The Dirty Mind Of Sharon Kelly - An Interview With Colleen Brennan/Sharon Kelly
Sharon Kelly hasn't done an interview in over ten years but has been kind enough to take time out of her schedule to talk to us about her career on the big screen. Best known for roles in sexploitation pictures like The Dirty Mind Of Young Sally and various exploitation pictures like Delinquent School Girls before moving into the adult film industry as Colleen Brennan, Ms. Kelly's fan base has remained loyal over the years despite the fact that, since retiring, she's kept pretty quiet. But inquiring 'minds want to know, and thankfully she's been been a good sport about fielding questions that cover both sides of her career.
So without further ado...
IJ: So how did you come to be cast as the lead in your first film, The Dirty Mind Of Young Sally?
SK: I had no real ambition to be an actress; I was a dancer. The Classic Cat on Sunset was the first place I felt a sense of belonging, my first “home” in Los Angeles and I was happy working there. I had blown off several dubious offers to exploit my talents for fame and fortune before the Cat's owner, Alan Wells, vouched for Peter Perry of Box Office International. I trusted Alan; he did not “introduce” me indiscriminately. Mr. Perry (who remained “Mr. Perry” to me throughout our association) arranged for me to do a cold reading for a movie he was ready to shoot. I had no idea what a “cold” reading was; my nervous energy let me memorize the half-page monologue in the few minutes I had before the audition. The movie “Dirty Sally” and my future were cast that day. Big titties and the ability to repeat several consecutive sentences in a single take: I was gonna be a star.
IJ: Your debut feature was the first time you’d work with George ‘Buck’ Flower but it wouldn’t be the only time you two would appear on camera together. What was Buck like to work with? Have you got any stories to tell?
SK: I can't think of anyone working in those movies who would have been better for me to start with than Buck Flower. He was really easy to be around and made me feel comfortable about the “acting” end of the job. The being naked part was cake from day one. Buck loved acting. Buck so loved acting he would jam-pack every character he played with acting until it oozed out of his pores. The only man who ever attempted to upstage my breasts, I believe he may have succeeded in “Alice Goodbody” in a scene where he ate whipped cream by spoonfuls until it became evident the Sundae underneath was the left one. Maybe the right. One or the other, I'm certain. Buck had a lot of confidence in his talent, which led me to think, “Well, if this is how it's done, I'm not that fucking bad at it myself”.
While I'm on the subject let me give you all I have to say about actors. Many of the people I worked with in sexploitation including Buck and the people in porn ten years later were likable, well- grounded folks. It was the straight-movie “struggling artist“ types I never cared much for. I would feel embarrassed for them for taking themselves so seriously as if what they were doing was important and special. I mean how can you respect a guy who drones on about perfecting his “craft” when you know he would stab his grandmother's face to be in a hemorrhoid commercial?
IJ: What was it like working with Bethel Buckalew on Young Sally and on Sassy Sue and on Scream In The Streets?
SK: If it was fortuitous to have Buck Flower as an actor to start with, Buckalew was the perfect director. He was very even-tempered, mellow. I think he was good at editing in his head while he was shooting. These movies were so low budget raw stock was a major expense, so shooting efficiently was a valuable skill. He was also arguably the best looking director doing sexploitation in the 70's. But by now, of course, he's dead or worse - way-creepy old. Sigh.
Sally was shot in chronological order. Day one was the opening scene in the back of a van, doing that monologue I'd burned into my brain. Before the first shot Buckalew leaned in and quietly taught me everything he wanted me to know about movie-making. He pointed and said, “That's the microphone, and that's the camera. Don't look into the camera.” I never did.
My most vivid Sassy Sue memory was the horrendous case of poison ivy Patrick Wright got from a fairly energetic roll in the weeds faking orgasms with me. I barely itched but he was ruined.
Did Buckalew direct “Scream”? I cannot recall a minute of that one, and I've never seen it. Oh wait. Was that the one with motorcycles? Well, there was one with motorcycles. The camping trip with the bikers after that movie was the fun part. Buckalew borrowed a bike from the movie, let me try it. I did fine until I hit the brakes and dropped it. The guys laughed their asses off when he ran to me instead of the bike. Maybe they thought the bike belonged to him. Or that I did. But Buckalew had about seventeen kids to feed and could not afford to keep either.
IJ: He's supposedly one of a few uncredited directors on that one, you play a phone operator. Was the name Bethel Buckalew, as some cult film fans suspect, an alias for someone else, possibly a better known filmmaker?
Nope, I am 100% certain that is/was his legal name.
