A stirring video presentation about Leslie’s life highlighted the program as more than 300 friends, family and colleagues remembered what made the charismatic Pittsburgh native an icon during his 35-year career in front of and behind the camera.
Themed “A Celebration of Life,” the night was dedicated to Leslie’s beloved wife Kathleen Nuzzo, who watched as several of Leslie’s friends took the stage to honor him in their own words.
Evil Angel general manager Christian Mann introduced the program, saying that while he knew Leslie for more than two decades, he only worked closely with him for the past two-and-half-years. Like so many, Mann came away with a strong impression of his constant pursuit of excellence. He referenced one of Leslie’s passions — playing blues music — in quoting Wynton Marsalis:
“Marsalis said blues is a celebration of what is,” Mann told the crowd in the Starlight Room. “And John told it like he saw it and didn’t sugar coat it. He kept us on our toes. When he said it, he meant it. His legend looms large.”
Indeed, Leslie’s numerous talents — he was an accomplished actor, director, painter, musician and cook among other things — made him a larger-than-life personality who inspired so many people inside and outside of adult before his sudden passing on Dec. 5 at the age of 65.
When performer/director Erik Everhard arrived at the Sportsmen’s Lodge and saw the crowd he said simply, “This is exactly what I thought. Look at all the people. He was the man.”
Industry veteran Sean Michaels, sitting near the stage before the program began, shook his head and said, “So many memories. This is one of those times when you think, life is so short. Don’t waste time. Be the best you can be.”
Performer Jack Lawrence echoed what so many have said about Leslie in recent days.
“He helped me out when I first got into the business. He just gave me some good advice,” Lawrence said.
Nina Hartley smiled as she looked at the photo collage displayed at the entrance of the Starlight Room. She laughed out loud at one of the classic black-and-white photos of Leslie before reaching out as if to touch his face.
There was a youth football picture of Leslie, plenty of shots of him in the kitchen making gourmet dishes, performing music and also photos from many of his trips to Europe.
Performer Justice Young said he didn’t know Leslie well, but he did have the occasion to talk to him over dinner along with a small group during last year’s Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas.
“We talked a lot, probably for about an hour and a half,” Young said.
The crowd applauded several times during the 30-minute video presentation, which included an incredible live performance from more than a decade ago in which Leslie played harmonica and sang, and also his acceptance speech upon induction into the X-rated Critics Organization Hall of Fame on Feb. 14, 1985. He was the fifth person to be inducted.
In the speech, Leslie was gracious, acknowledging the four who came before him. Edited by director Kevin Moore, the video montage also gave viewers a taste of Leslie’s undeniable screen presence with excerpts of several of his acting performances. Clips from memorable scenes from “Easy Alice,” “Exposed,” “Lust at First Bite,” “The Lecher,” “Dogwalker,” “Nothing to Hide,” “Night Shift Nurses” and the last feature he directed, “Brianna Love Her Fine, Sexy Self” in ’07 all were included. And there was plenty of comic relief, specifically when Leslie shared the screen with best friend Joey Silvera.
When the video ended, Mann read a message that was sent by performer T.T. Boy, who relayed that Leslie “gave me a shot” when he was 21.
“He was the kind of guy you wished you knew,” Boy wrote. “He was right out of a movie. … If you knew John well, consider yourself lucky.”
Silvera high-fived and hugged Kathleen before he took the stage, which was decorated with a director’s chair bearing Leslie’s name, his harmonica box with the John Leslie Blues Band CD inside, and Leslie’s trademark black leather jacket — which was a gift from his friend and fellow director, Christoph Clark.
Silvera asked for a moment of silence for Leslie, and then quickly said, “OK, that’s about as long as John gave me to get a hard-on when I worked for him,” drawing a roar of laughter.
“What a guy,” Silvera said. “… He loved my dogs. He stayed at my house a lot during the last three years. We had a lot of fun together.”
Producer/director Jules Jordan, who along with Silvera and Moore organized the service, told the crowd, “I don’t have the history with John that some may have. I’ve known him for about nine years. But John was the type of guy that if you knew him for a few years, you really felt like you knew him a lot longer. … To hear him and Joey tell stories was amazing.”
Evil Angel founder John Stagliano, who released nearly 100 movies from John Leslie Productions during their longtime collaboration, fondly recalled a day in Paris with John and Kathleen.
“We were just walking down the street and John was playing the harmonica just being crazy. Entertaining,” Stagliano said. “He was always entertaining.”
