Bill Eld (1945-1986) is not well-remembered today, but long ago he was a popular model in gay magazines and adult films.
Eld's career began in 1970, just a year after Stonewall. It was a time when being gay was not considered acceptable by the majority of mainstream society, yet Eld unashamedly shed his clothes and had sex with men on camera. Sometimes referred to as "Big" Bill Eld, he became well known for the size of his penis, for his physique, and for his beautiful face.
Eld was a star at a time when there were few gay porn stars. But his star didn't last, and Eld came to an early and sad demise in his early 40s.
Now, Eld's life and career are remembered in “Bill Eld: American Pop Culture Icon,” a new feature-length documentary from gay porn auteur Toby Ross, who worked with Eld back in the day and became well-known in his own right for writing and directing a series of artsy gay porn films. Ross lit his films carefully to create a mood. His films had full dialogue and stood out from the rest.
Ross serves as an onscreen host and narrator as he shares the story of Eld's life. Ross did his homework. He connected with a nephew of Eld’s, who gave his blessing to the production.
"He loved it," Ross said of the nephew in an email interview. "We connected when I met Toby Ross in the ‘70s and stayed in touch. He is really into his own family tree and takes pride in studying it."
Early in the film Ross talks to the nephew on the phone. The nephew offers some background information on Eld's family and his childhood, which humanizes him. He becomes a real person, not just a nude model.
The personable Ross, who clearly loves his subject, tells the story of Eld's life, the good, the bad, and the ugly. He shares some fascinating and unexpected tidbits about Eld, such as the fact that he worked as a physical education teacher and a shoe salesman before entering the porn world.
Ross tells of how Eld first got into the adult entertainment industry and shows clips from several of Eld's films. Fans of today's porn films might be surprised when they see this vintage footage. It was a different era. During one lengthy clip Eld and his scene partner don't just have sex, they spend some time getting to know each other, and they smile. They act like real people and look like they're enjoying the sex. This further humanizes Eld.
Further into the film Ross shows a photo of a fully clothed Eld standing in front of a building. It's a beautiful shot that could have appeared in a fashion magazine and it underscores the magnitude of Eld's beauty.
Ross's love for his subject seems to shine through as he continues telling the tale of Eld's rise and fall. He tells the truth. He does not shy away from the ugly side of Eld's life, his half-hearted attempts to find employment outside of performing and his descent into drugs. Eld ultimately emerges as a tragic figure.
"It's not that I loved the person so much," Ross said in his interview. "He was difficult and unreachable but it's that I was head over heels in love with the legend. Do you get the difference? I also love stardom to the abyss stories a la Barbara Payton and Bill are the quintessential prototype for this metaphor. No matter how great you are or how sexy you look if your drug habit is out of control you have bought a one-way ticket for the train on its way to Loserville. It almost happened to me."
Toby Ross. Photo courtesy of Toby Ross.
Ross is not the only person in the film who addresses the audience. Others who knew Eld, such as photographer John Michael Cox, also share their memories. Cox photographed Eld for a magazine, and during the shoot Eld claimed to be a married straight man. Cox recalls seeing Eld at an adult theater sometime later working as a janitor and remarks about how depressing this was. The star was on a downward spiral.
"The only real male pinup whose career transcended his own botched porn career," Ross said. "Sex in an overload abundance can run amok and be a disadvantage without the mental capacity to manage it. His beauty was one thing but then having that fat gorgeous dick was the extra gift that kept him in the rat race and possibly destroyed him, a pipe bomb, a torpedo aimed at his life. He was not really a porn star, that is the uniqueness."
Ross wants people to know that Eld was very much a star. He spoke of what he hopes people will take from the film.
"The idea that in his own way he was an icon a 'la Marilyn Monroe and Elvis not just a gay icon a 'la Al Parker," Ross said. "He transcends the gay frame."
“Bill Eld: American Pop Culture Icon” is now available on Amazon.