn films. His friends and family reported that he was notoriously afraid of needles, the most popular method of contracting the disease, and, unfortunately, similarly notorious for not using condoms.
Holmes fell out of favor with directors when he chose not to reveal his HIV status before engaging in several pornographic films without using protection.
In 1988, John Holmes succumbed to his disease and died quietly at a VA hospital. He remarried shortly before his death and was alone with her when he passed. Despite his larger-than-life personality and his huge success, his death was relatively underwhelming.
However, he made sure that his legacy wasn’t forgotten. “John Holmes was to the adult film industry what Elvis Presley was to rock ‘n’ roll. He simply was The King,” said cinematographer Bob Vosse in the documentary Wadd: The Life & Times of John C. Holmes.
As his last wish, John Holmes asked his new bride to do him a favor.
“He wanted me to view his body and make sure that all the parts were there,” his wife, Laurie, said. “He didn’t want part of him ending up in a jar somewhere. I viewed his body naked, you know, and then I watched them put the lid on the box and put it in the oven. We scattered his ashes over the ocean.”