Richard Towers: The Plate Spinner
Richard Towers, star of Murder in Mississippi, wore more hats than most Broadway agents. Sometimes he also took them off.
By RJ Smith
Reading time 19 Minutes
In his later years, when he was living in New York’s theater district
In his later years, when he was living in New York’s theater district, Richard Towers made an impression on strangers he met each day. His daughter, Joline Towers, jokingly called him The Mayor of Hell’s Kitchen. “He would just hang out on the street trying to get people there to be in the present and laughing with him. He would sing to them, flirt with women, pretend to be different characters, help out homeless people,” she recalls from her home in Southern California.
Joline thinks he was on the obsessive-compulsive spectrum, and had given himself a daily quota: he had to make a specific number of people laugh every day. So he walked the streets until victory was achieved.
People knew him, all right, in all kinds of ways. They knew him as a singer – he had a good voice even in old age and knew the cocktail lounge songbook. They knew him as a theatrical agent, who had represented singers and actors and comics for decades. They knew him as a vast reservoir of showbiz lore, a guy who befriended everybody from Elizabeth Taylor to Taylor Mead, with a booming voice and hands-on manner that hailed from the era of Guys and Dolls.
One thing only a select group of people knew about Towers, though, was his own phenomenal underground film career. He probably made his film debut in the mysterious Joseph Mawra’s Murder in Mississippi in 1965, and between then and his passing in 2016, Towers made movies with a who’s-who of sexploitation titans, from pioneering director Joseph Sarno and batty legend Doris Wishman to grunge modernist Carl Sukenick. He acted alongside Harry Reems, Chesty Morgan, and others. And in 1972, he played a lead role in Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left, using the name Gaylord St. James. It was a comic name and a bold one, too. Richard Towers was a badass of bad cinema, even though many in his life knew little to nothing about it.
“I have no dirt on Dick”
“I have no dirt on Dick, because he was one of the sweetest, nicest, kindest guys I met in the business,” says Marc Sheffler, who had a role in Last House on the Left with Towers. “But he was a character. He was very flamboyant. He never walked in and out of any room – he made entrances and exits. ‘Hello my darling! How are you doing today?’ He was just one of the real New York theatrical characters.”
From an early age, Towers was marinated in show business: born Richard Deutsch, he was raised around his father William’s business, Superior Tickets, a theatrical broker which – for the right amount – had a ticket for you to the hottest shows on Broadway. Stars and larger than life characters flowed through the Superior door all day long. It was glamorous but it was gritty, too: Richard’s brother transacted ticket business with a handgun in plain sight; in the 1940s New York investigated Superior for essentially being an all-out scalping operation.
Richard loved the setting and gradually took to the idea of himself starring on stage. How didn’t matter so much: he envisioned an acting career, but also a singing one, and he liked telling jokes. He was about six-foot-five, handsome with wavy hair. He had a rich voice and a natural way of putting women at ease as he sang big band hits and crooned the latest torch numbers. He was getting gigs around New York, and working in the Catskills in the 1950s: Deutsch was quoted in a 1956 New York Times advertisement for the Sha-wan-ga Lodge, a Catskills establishment billing itself as “The Luxury Resort for Adults.”
By then he had jazzed up his name to Towers, and was working as a right-hand-man to Mike Todd, assisting on stage productions, helping cast showgirls and running errands at the behest of the theatrical producer and husband to Elizabeth Taylor.
“One of his favorite stories to tell came when they promoted the film Around the World in 80 Days,” says Joline. “As part of a promotion he got Marilyn Monroe to ride around Madison Square on an elephant – and when he got her back to her hotel, she invited him up.
“My father was quite a ladies’ man. They sat and spoke for a good length of time and she gave him her number and invited him to call when came to Los Angeles,” she says.
After Todd’s death in a 1958 plane crash, Towers was the opening singer for Eddie Fisher in Las Vegas, while sometimes playing straight man in comedy acts, and managing talent on his own. For the Loews hotel chain, he booked acts into showrooms around the country. Towers himself was a featured singer on the Radio City Music Hall stage in 1960; a few years later, he was working in a Radio City talent agency run by Lloyd Greenfield, booking singers and comics.
