The Legend of Sonny Williams
You’d have to be as old as I am to remember when a very menacing looking boxer named Sonny Liston knocked out Floyd Patterson in the first round to snatch away his heavyweight crown. He followed up with another first-round knockout of Patterson in a rematch.
His next fight was with a young challenger whose ego appeared to tower far above his own formidable boxing skills. Sonny Liston was a heavy favorite not only to beat Cassius Clay, but to completely demolish him as he had done Patterson.
As you may know, Clay outboxed Liston, knocking him out in the eighth round. He would soon change his name to Mohammed Ali, and to reign as the heavyweight champion for much of his career.
But this isn’t a story about boxing. Sonny Williams was not a boxer: He was a lover. As so many of us back in the sixties and early seventies used to chant, “Make love – not war!”
But before he gained some measure of fame, if you tried to envisage what Sonny Williams looked like, you might have pictured a tall muscular black man. In a way, it was that image that indirectly gave him his start in a long and happy film career.
Can you remember the1969 movie, Putney Swope? From time to time, Sonny Williams is mentioned, but he doesn’t actually appear in the flesh until the very end of the movie.
He turned out to be not at all what you might have expected. A very pale five-foot-four balding white man with a longish beard, thick glasses, and a very shy manner, he appeared completely naked, except for a raincoat. Whatever else you might have said, he was no Sonny Liston.
Without uttering a word, he opened his raincoat, fully exposing himself. Within weeks, his acting talents would be in great demand.
No one could have guessed that this cameo would mark the beginning of a long career in cinema for Sonny Williams. He would become an instant porno star.
Conventional porn movies back in the 1970s were essentially ten- or fifteen-minute sexual encounters, either between a heterosexual couple, or two women. There were, of course, porno movies for gay men, which were shown in different theaters.
Some porno filmmaker must have seen Sonny in Putney Swope, perhaps glancing at his massive schlong (Yiddish for very large penis). And so, a porn star was born.
Sonny had not recently cultivated the Talmudic scholar look. Brought up in an orthodox family in Brooklyn’s Borough Park, he faithfully attended Yeshiva all the way through high school. His name back then was Perry Gewirtz
But after moving out of his parents’ house and ending up on Manhattan’s Lower Eastside, he quickly drifted away from the faith. He began eating traif (non-kosher food) and was soon dating shiksas (gentile women).
At first, he returned to Borough Park on weekends to spend the sabbath with his family. But since his social life centered on weekends, those visits became less and less frequent. His parents and his brothers and sisters knew better than to try to talk him out of his disappointing lifestyle, hoping that he would soon come to his senses.
Immediately after he had been “discovered,” Sonny was put to work. He could not believe that he was actually being paid for doing what he gladly would have done for nothing. But don’t get the wrong idea. You won’t get rich being paid twenty-five dollars for each cum shot.
Now, some women could have made a small fortune using that pay scale. But for Sonny, who often took home over a hundred dollars for a day’s work, that was a lot of money for a guy living in a seventy-dollar-a-month-apartment in a tenement on East 5th Street off Second Avenue.
Sonny’s downstairs neighbor and closest friend was a very affable guy named Marshall Anker, who had long been an aspiring actor. Clearly jealous of Sonny’s success, he was always talking about the roles he was “up for.”
For weeks before an audition to play W.C. Fields in some movie that never saw the light of day, Marshall went around imitating Fields. But almost everyone who heard him thought he was just drunk, or perhaps insane.
Then, out of the blue, Marshall was cast as the sheriff in Last House on the Left, an exploitation horror film that was a commercial success. It would be his only movie role.
Marshall also envied Sonny for all the women he scored with – on the movie set and off. As small as Sonny was, Marshall was large. About six-three, with a big pot belly, he cut quite a figure walking along Second Avenue.
One night, he did get lucky. He met Marsha Handelsman, the three-hundred-pound poetess. They had both gotten drunk at a party, and as Marshall walked her home, his hopes were high.
She lived on the top floor of a five-story walk-up. But she was too drunk to climb the stairs. She said, “If you can carry me upstairs, you can fuck me.”
Did he manage to carry her up four flights? Yes! Did he have his way with her? Here, the story gets somewhat muddled. All he could remember was that he had to visit a chiropractor for months until he recovered.
Sonny and Marshall, along with another six or eight kindred spirits, would often party together. If you invited one of them to a party you were having, it went without saying that the whole bunch of them would show up.
I lived on Norfolk Street, about ten blocks from Sonny and Marshall. When their entourage arrived, they all started eating and drinking as though there were no tomorrow. Marshall even stuffed potato chips in his pockets, perhaps out of food insecurity. Sonny was too busy eyeing the women, none of whom seemed to know about his exploits on the silver screen.
Marshall, on the other hand, talked almost nonstop about his career in film, although that didn’t appear to impress the young women he was hitting on. Still, he was happy to be at the party, where at least there was some infinitesimal chance that he might get lucky.
About two am, a contingent of us headed down to Chinatown. Obviously, the pretzels, potato chips, cheese, salami, and onion soup dip I had put out were just the appetizers.