IJ: As your career grew, you wound up starring alongside greats like Pam Grier and Sid Haig on Jack Hill’s Foxy Brown. What was it like working on a blaxplotation picture like this and do you have any stories you’d like to share about working on what has gone on to become one of the consummate films from that genre?
SK: I did maybe three bit parts in AIP movies, never around long enough to get the feel of anything. Not even Jerry Maren, a very nice man and one of the last surviving OZ munchkins I met on some dreadful little-people-as-gansters movie. We went out once, but I was young and couldn’t handle even the idea of anybody going up on me.
IJ: That might be just about the best turn of a phrase ever. The movie you’re thinking of was Little Cigars, right? That had to have been an odd experience, working on that picture.
SK: In an overall odd career it didn't really stand out.
IJ: Zing! You also appeared in Delinquent School Girls, a personal favorite of mine, with Michael Pataki and Buck Flower again. What was Pataki like to work with?
SK: Wow, do you have a copy of that? I always wondered how anybody managed to pull a movie out of that reeking pile of short ends. Shot over a long weekend in Santa Barbara, working unhampered by the demands of an actual script kept it moving briskly. There! I said something positive, yes?
Michael Pataki was ... intense. More intelligent than an actor probably should be. I'm pretty sure his insides were not as funny as his outsides. But his outsides were thoroughly entertaining.
IJ: And then there’s Supervixens, Russ Meyer’s magnum opus to buxom broads and tough guys. How did you wind up in a Russ Meyer film? Obviously you had the right measurements for his pictures but there’s got to be more to it than that! What was Russ like to work with? There’s got to be some interesting stories from that shoot!
SK: Russ Meyer had me come back three times before he hired me, telling me each time to wear more makeup - look , i.e., look trashier. I sincerely believe that Russ Meyer likes breasts but not their complex life support systems. I didn't like him the first day I met him or the last. But he dangled a fat lure, the opportunity to get a SAG card. The only way to get into the union was to first have a signed contract for a union job. Of course, it wasn't all that easy to get a union job without the card.
Also, as evidenced by my appearance in not one but two Ilsa movies, I was not yet strong enough to pass up a part just because there was a little humiliation involved. So I got my card and he broke about every union rule there was with impunity. Hey, I could fuck a monkey and look forward to our personal appearances if the vibe was right. And I'm not saying that Meyer was any fonder of me, but I would never have signed up for another one of his misogynistic tit-floggers.
IJ: Ouch again! Russ seemed like a pretty surly guy and while there are a few actresses who loved working with him, I can see how he might rub some people the wrong way. Another notorious film you appeared in, as you mentioned, was Ilsa: She Wolf Of The S.S., directed by Don Edmonds and starring Dyanne Thorne. Reportedly shot on the sets left over from Hogan’s Heroes, this nazisploitation film has rightfully gone on to earn itself quite a reputation. How was it going from working on primarily comedic material to harsher stuff like Ilsa? Any stories you’d like to share about working on that notorious picture? What about your appearance in the sequel, Isla: Harem Keeper Of The Oil Sheiks?
SK: Okay, here’s the rule of thumb I developed too late: Never be in a movie that strives to attract an audience with whom you would not choose to share a theater.
More? Really? The Ilsa movies make me feel good about being in “Squalor Motel”.
IJ: Squalor Motel definitely has its moments though and there seems to be some artistic intent behind the film in spots! So no stories from the set you want to share about the Ilsa films?
Yeah, Squalor was a hoot, I think even the box cover says, “Nearly a Cult Classic”. The only time I ever fluffed was in that movie. They were doing Nick Random's climactic reaction to (non-existent) action on the other side of a peephole. I guess that full-head rubber pig mask and/or the tutu he was wearing was not conducive to the requisite mood, so I came in off camera to move things along. Now there's a bit of Colleen Brennan trivia I can guarantee is exclusively yours.
Okay, something from the Ilsa set.....hmm. You know the slow-mo shot where they blew Dyanne 's head off? The part of Ms. Thorne's head was played by a frozen chicken. Shot it with a .45 on the set. One take, if I recall. Oh, and something as many as two of your readers might find interesting: Joe Blasco, the guy who put meal worms in prosthetics to produce a fine maggots-in-festering-wounds effect got his start on the Ilsa films, went on to become a highly regarded special effects makeup artist.
