Actor Robert Kerman, who died yesterday, managed, at the end of the 1970s, to appear in two of the most notorious and legendary films of the era – Debbie Does Dallas and Cannibal Holocaust. These films, shot within a year of each other, sum up his intriguing dual career – or possibly triple career – that saw him as a major star in the porn industry, unlikely leading man in Italian cannibal movies and supporting player in mainstream film and TV.
Kerman – under the name R. Bolla (or Richard Bolla, or assorted variations) – became one of the most reliable leading men in the golden age of porn, having a solid career in which he often played respectable, middle-aged citizens. As a trained actor, Kerman could bring a certain gravitas or humorous style to his characters, which benefitted the films – often major, ambitious productions at a time when the porn industry was effectively making proper feature films that just happened to feature real sex. He didn’t have the classic good looks or edgy character of some of his contemporaries, but Kerman was a nevertheless a handsome everyman who could always be guaranteed to deliver the goods – both acting wise and sexually – and was one of the most in-demand performers of the era.
His films – including Roberta Finlay’s Anyone But My Husband, Carter Stevens’ Punk Rock, Gerard Damiano’s The Satisfiers of Alpha Blue, Lasse Braun’s American Desire, Gary Graver’s Amanda By Night, Inside Seka, The Budding of Brie, Good Girls of Godiva High, Blonde Ambition and The Devil In Miss Jones Pt. 2 – are among the best films to emerge on pre-video porn’s golden age, and if Kerman’s career had consisted of nothing else, this would be a body of work that anyone – any actor – could be proud of. But Kerman had mainstream ambitions, something not unusual within the industry at the time, and not altogether unrealistic – after all, there was still talk in the mid 1970s of some sort of convergence between mainstream Hollywood and its sexed-up neighbour, and the idea of someone learning their chops in porn and then moving into the mainstream didn’t seem completely unlikely – though moralising and rampant hypocrisy would soon put paid to any such ideas. Kerman would be torn between ending the work and increasingly believing that he had ruined his life, especially after the huge success and quickly achieved iconic status of Debbie Does Dallas – a not especially good film that nevertheless became a huge hit and achieved a legendary status second only to Deep Throat. Kerman would continue to work in porn until the mid-Eighties, but was increasingly resentful that by doing so, he had thrown away his chances of becoming a mainstream star.
In truth, few actors become big names. Most have, at best, jobbing careers that keep them in work and perhaps bring them some cult status with movie buffs. And that’s pretty much the career that Kerman had. Even without the porn, it’s likely that he might never have achieved more – not because of a lack of talent, but because that’s just the way it is.
Kerman’s second career – the one many know him best for – is as the star of three unrelated Italian cannibal movies. After working with director Ruggero Deodato, Kerman took the lead role in Cannibal Holocaust, one of the most gruellingly uncompromising films ever made, and then found himself oddly typecast, appearing in Umberto Lenzi’s Eaten Alive and (in a smaller role) Cannibal Ferox. Given how few cannibal films were made in the period between 1976 and 1986, for one actor to appear in three of them is rather odd, especially as Kerman didn’t seem to be seeing these films out. Indeed, he was often highly critical of Cannibal Holocaust and Deodato, especially in relation to the scenes of genuine animal killing – and if we are being fair, appearing in a notorious Italian cannibal film was probably just as career damaging for him as all the porn.
As a mainstream actor, Kerman had small roles in TV shows like Hill Street Blues, Simon and Simon and Cagney and Lacey, and films like Spider-Man, Night of the Creeps and No Way Out – often as characters with no names. How much of this disappointing career is down to his reputation, and how much of it down to being one of thousands of actors looking to catch a break, is a matter of some debate. Kerman, however, was increasingly bitter and struggled with substance abuse issues throughout the 1980s, something that left him in poor health. In recent years, he struggled with serious illnesses and a lack of money (porn stars don’t get a pension, and few made – or kept – enough money to provide a nest egg for their twilight years). While Kerman could perhaps finally appreciate his cult status as both horror icon and porn star, with public appearances and media interviews, his life was a hard one during the last decade, and he often seemed consumed with regrets and a belief that it might have all been different if only he’d kept his pants on. Selfishly, as admirers of his entire cult movie career, we’re glad he didn’t. We have enough character actors out there, and not nearly enough people who have run the gamut of outrageous cinema without even trying to. He really had nothing to be ashamed of.