Stagliano continued, “He just had this presence about him that was interesting. He was always a pleasure to be around. … It was a privilege to have known him and to have been in his company.”
Stagliano concluded by saying, “It was a better business with John in it. He was a true artist.”
Hall of Fame star Richard Pacheco, who shares the same hometown as Leslie, hung a black-and-gold Terrible Towel over the podium as he spoke, commemorating Leslie’s love for the Pittsburgh Steelers football team.
“It was my great pleasure in life to be with John on the way up,” said Pacheco, who met Leslie on the set of his second movie, “Legend of Lady Blue,” in 1978.
“… We did ‘Talk Dirty to Me’ [in 1979] and then ‘Nothing to Hide’ [in 1981]. ‘Nothing to Hide’ made me a star, and it made John a superstar.”
Pacheco recalled being impressed with how Leslie welcomed the late Jamie Gillis into the business, befriended him and supported his efforts.
“You don’t replace a Jamie Gillis. You don’t replace a John Leslie. You just move on,” Pacheco said.
Pacheco relayed some messages about Leslie from fellow luminaries that could not attend.
Harry Reems: “He was like a magnet. He was always making people feel good. He always had a joke to tell…always had advice to give.”
Georgina Spelvin: “Any scene or situation got better when [Leslie] arrived.”
Rocco Siffredi, speaking from his home in Budapest via Skype, told the audience Leslie was among the first producers to hire him when he came to America in the early ’90s. Siffredi performed in “Curse of Catwoman” under Leslie’s direction in ’91, and then in the classic “Chameleons: Not a Sequel” in ’92.
“This is for me a big loss, as a human being and as an artist,” Siffredi said. Then he directed some of his remarks to Kathleen.
“From wherever he is, he is protecting you and giving you as much love as before, even more than when he was here,” Siffredi told her.
Several others spoke about Leslie during an open microphone session. Tom Byron, Prince Yahshua, Kenny from Art Attack, F.J. Lincoln, Scott Schwartz, Tee Reel, Adam Grayson, Hartley and Everhard were among those who shared memories. Roy Karch even played his harmonica.
Veteran Evil Angel producer/director Christoph Clark, who also resides in Budapest, told XBIZ Wednesday Leslie was dear to him.
“John and Kathleen and my family, we were very good friends,” Clark said. “John and Kathleen are like the uncle and aunt of my two kids. Many times we have been to his beautiful and peaceful house in San Francisco, and he has been to Budapest many times with us. My wife and I are very sad about what happened and we already really miss him. We love John and Kathleen very much.”
Randy Spears, also unable to attend the memorial, told XBIZ he looked up to Leslie as a mentor early in his 23-year career.
“I sure did,” Spears said. “He was the guy that I watched before I got into the business. He was the guy that I looked up to. The first time I met John was back in the days when it was still illegal to shoot porn in Los Angeles, but legal to sell them, which I never understood. So we used to go up to San Francisco to shoot and I met John up there on a set. And he’s the only person really in the whole world that I was a bit star-struck when I met him."
Performer Rocco Reed had recently worked for Leslie for the first time.
“It's safe to say that John was a talented, caring, and very passionate man,” Reed said. “Randy Spears is someone that has taken me under his wing and given me advice over my four years in this business. John was Randy's mentor in the beginning of his career and John's work is something I had always admired.”
Reed continued, “When Kevin Moore let me know John was in town shooting I changed my schedule and canceled some things just so I could make it possible. I am very glad I did because previous to the scene we had a great conversation about life, the business, and my future. The scene went amazing and I am so honored I was able to talk with him, and work on one of his last projects.”
Industry historian Bill Margold asked for moments of silence for both Jamie Gillis and Leslie, calling the latter “one of the last of The Mountain Men.”
Then Margold summoned all the actors who were working in the ’70s to the stage, saying they laid the groundwork for the industry, and about a dozen of them stepped up in Leslie's honor. Margold continued by saying he would deliver personal messages from several others who were not present to Kathleen, including words from Larry Flynt, Randy West, Tracey Adams, Seka and Gloria Leonard.
To close the program, Kay Parker read aloud Leslie’s favorite literary passage — the preface from “Les Miserables.”
Kathleen then went to the microphone, joking, “They used to call me Chatty Kathy, but I’m speechless tonight…”
“In the end what matters most is how well did you live, how well did you love and how well did you learn to let go?” she said.
An audio recording of “The Smoky Room” from The John Leslie Blues Band played as attendees made their way to the door.
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