You know, maybe the director, Don Edmonds, or Dyanne knew they had future cult classics going on, but I had no clue, much less any idea that I would be so closely associated with those films all these years later. I should have paid more attention! I read recently how adrenaline effects the strength of memories. I think that's a reasonable premise; events that evoked a heightened reaction stay with you. I've probably seen less than half of the movies I was in, and my memories are mostly associated with the experience of making them rather than their (often negligible) story line. The Ilsa movies just didn't make much of an impression on me. My parts were small and uninteresting, and as tough tight-budget shoots to pull off there wasn't much else happening on the set, at least not when I was there. Plus the whole Nazi thing, c'mon, Nazis are inherently not fun. I bet you would get much better Ilsa stories from the General, Richard Kennedy, billed as Wolfgang Roehm. As unlike his character as possible, he was a teddy bear and a great storyteller.
IJ: Alice Goodbody, which you made with Tom Scheuer, is a favorite of mine and you really steal the show in that one. How much of the character you play in that picture was written that way and how much of it was what you brought to the role? You were a struggling actress at one point – was this a fun role to play? Because it seems like everyone is having a blast on this one.
SK: Oh god, Alice is my absolute all time favorite. I loved being Alice. The character was totally Tom's creation and I adored her. He had already cast a prettier, classier, more modestly formed girl in the part and only after some urging from Gary Maxwell did he reluctantly agree to call me in.
It happened that Norm Fields (the paranoid director Mr. Mittleman) was there and Tom asked him to read with me. We didn't stop at the end of the dialogue; he started going through my purse, found a vibrator and we just we played it off until Tom was literally on the floor holding his sides. I wasn’t his type, but he knew I was Alice.
There are lines from that movie that amuse me to this day. When good news prevails against odds my brain still occasionally pops up “Alice, fate has stepped in”.
IJ: There’s a gap in your filmography that extends from 1979 into the early eighties – what made you want to retire for a few years and following that what made you want to get back into the adult film industry?
SK: I got married for a spell in 1976, so that puts my last soft work in 1975. Stuff continued to be released, compiled and re-released for several years, but it was all shot by '75. I have only the roughest sense of chronology, but I can often place an event between marriages.
IJ: As the seventies moved on, hardcore became the norm and you made the transition to harder material under the name Colleen Brennan. What was it like moving from softcore sexploitation into hardcore material?
SK: In 1975 hard core porn was still basically underground; it was illegal to make, distributors were more than occasionally being prosecuted for selling it, the video market had not yet blossomed and I thought of it as generally sleazy. And it didn't pay that well (anybody besides me hear a mental rim shot?). I had other sources of income, bless their hearts, and I just had no reason to want to do it.
Fast forward to 1982. I was supervising a fantasy phone call business in Marina Del Rey and getting restless. I was almost seriously considering getting a TV commercial agent about then, but I was having a hard time getting up the necessary ambition. Landing one spot for every twenty or thirty auditions and callbacks was considered wildly successful for an unknown. Maybe I was a little lazy after a pretty easy run of soft core movies, I felt like once I bothered to put on makeup and a skirt and drive to the valley somebody needs to pay me.
A couple of the women I worked with in the Marina had done some hardcore and I became close friends with one of them, a very smart, very cool chick who worked as “Becky Savage”. Her experience had been generally positive and not so different from my own experience. Another factor was that I was thirty-two years old, hopefully seven years smarter, and had some confidence that I could avoid working for the more notorious assholes. I signed up with World Modeling, the major porn agency, and started to see who was doing what. Six months into it I was a hot commodity. It didn't hurt that Kay Parker, Samantha Fox, Veronica Hart and several other leading “older women” were retiring. There for a while I nearly had the joint to myself.
IJ: You definitely made the most of that ‘older women’ niche and changed a whole lot of lives in the process! Who were your favorite performers to work with in front of the camera and why?
SK: How about “favorite performers to work with and/or favorites for various other reasons”? That way I can start with Ron Jeremy. Every fan of 80's porn knows you could watch fifty movies and see scarcely more than a dozen different men. These were the last years that porn was shot on film. Between every take cameras had to be moved, lights reset, distances measured, focus pulls rehearsed. Those seven minute sex scenes took hours to shoot. There were times we broke for lunch midway through a scene. That's why “dependable “ ruled above all else, and reason enough to keep Ron working for what 65? 70 years? He had a great smile, too, and you would always see it when he walked in. Every time he came to work he was delighted that he was going to get laid. Ron Jeremy never took pussy for granted.