“He was a black belt schmoozer, man!,” recalls Sheffler. “Like when I signed with him he said ‘I’ll hook you up with Engelbert Humperdinck and Tom Jones when they come to town.’ And though I was only twenty years old, that still sounded like bullshit. My dad was an aluminum siding salesman, and I’d been hearing bullshit since I was five. But sure enough, when Engelbert Humperdinck opened at the Royal Box in the Americana Hotel, there were front row tickets waiting, just like he’d promised. He had this lively kind of Oscar Wildean theatricality to him, but he was honest and never made a promise he didn’t keep. He never threw shit into the wind.”
He had Tom Jones’ and Engelbert Humperdinck’s numbers in his book, but Towers hadn’t lost his own hunger to perform, and in 1965 he found time to act, under the name Dick Stone, in what might have been his screen debut, Murder in Mississippi. He plays Dick Byrd, a less-than-sterling pop star who comes down to a small southern town to rescue his sister from the clutches of a racist sheriff. The film is a jarring fictionalization of the 1964 killings of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, civil rights workers who were in Neshoba County, Mississippi, to register African American voters. Because it was made by Joseph P. Mawra, whose left-field sexploitation flicks are steeped in personal interests and never seem just about a quick buck, Mississippi induces discomfort in multiple dimensions. The film is rife both with his quirky ambition – let’s expose the rednecks from every grindhouse in the country! – and his personalized sleaze, the kind that makes the viewer feel at least a little implicated. Murder in Mississippi features a hideous castration scene, where an African American activist is attacked by Mawra’s idea of Southern crackers (he filmed it in Long Island and New Jersey).
Joline Towers hasn’t seen the movie but heard about that scene. “He told me a story that when it was in theaters, he took a friend to go see it. Maybe somewhere on 42nd street, I don’t know. But when you go to the movies in New York, it’s a different experience. The audience gets into it, they get vocal and pretty rowdy.”
The way he described it, Towers was one of the few white guys in the theater, maybe even the only one, besides the friend he had brought with him. “He knew a scene was coming up where someone gets lynched. And he looks over to his friend and says, ‘we’ve gotta get out of here.’ He thought if they recognized him something could happen. So before it ended, he and his friend got out of there…”
After that film, Towers took roles in Barry Mahon’s 1966 Sin in the City, a quickie about three young women fresh off the Port Authority bus and looking for fun in beatnik Manhattan. Roles in The Procurer (“he was a trap for innocent girls”), Horn-a-Plenty, and Gigi Goes to Pot soon followed. All the while he was working his day job at the Greenfield agency, in an office overlooking Rockefeller Center’s ice skating rink.
Nineteen seventy-two would be his standout year on the big screen. There was his role as “Daddy” in Rosebud (“Daddy’s not-so-little girl”) by infamous sexploitation/hardcore director Roberta Findlay. He also appeared (using the name Tony Armada) in a very strange softcore film by Doris , Keyholes are for Peeping. That film featured the glorious cult actor Sammy Petrillo, who began as a Jerry Lewis imitator and achieved his own immortality in Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla. In Keyholes he plays a marriage counselor who lives at home with his mother, also played by Petrillo. Towers, in but a single role, was the Peeping Tom who sees footage recycled from earlier Wishman films whenever he looks through a keyhole.
Towers’ most prominent part was shot the year before, when Wes Craven was still using the working title The Sex Crime of the Century. The fledgling director’s big idea was to lean all the way into ultra violence and see what an audience would put up with. That and: use as many nauseating close-ups as possible.
By the time it came out in 1972, however, Last House on the Left, as the film was now titled, had morphed into something a bit more presentable – and ambitious. Today it’s revered, but even then folks on the set could see they had something capable of generating some serious change.
The way Marc Sheffler explains it, he went into Towers’ agency one day looking to get some gigs for a comedy act he and his girlfriend had going. But Towers told him he could audition for a movie right now if he got over there and met Craven; by the time Sheffler walked back from the audition, the call came that he’d got the job. It turned out that Towers, too, had a part.
