Marilyn Chambers was once the shining example of how a career in porn could be a stepping-stone to something better. She went from being penetrated on a trapeze in 1972’s Behind the Green Door to getting the lead in a David Cronenberg horror film.

These days, nobody gets into porn with ambitions beyond paying the rent and embarrassing their parents. The last example of a porn star making the leap to a mainstream acting career is Sasha Gray, and she managed only to land a forgettable Steven Soderbergh movie and a bit part in Entourage before audiences lost interest. That was a decade ago, and there is no next generation of Sasha Grays. Doing porn today leads to nothing but doing more porn.

It was a very different world back in the 1970s. Adult movies were shown in actual theaters, and audiences flocked to buy tickets. And they weren’t all creepy dudes in raincoats social-distancing so they could masturbate. Deep Throat, which had its initial theatrical run in 1972, attracted cinephiles such as Johnny Carson, Ben Gazzara, Frank Sinatra, and Vice President Spiro Agnew. Truman Capote finally got around to catching a screening because “Mike Nichols told me I just had to see it.”

These days, nobody gets into porn with ambitions beyond paying the rent and embarrassing their parents.

The line between what constituted an adult movie and a mainstream movie was almost nonexistent. Midnight Cowboy won an Academy Award for best picture despite having an X rating. Marlon Brando, arguably the greatest actor of his generation, infamously used butter for anal sex in Last Tango in Paris, and respectable actors such as Helen Mirren, Peter O’Toole, and John Gielgud signed on to do Caligula, an X-rated movie about Roman orgies that was bankrolled by porn-magazine tycoon Bob Guccione.

There were no Brandos or Gielguds in porn, but there were actors with credentials beyond their willingness to have intercourse as a plot point. Jamie Gillis and Harry Reems were doing Shakespeare before they took off their pants for a paycheck. Paul Thomas played the apostle Peter in the 1973 film version of Jesus Christ Superstar before devoting himself to carnal hydraulics in films like Candy Stripers and Pretty Peaches. And pre–Devil in Miss Jones Georgina Spelvin appeared in Broadway productions of Cabaret, Guys and Dolls, and Sweet Charity.

They were committed to their craft regardless of whether their genitals were co-stars. “I took the role very seriously,” Spelvin told Time magazine of her performance in The Devil in Miss Jones, about a woman trying to earn her way back into hell by sleeping with everybody. “I was doing Hedda Gabler here! The fact that there was hard-core sex involved was incidental as far as I was concerned.”

The Clap

It’s hard to believe now, but when Ron Jeremy made his porn debut, in 1979, at the age of 25, he was just as serious. He studied acting at the Strasberg Institute and the La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, and had small roles in Off (or Off Off) Broadway productions of plays by Oscar Wilde and Nikolai Gogol. But he was struggling, still living with his dad in Queens, and looking for a break.

Jeremy’s girlfriend Alice took a picture of him in the buff and submitted it to Playgirl, and they published it in their October 1978 issue. It did lead to movie offers, just not the kind Jeremy was hoping for. When he was offered a role in Tigresses and Other Man-Eaters, Jeremy asked the director, “Can I see the script?” The director told him, “You can see it, but you have no lines.”

Even worse, the camera never panned above his waist. He was a disembodied penis. “I spent an hour in makeup and they never shot my damn face,” Jeremy complained to me. But after his sole sex scene, which required a fluffer because he was so nervous, the entire crew broke into a standing ovation. Or so Jeremy insists.

“The camera guy, the lighting guy, they all started applauding,” Jeremy said. “They were like, ‘Wow, what a performance!’ They couldn’t believe it.”

Even worse, the camera never panned above his waist. He was a disembodied penis.

I don’t believe him. It just sounds contrived and fake, like someone describing their winning touchdown at a high-school football game. I’ve been to porn sets, and everybody is sad and distracted, avoiding eye contact and trying not to think about what that smell could be. The idea of anybody applauding a male porn actor after his orgasm feels disconnected from reality.

But I do believe that Jeremy believes the tale. It’s his rose-colored memory of that day, when performing on cue in a roomful of strangers with cameras was still unique and even a reason for an actor to feel hopeful about his future.

The poster for Fascination (1980), Jeremy’s most cherished credit. He yearned for the days when “the films had real story lines.”

“In those days, the films had real story lines,” Jeremy told me, in one of our many conversations about his early movies. “They had big, thick scripts and just a little sex. They were real feature films.”

Jeremy’s proudest porn credit is a 1980 film called Fascination, which, he told me, on no fewer than six different occasions, was “screened as a mainstream movie in Germany. They took the sex out, and it had enough story line to pass as a real film.” I don’t know if this says more about the movie—there’s a blow job in a public theater within the first five minutes—or Germany, but for Jeremy it was conclusive proof that better opportunities were coming.