Down the block from me, Sonny and Marshall found an abandoned baby stroller. Sonny hopped in and Marshall pushed him all the way to Canal and Mott Streets.
They were quite a sight, and passersby often stopped to stare at the two of them. Both bearded and disreputable looking, they must have been taken for a demented father and his severely retarded bearded son.
Sonny loved his work so much that many times, he and his partner would keep going at it even after the allotted filming time had passed. The director, who had been about to yell “Cut!” just signaled the cameraman to keep shooting.
At first, the director thought Sonny was just trying to make more money, but he soon realized this was truly a labor of love. Look at it from Sonny’s perspective: Going to work was like going out on a great date. And not only did it cost him absolutely nothing, but they even paid him.
Soon he was truly a porn star. But he never let it go to his head. He knew, of course, that all good things must come to an end, so why not make hay while the sun was still shining?
People would approach him on the street and ask for his autograph, or to be in a photo with them. Once, a very attractive woman came up to him and asked him exactly how big it was.
He lived just around the corner, so he took her up to his apartment. They spent the rest of the day in bed. Then, she apologized and starting dressed. She needed to get home to make dinner for her husband and children.
By the time he was in his late forties, Sonny’s career as a porn star was clearly coming to and end. He decided that maybe a change of scenery would be nice, so he moved into a larger living space. He found a very reasonably priced storefront on East 9th Street just off Second Avenue.
It was long and narrow, with a big glass window at the front. People could see in, but he hung curtains a few feet from the window. When his friends visited for the first time, they often thought it was a used bookstore. Except that less than half the books were on bookshelves. The rest were in piles on the floor.
Once, I asked him why he needed so many books. “You realize that you could not read all these books in ten lifetimes.”
“So why do you need so many?” I persisted.
I just looked at him. Nearly all of the books were fiction.
When I thought about that exchange years later, I realized that maybe he was beginning to lose it.
One evening, when my girlfriend and I came by to take Sonny to dinner, we saw a woman in the store. She didn’t say anything, and Sonny didn’t bother to introduce her.
Who knows? Maybe she was a rare book buyer.
At dinner, Sonny didn’t mention her. But he must have trusted her, because he left her alone in his apartment.
Sonny had two tabby cats who enjoyed sunning themselves in the store window especially during the winter months. But this created problems with some of the passersby who knocked on the door, demanding to know if the cats were trapped in the small space they occupied.
Sonny grew tired of explaining that the cats were fine, so he taped a huge sign in his window that read: The cats love the warming rays of the sun. They are where they are entirely voluntarily.”
Not only did the sign actually work, but people came by just to look at it. The East Village Other even ran a series of photographs of the cats sunning themselves just below Sonny’s sign.
Although most of the people who viewed porno movies were reticent about ever mentioning this to even their closest friends, occasionally people would stop Sonny on the street to ask for his autograph. Marshall suggested that he sell his signed photos for ten or fifteen dollars apiece, but Sonny absolutely refused to do so.
“It would be as if I were prostituting myself!” he declared.
“Excuse me!” replied Marshall. “But isn’t that what you were doing in all those pornographic flicks you made?”
“Not at all! What I did, I did for my own pleasure… And of course for my partners’ pleasure as well.”
“Yeah, well I wouldn’t have minded pleasuring a few of those women myself!”
The last time I would see Sonny alive was when I took him to dinner on his fifty-first birthday. He told me that he was vey worried about Marshall’s health, and that he had been urging him to see a doctor.
“He can barely make it up the stairs to his apartment, and he is constantly wheezing.”
When my girlfriend and I went back to Sonny’s storefront, the same woman was there. This time she was much more friendly, although in a very negative sort of way.
“Can you believe the way he lives like this? Books all over the place. I told him a million times to just throw the whole lot of them in the garbage.”
She went on like this for at least ten minutes. Sonny had disappeared to a small cleared area in the back of the apartment, and as soon as we could disengage ourselves, we followed him to the back of the apartment.
Sonny put a finger to his lips, signaling us to whisper. He confessed that the woman just turned up on his doorstep one afternoon and never left.
“You mean she’s a squatter in your apartment?” I asked.
“I guess so.”
“Why don’t you throw her out?”
“I don’t know where she would go.”
“Sonny, that’s her problem,” said my girlfriend.
“Maybe, but it would be on my conscience.”
Just a month later, Sonny died suddenly from a severe stroke. I later learned that he had had a series of mini strokes months before that, but like Marshall, he never went to a doctor.
There were over a hundred mourners at his funeral. Conspicuously absent was Marshall, who had just gone into a nursing home. Most of us were aging hippies, neighbors, a whole contingent of current and former porno actors and actresses, and a few of his relatives.
His older brother, Ben, who remained an orthodox Jew, gave a wonderful eulogy. I sill remember his line, “Sonny wanted to make it small in the movies.”
That really summed him up. Unlike so many aspiring actors, Sonny never wanted to be a great movie star. He just wanted to have a really good time. Very few people truly love their work. Whatever else might be said about Sonny Williams, no one could deny that he was happy in his work. And yes, he did indeed make it small in the movies.