Sheffler’s agent was worried enough about the film’s lurid overtones, however, to use the name that followed him the rest of his life: Gaylord St. James.
“It’s a pretty dark film for its time,” says Joline. “But as a five year-old I watched that movie because my dad was in it and he was the hero. I thought it was great because he was going after that bad guy at the end with a chainsaw!”
Today Last House looks like Towers’ most famous role, but Sheffler sees it in a continuum. “The lines of being practical and being an artist are pretty blurred,” he notes. That is, you keep working, whether what you end up with gets labeled cheese or frommage. And besides, Towers did the movies he did because he got something out of the experience.
Were they fun? “No kidding!” says Sheffler. They also gave you a chance to hone your craft. “Look, Fred Lincoln, who was in Last House, was a longtime porn actor and director and if it wasn’t for Fred’s knowledge of how to shoot film, Last House would never have gotten done. Nothing but respect for Wes, but when we did Last House Wes didn’t know shit about directing a movie, it was his first. He knew editing, but Fred knew how to set shots, and most of the cool shots were blocked by Freddie and others. And Dick was part of that family.”
The film was a box-office hit that landed Craven in the heart of a newly defined mainstream (excess for the masses), but there was no career bump for Towers. A year later, under the name of Joe Powers he was in Andy Milligan’s Fleshpot on 42nd Street, and in 1974 he made another film with Wishman, co-starring with Chesty Morgan in Deadly Weapons. He had a house in Connecticut and an ongoing career as agent for a pileup of rock bands, stand-up comics, crooners, exploitation film actors, quite possibly plate-spinners, and more. He genuinely must have liked being a part of the Times Square cinema scene, and he kept at it through the ‘70s, dabbling in it even after.
“It wasn’t all porn!” Joline says with a chuckle. “And by the way, he never used the word porn – he called them skin flicks. I haven’t seen much of it but my understanding is it was more comedy than porn. I don’t know a lot about the genre. I’m a little scared, but totally amused by it. I love that my dad always had a great sense of humor and was always game to play, and these films were always a part of that.”
Cody Marshall was an up and coming singer from New Jersey
Cody Marshall was an up and coming singer from New Jersey who was looking to break into the nightclub world in the early 1970s. He signed with Towers, and followed him when he left Greenfield to form his own agency, which he maintained for decades. Marshall worked with him and talked to him regularly for the rest of his life. Towers died in 2016.
Often in Marshall’s nightclub show, toward the end of the night, Towers would get onstage with Marshall’s band and belt out a few standards, maybe “That Old Black Magic” or “Fly Me to the Moon.” “He had big presence,” recalls his protégé.
“The thing I remember most is, he was just always in my corner. I’d talk to some silly club owner in Cleveland who’d say ‘we want two blondes with big tits.’ He’d tell them ‘No you don’t, you want Cody.’”
Marshall pauses for a minute, and recalls his New York debut. It was at the posh supper club at the Drake Hotel, at 56th and Park Avenue. He was up in his room, getting his game face on, getting ready to come down for his first set. He was 22. “Dick said to me, ‘Now go out there like a giant.’ He was tall himself, and he might as well have been eight feet tall to me at that moment. And that was something that he said for the next thirty-five years. I’d be in some city somewhere, and I would call him up and I’d say, ‘I’ve got a show at eight o’clock. And he’d tell me. ‘All right, go out there like a giant.’
“I know that he respected me and admired me. And he’d be waiting for me in the wings after the show was over.” Marshall’s act was a workout, and he’d finish big and sweaty. His longtime agent would often be waiting there. He stood ready with a towel, and a reminder of a time when giants walked the earth.
RJ Smith is a journalist based in the Midwest. His books include American Witness: The Art and Life of Robert Frank (Da Capo, 2017) and The One: The Life and Music of James Brown (Gotham, 2012). His work has appeared in GQ, SPIN, The New York Times Magazine, Vibe, and Yeti. He is currently working on a biography of Chuck Berry.