On one of my first trips to New York Ron took me around to places I would have never seen without him. You remember a really pretty young blonde, not busty, sexy voice, went by just “Danielle”? She was living in New York and was with me the night Ron took us to Plato's, the famous swing club. As we passed the buffet Danielle grabbed my arm hard and whispered,
“Oh God, Colleen, never, NEVER eat the food!” I couldn't think of anything to be gained by asking why.
Other favorite men? I always liked performing with Hershel Savage, sexy, a good actor and nice guy. We came to be friends during the “Getting Personal” shoot in San Francisco. I thought he was terrific in that movie.
I was delighted and grateful to find Eric Edwards boarding a houseboat near Sacramento in which we were subsequently trapped for three landless days with ten other performers and one shower. They called it “Innocent Taboo” but to me it will always be “Helter Delta." Eric and I literally cordoned off a prime little spot with blankets from our bunk beds and quietly shared our vodka and pot.
I had one great scene with Jamie Gillis in "Trinity Brown" right before he went through menopause and got all bitchy.
I worked with Tom Byron so often for a while I once introduced him at an awards show as “The man with whom I have played mother and son more than Lucy did with Little Ricky.” He was an incredible performer; I always had the impulse to applaud his money shots. But Tom seemed like a solo act with me. I could have been a warm bowl of mac and cheese and he would have still given it up on cue.
The top spot on my faves list belongs to John Leslie. I never spent a minute with John off the clock, unless you count the time we spent with Nina Hartley, Joey Silvera and Porsche Lynn making movies in Europe for a couple of weeks. But I don't; John was monogamous in his private life. He was a truly handsome guy who women often described as a “gentleman." I don't remember hearing a single negative about him from the ladies.
Part of what made John special to me was that he was always present during our sex scenes. He carried very little tension in his body, he felt familiar to my skin the first time we were together. He was relaxed, made eye contact, smiled, whispered. These little things that sound so perfectly ordinary can be too distracting to the male performers who keep their dicks up all on their own. One of the top 80's men actually told me, “Stop looking me in the eyes." If the sex were to become too personal he risked losing his concentration on the performance. To my knowledge John Leslie didn't have that issue; he was the rare porn partner who seemed to be turned on by physical intimacy.
IJ: That definitely comes across in some of your work with John. There’s definitely, as you say, an intimacy that gives them some legitimate heat. What about the ladies?
SK: When I think about sex scenes, the men always come to mind first. But we've got to have some some girl on girl going on too, yes? Considered almost soft-core, girl on girl scenes were often the first new girls would do. The traditional course was magazine modeling, then girl/girl, boy/girl, and then Ron Jeremy/girl.
I skimmed my rocks over the girl/girl pond as quickly as I could. I always wondered if you could tell by watching that I just flat out don't like eating pussy! Surely I couldn't have been good at it! Women's mouths are much softer and smaller, interesting and fine, but also covered in gooey lip gloss. Ugh! Do men really like the feel of lips you could scrape to fry chicken? Or does it simply become pleasant by association? Lip goo means girl kissing; girl kissing good.
And getting wasn't much better than giving, mostly because there was always the same thought running through my head: “Please don't scar my cervix with those box-cutters on the ends of your fingers!” The one exception was Sharon Michell. After taking a little break with Sharon on the set of “Good Girl, Bad Girl” I foreverafter referred to her as “the woman who taught me no one is absolutely straight”.
My favorite female to do a sex scene with was Hyapatia Lee. To this day, I have no idea if and/or how much she likes sex with girls. All I know is that she was the consummate professional; she was ready when the lights came up, she knew her lines, hit her marks and you could bet your ass she was going to make the sex hot. I played her butch girlfriend in "The Red Garter," got to wear a suit and tie! I also worked in Hyapatia's “Canterbury Tales," probably the biggest budget XXX I was ever in. We spent three days riding horses in Petaluma, and the costumes and sets were straight up Hollywood.
IJ: What about directors in the adult industry? Did you have any favorites?
SK: Robert McCallum was the pro with a strong background in “real” movies, and one of only two to ever actually attempt to direct my performance to any degree. My first big role was the title character in “Trinity Brown” and my acting was improved by his direction.
The other one was the incomparable Henri Pachard. He was smart, really good at his work, nasty and always fun to be around. I don't think I'm letting any decrepit cats out of bags to say that Pachard's other name was Sullivan. When people with Irish names are together they will inevitably, sooner or later, discuss their mutual “Irishness," so he was one of the few who knew of my mixed European ancestry. One day I wondered out loud why he and other porn directors changed their ethnicity with their porn names. There was 'Puh shard', of course, and Anthony Spinelli, who was as Italian as Woody Allen. I can't remember who else I mentioned. Sullivan takes a beat and responds, “Yeah, but only a Pollock would pick an Irish name”.
