Nightlife

That Man: Peter Berlin

by Howie Green
Contributor
Friday Jun 16, 2006
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If you were gay in the 1970s you were certainly aware of Peter Berlin. Berlin was a gay media star and icon whose pretty boy face, Dutch-boy haircut, perfect body and revealing skin-tight outfits appeared regularly in every publication aimed at gay audiences. He gained global recognition and became an underground star despite the fact that he appeared in only two films Knights in Black Leather and That Boy. Berlin was the gay poster boy for an era of divine decadence and despite his notoriety and fame by the early 80s he had disappeared from sight never to be seen again - until now.

Peter Berlin is back in Jim Tushinski’s new DVD release That Man: Peter Berlin a nicely done documentary that explores the life and times of Berlin and brings us up-to-date with the now 60-year old man who looks easily a decade or two younger than his age. Still dressing outrageously and making daily stroll around the streets of San Francisco, Berlin gets recognized by his many fans because basically he looks pretty much the same as he did in the 1970s - a little older but definitely and shockingly still Peter Berlin. Many gay celebrities and artists fill the film with commentary including Armistead Maupin, Wakefield Poole, Jack Wrangler and John Waters who, never having met Berlin, muses about what he must be like.

Because of his huge fame and then sudden disappearance Berlin became the Greta Garbo of gay porn. Whatever happened to him? No one knew. Berlin says that most people thought he died in the 1980s in the AIDS epidemic but he surprised everyone by surviving and resurfacing in 2005 in this film. This film was shown at numerous film festivals including Berlin, Seattle, Palm Springs and Chicago to great acclaim and has created resurgence of interest in Berlin and his work. But the most interesting thing about Berlin is that he totally created himself. The flawless, provocateur dressed in spandex and leather with the bulging crotch and sculpted chest was designed, costumed and photographed by only one person, Peter Berlin.

Berlin grew up in a poor German aristocratic family that lost everything in WWII. Losing his father and mother at a young age Berlin was shuffled around to various relatives and then when puberty hit he set off on his own to make his way in the world. For most of his life Berlin has lived off the kindness of strangers and lovers and his youthful sexuality and beauty got him out of Germany and to Italy, Paris, London, New York and finally San Francisco in the early 1970s. Along the way he worked as a photographer for a movie company and became adept at the craft. A lifelong friend with benefits took Berlin in and gave him the space, time and equipment to get him started on the road to creating his image. Making connections easily with media moguls Berlin got his photo printed in the burgeoning gay media of the late 1960s and early 1970s and then starred in his first film for which he designed the poster. That poster for Knights in Black Leather featured the barely clad image of Berlin helped propel him into the spotlight and turned him into an underground star. From that point on the Berlin story takes a left-hand turn to nowhere.

The distributor of Berlin’s first film stole all the money so for his next cinematic venture Berlin directed himself in That Boy which, despite it’s box office success never, netted Berlin any money. Discouraged and simply unconcerned about money Berlin resisted all efforts and offers that could have made him a legit star and a very rich man. Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and Berlin became good friends and spent time together on Fire Island in the 70s. When Mapplethrope tried to take Berlin with him to meet the art world people who could have made him an gallery star Berlin resisted and went his own way, to oblivion. At one point even Andy Warhol offered to collaborate with Berlin on art projects, but Berlin couldn’t be bothered returning Wahol’s phone calls. So as the years passed Berlin moved slowly further and further away from the spotlight and into obscurity.

No one who ever saw his photographs or movies could ever forget him so the image of Berlin the sex star, model and artist remained very much alive in popular gay culture. There has simply never been another gay star who created such an erotic and indelible image in the mind of his adoring public - and who couldn’t have cared less.

Berlin continued to live with his friends and lovers and to prowl the streets of the city by the bay. When director Tushinski tracked Berlin down in 2005 and approached him about doing this documentary Berlin had already turned down numerous offers but decided that now was the time to tell his story. Unlike the aloof, unattainable god-like image Berlin created in his art and photography the man himself comes across as a charming, oddly funny and interesting eccentric whose story may yet have an upbeat ending. Having just recently lost his long-time companion to AIDS Berlin seems a bit like a ship adrift at sea and not sure what to do next. He lives in an apartment that his filled with images of himself in from the 1970s and memorabilia from a life lived on his own terms and had a great time along the journey. His family wants him to come back to Germany and live with them in their newly reclaimed castle but he’s to lazy too pack or make the journey. Numerous art galleries have started having shows of Berlin’s work in the past few years and it would seem that the time is right for Berlin and his work to finally meet with the financial success that he has manage to avoid for his entire life.

The DVD comes with a bunch of additional features including a must-see photo gallery of Berlin’s photography that is filled with stunning images that are timeless in their brazen sensuality and erotic energy. That Man: Peter Berlin is essential viewing for anyone interested in the history of gay culture and especially the unbridled sexuality that fueled the explosive scene of the 1970s gay underground.

- Deleted scenes
- Additional interviews
- Director’ Commentary
- Bios
- Photo Gallery of Peter Berlin images

Howie Green is a Boston-based artist and painter whose portrait of rapper Biggie Smalls appears on the album "Incredible". He is winner of Absolut Vodka’s 25th Anniversary art competition and he painted 3 of the cows in the Boston Cow Parade. He recently painted a series of Pop Art Murals at the Dimock Center in Boston, MA and completed large art and mural installations in Delray Beach and Jacksonville, FL. He also recently painted the front entrance to Boston City Hall. His a multi-media designer and author of several books including "Jazz Fish Zen: Adventures in Mamboland" - and he once sang back-up for the opening act at a Shaun Cassidy concert in Madison Square Garden.

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