Following a brief career as a teacher and a stint as a highly-paid male model, Donovan appeared in the film that would cement his status as a gay icon, Boys in the Sand, in 1971. Attempts to build on his notoriety to achieve mainstream crossover success failed, but Donovan continued to be a bankable star in the adult industry for the next 15 years.
Casey Donovan was born John Calvin Culver in East Bloomfield, New York, growing up there with his parents and older brother, Duane. He graduated from teachers' college in 1965 and after graduation accepted a teaching position in Peekskill, New York. He went on to take a job at the private Ethical Culture Fieldston School on New York City's Central Park West but was fired during his second year following an altercation in which he physically disciplined a female student (reportedly the daughter of actor Eli Wallach). Following his dismissal he drifted into being a prostitute and relocated to New York City. He also began pursuing an acting career, appearing in summer stock theatre with the prestigious Peterborough Players.
Through one of his escorting clients, Culver landed a spot with the Wilhelmina Models modeling agency, commanding an hourly rate of US$60. He continued to pursue stage work, landing an understudy job in 1969 in the Off-Broadway gay-themed play And Puppy Dog Tails, making his Broadway debut in 1970 in the Native American-themed production Brave and a co-starring role in the off-Broadway Circle in the Water, also in 1970.
In 1971, Culver played a supporting role in a low budget sexploitation thriller film, Ginger. While the film was a commercial and critical failure, Variety noted his performance positively, saying "Only Calvin Culver...shows any indication of better things to come." This in turn led to an offer to appear in Casey, a gay pornographic film in which Culver played the title role, a gay man who is visited by his fairy godmother Wanda (Culver playing a dual role in drag), and is granted a series of wishes which make him sexually irresistible to other men. Culver later took the character's name, Casey, and that of the popular singer Donovan to create the pseudonym under which he would appear in all his other erotic roles.
Culver first appeared as Casey Donovan in Boys in the Sand, directed by Wakefield Poole, in 1971. The film was an instant success and is considered one of the great classics of male erotic cinema. With the success and celebrity he garnered from the film, Donovan believed that he would be able to cross over into mainstream film. While there were meetings with directors like John Schlesinger and Raymond St. Jacques and talk of casting him in mainstream projects including adaptations of novels by Mary Renault and Patricia Nell Warren, the only film opportunities opened for him were as the star of more erotic films. These included the bisexual porn film Score, The Back Row with George Payne, L. A. Tool & Die with Bob Blount and Richard Locke, The Other Side of Aspen with Al Parker and Dick Fisk, Boys in the Sand II and Inevitable Love, with Jon King and Jamie Wingo. He also appeared in a number of heterosexual porn films, most notably The Opening of Misty Beethoven where he had a scene with Constance Money.
Outside his adult film career, Donovan continued to pursue stage work. In 1972 he was cast in a short-lived Broadway revival of Captain Brassbound's Conversion. Star Ingrid Bergman described him as "having the same kind and as much charisma as Robert Redford." He then landed a small role in the 1973 Lincoln Center production of The Merchant of Venice, which was praised as having "vivid appeal." Donovan had a successful national tour in the play Tubstrip, written and directed by Jerry Douglas. While the play was critically deemed entertaining enough to its target gay audience (having earned, in the words of one critic, a "nationwide gay housekeeping seal of approval") Donovan himself was judged as simply "no better nor worse [an] actor than most of the others [in the cast]." In 1983 he turned his hand to producing, with an unsuccessful Broadway revival of Terrence McNally's play The Ritz in which he also appeared.
Donovan's iconic status allowed him to build a lucrative career as a high-priced prostitute although it would cost him his legitimate modeling career as more and more clients made the connection between model Culver and porn star Donovan. He wrote an advice column, "Ask Casey," for the gay-oriented Stallion magazine beginning in 1982.
In 1973 at the height of his popularity, Donovan met actor-turned writer Tom Tryon and the two entered into a long-term relationship the following year. Tryon was deeply closeted and grew increasingly disturbed by Donovan's notoriety. Their relationship ended in 1977.
In an interview, Culver allegedly said that he had an affair with the “Superman” star, Christopher Reeve. He reportedly provided all the details of his relation with Reeve. He said that he met in the mid-1970s while they were both were auditioning for a Broadway role. In the interview, Culver called Reeve “a great lover” and said that he was liberated by him sexually. Culver added that he did not think that Reeve was a gay but still he believed that Christopher was willing to try it at least once. The relationship was ended by Christopher after he discovered that Culver was a porn star. The affair reportedly lasted two months.
In 1978, Donovan purchased a house in Key West, Florida to run as a bed and breakfast dubbed "Casa Donovan." Donovan struggled to keep the house running and ultimately it failed. More successful was Donovan's time as a celebrity tour guide, conducting all-gay trips in partnership with an outfit called Star Tours to Italy, China, Peru and other destinations.
By 1985, Donovan's health had begun to deteriorate, as he had contracted HIV. Although he had counseled his fans through his "Ask Casey" column as early as 1982 to reduce their number of sex partners and take steps to preserve their health and urged them to be tested for HIV once the test was developed, he himself made little or no effort to change his behavior. Donovan died in 1987 of an AIDS-related pulmonary infection in Inverness, Florida, aged 43.
Boy in the Sand: Casey Donovan, All-American Sex Star by Roger Edmonson
Paperback: 264 pages
Publisher: Alyson Books; 1st edition (October 1, 1998)
Amazon: Boy in the Sand: Casey Donovan, All-American Sex Star
This candid look at the first gay porn superstar tells the story of a young man with dreams of fame who began as a stage actor and always dreamed of making mainstream films. Instead, he found himself trapped as an icon of gay sexuality.
Wonder Bread & Ecstasy: The Life and Death of Joey Stefano by Charles Isherwood
Paperback: 220 pages
Publisher: Alyson Books; 1st edition (November 1, 1996)
Amazon: Wonder Bread & Ecstasy: The Life and Death of Joey Stefano
The meteoric rise and sudden, dramatic fall of a young gay male porn star.
Dirty Poole: A Sensual Memoir by Wakefield Poole
Paperback: 290 pages
Publisher: Lethe Press; New edition (April 22, 2011)
Amazon: Dirty Poole: A Sensual Memoir
Filmmaker Wakefield Poole wrote the rules for living on the edge with no safety net and no apologies. How a respected Broadway dancer, choreographer, and director became the infamous creator of beautiful, wildly successful gay porn is just part of a gripping story that takes us on a whirlwind tour of the early days of the sexual revolution, when "anything goes" was a way of life. While rubbing shoulders with the theatrical elite of the day, including Noel Coward, Marlene Deitrich, Richard Rodgers, Liza Minelli and Stephen Sondheim, Poole created Boys in the Sand, the film that would revolutionize pornography and gay film, start the "porno chic" trend of the 1970s, and serve as the ruler by which all adult entertainment is measured. This new edition of Poole's memoir is an honest and entertaining look at life in the worlds of theater and gay porn, the perils and joys of success, the horrors of drug addiction, and the resilient spirit of a man who continually re-invented himself and survived it all.
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