“We only did one film a week,” Jeremy bragged to me. “We had big premieres on both coasts, in L.A. and New York, and we’d all fly out to see each other’s movies. Fascination had a big premiere with spotlights and red carpets. It was all shot on film, no DVD or video or nothing. It put me on the map!”

But it wasn’t enough to help Jeremy cross over into the mainstream. He wasn’t offered meetings with Hollywood big-wigs or lead roles in any David Cronenberg films. And then adult movies became adult videos in the 80s. There were no more big premieres or red carpets or A-listers buying tickets. But Jeremy was patient.

“My moment was coming,” he told me. “I was sure of it. I deserved it.”

Willy Loadman

The one observation that gets made repeatedly about Ron Jeremy, in documentaries and magazine articles and by countless directors and producers and actors who have worked with him, is that he’s “proof that anybody can get laid.”

In fact, he’s absolutely not proof that anybody can get laid. He’s the exact opposite. He’s proof that American men want to make no effort whatsoever and still be the most desirable person in any room.

It’s not a phenomenon unique to Ron Jeremy. Look at Michael Jordan. Those of us who came of age in the 90s were hammered with the message that we could “be like Mike.” And how does one be like Mike? As Spike Lee drilled into our brains, “It’s gotta be the shoes.”

But you can’t be like Mike, and certainly not by buying overpriced sneakers. It’s unlikely you can be like Mike even with a tireless work ethic, a cutthroat ambition, an obsession for perfection at any cost, and a willingness to be a prick to your teammates.

The myth of “Be like Mike” was a lie, just like the myth of Ron Jeremy being proof that anybody can get laid was a lie. All those myths proved was that P. T. Barnum was right: there really is a sucker born every minute.

He’s proof that American men want to make no effort whatsoever and still be the most desirable person in any room.

Remember Elliot Rodger? He was the 22-year-old asshole who went on a murder spree in Southern California in 2014, killing two women and four men and injuring more than a dozen others. And he did it because he was a virgin and that hurt his feelings. As he explained in a YouTube video recorded in the BMW his parents bought him, he had endured “an existence of loneliness, rejection, and unfulfilled desires, all because girls have never been attracted to me.”

And then he killed people, because he was mad that he wasn’t more like Ron Jeremy. He never said as much, but that’s what he meant, even if he never saw a Ron Jeremy porno in his life. He was the Ron Jeremy promise unfulfilled.

Ron Jeremy wasn’t responsible for Elliot Rodger, but he was a cultural myth that helped create him. Jeremy cares about his personal appearance about as much as Donald Trump cares about fact-checking, yet he still managed to have an endless supply of seemingly willing and enthusiastic sexual partners.

It’s gotta be the shoes.

All Work and No Playboy

Even Ron Jeremy is upset that he hasn’t achieved the “anybody can get laid” promise of Ron Jeremy.

Jeremy told me about a visit to the Playboy Mansion in the early 80s, where he ended up in the Grotto with several dozen naked revelers. He was making out with a woman he’d just met: “It might have been a Playmate or just some random girl in a frisky mood,” he said. She began performing oral sex on him, but then Hugh Hefner—the patron saint of male entitlement, who never met a woman with low self-esteem he couldn’t convince to be his wife for a few months—entered the Grotto. As Jeremy recalled, Hefner stood behind his paramour, “possibly massaging her or maybe doing something else, I wasn’t really sure,” and she immediately took her mouth off Jeremy and turned to embrace Hefner.

To Jeremy, this was unfathomable. “I was like, First I’m getting head from this girl and now I’m being ignored?” Eventually Hefner took her by the arm and led her out of the Grotto, up toward his private bedroom. “I was just sitting there with an erection,” Jeremy said. “I was looking at him hopefully, waiting for my invite.” But Hefner whisked her away without even a glance in his direction, like Jeremy was nothing. (Jeremy did not respond to requests for comment.)

“It wasn’t fair,” Jeremy said to me when recounting that miserable day.

“I was like, First I’m getting head from this girl and now I’m being ignored?”

If there’s one worldview that he’s imparted to his audience, it’s that when she chooses somebody else over you, it’s egregious. Doesn’t she know that you’re proof that anybody can get laid?

With every conversation, I was still waiting for Jeremy to come clean, to cross over from “It isn’t fair” to “O.K., fine, I guess this is the hand I was dealt.” Nobody could blame a 25-year-old Jeremy for thinking he’d be the next Marlon Brando, albeit a Brando who paid his dues fellating himself on camera. But by his 60s, Jeremy probably should have recognized that there was no re-writing his legacy—that he wasn’t going to be the one to break through the porn glass ceiling.

That realization never came. But if decades in journalism had taught me anything, it’s that if you wait long enough, they’ll eventually stumble and tell you the truth.

Eric Spitznagel is a writer living in Chicago