IJ: As you may or may not now, Sullivan posted on our message board a few years back before he got sick. He passed away from cancer about two years ago. During the time he was posting on the board he seemed like a genuinely nice guy.
SK: Yes, he was a genuinely nice guy. A horndog, but a funny, positive and respectful horndog.
IJ: Was there ever a movie you made that you regretted afterwards?
SK: Not much besides Ilsa, splats 1 and 2. Maybe a couple of the first projects when I went back in the 80's, and a couple of all-girl projects that were just too lame.
IJ: How do you feel about the fact that so many of your films, both as Sharon Kelly and as Colleen Brennan, are now being recognized as cult classics?
SK: Are you serious? Which ones?
IJ: Something Weird Video has put out a lot of the early Sharon Kelly starring vehicles, the ones you did with Buckalew like Dirty Mind Of Young Sally. They definitely do have a following and, yeah, I'd say they quality as cult classics at this point. They're certainly recognized. Supervixens and the Ilsa films definitely have their cults too and as you know Alice Goodbody just got a special edition DVD release. As far as the XXX stuff goes, you were in Taboo III and Talk Dirty To Me III, Ribald Tales Of Canterbury - those all count. And a good friend of mine happens to think your scene in Tower Of Power with Harry Reems is just about the greatest thing ever filmed! So yeah, I'd say it's safe to say you're firmly established in cult classic territory these days!
SK: Maybe I was being just the teensiet tad disingenuous. But I truly am amazed that there really is still a CB fan base. It gets smaller and older every year, I suppose, and I can imagine the day there will be one last toothless, white-ear-haired dude in gray underpants stuffing a multi-patched tape into his antique VCR in near-giddy anticipation of watching his favorite pre-apocalyspse money shot to the lips.
IJ: You’ve been rather notoriously elusive over the years, never really reaching out to your fan base since retiring (is this interview your first?). Is there anything you’d like to say to the people who remember your work as fondly as we do and what have you been up to for the past twenty years?
SK: This is the most extensive interview I've done in probably ten years. Notoriously illusive? You say tomato, I say too flabby for photos. Honestly? I totally enjoyed being Colleen Brennan for a living. But to hang on to the persona without financial incentive would be...I don't know...kind of sad, don't you think? Like the thirty-something guys who still relive their glory days as high school football stars. Though I will admit it's kind of cool having a Wikipedia page.
I've spent the last fifteen years in social services working with adults who have developmental disabilities. They are my peeps, I like my work. I have an itchy old dog named Faith. A man of good humor has been putting up with me and the itchy dog for eleven years. My favorite band is still Queen, but I am seriously hot for Damian Kulash of OK Go. I have a treasure trove of power tools and start many ambitious projects with them. Very few are completed successfully. I dry my own flowers to use in wreaths made with branches from my mulberry trees. I'm going to have my first grandchild next summer; it will be a vegetarian atheist.
IJ: Then life is good. What do your fans have to look forward to in the future? With your work experiencing a bit of a resurgence and your career having been a long and wild one, have you thought about writing a book about your life?
SK: I haven't given much thought to writing a book but you know if Jerry Butler for Christ's sake can “write” a book, (although I remain skeptical he can read one), maybe I should consider it.
IJ: Looking back on the films you made under both names, what are, in your eyes, the crown jewels of Sharon Kelly’s body of work and in Colleen Brennan’s body of work? I guess what I’m asking is what’s your favorite "mainstream" film and your favorite adult film out of all the pictures you’ve made?
SK: I guess my favorite 70's movie was the first one, Dirty Sally. From the the eighties I like “Trinity Brown," “Getting Personal “and from the Taboo people, Kirdy Stevens and Helene Terrie, “The Animal in Me.”
Now, as far as the mainstream movies.....um, Ian...I was never actually in a mainstream movie for more than like five minutes. But hey, those minutes took weeks to shoot! Mainstreamers got budget out the ass!
A tiny little part in Shampoo led to, among other notable events, an invitation to a large, oddly populated party at Roman Polanski's house where I did coke for the first time with a magician from Kentucky. But maybe that's the sort of story I should save for the book.
IJ: And on that note, we'd like to thank Ms. Kelly once again for opening up about her career and her life in general and for supplying a couple of those candid shots you see up there. Special thanks also go out to Steven Morowitz at Video-X-Pix for supplying some images, to Alison Jane for making the banner, and to Todd Jordan for help with the piece in general.