John C. Holmes, the pornographic film star who became a central figure in the unsolved 1981 Laurel Canyon murders, died Saturday night at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Sepulveda, associates said Sunday. He was 43.
A hospital administrator refused to comment on the cause of death. Reports had been circulating that Holmes was suffering from AIDS and that he had been hospitalized for an extended period.
Last June, pornographic film producer and distributor William Amerson, who had a long-term business relationship with Holmes, said Holmes was suffering from colon cancer, not AIDS, and that the actor underwent surgery in October, 1986, for removal of a malignant tumor.
Confirming that Holmes had died, Amerson declined further comment, declaring "I can't talk. It's kind of an emotional time."
Called "the King" of X-rated films, Holmes appeared in more than 1,000 sexually explicit movies and peep show loops between the late 1960s and the early 1980s, said his longtime associate, Bill Margold of West Hollywood, who appeared in several Holmes films.
"He was the pioneer in X-rated films," Margold said. "There's only one king."
On the screen, Holmes appeared as an inexhaustible virility symbol who claimed to have had sex with thousands of women. An early 1980s sex film, "Exhausted," was supposed to be a biography of his life. Holmes' last film, "Hollywood Confidential," was made two years ago.
Holmes, said Los Angeles writer and film critic Kenneth Turan, "was very much proud of his work. He liked what he was doing."
In Turan's 1974 book, "Cinema," Holmes told the writer that well-produced pornography had a more lasting impact than most films produced for the general public. "No emotion is stronger," he said. "It's a lasting thing."
Off the screen, said his former wife, Sharon Holmes of Glendale, Holmes kept to himself about his film exploits.
The couple was divorced in 1984, after almost 20 years of marriage. During that time, Sharon Holmes said, she never saw any of his films. "He knew it was not something I was particularly happy about," she said. "But he said the money was good."
Holmes commanded $2,000 a day at the height of his career.
In the late 1970s, Sharon Holmes said, her husband "got into drugs heavily. He lost control of what he'd been doing--lost control over his films, his life."
Holmes was born in Ashville, Ohio, and joined the Army before his high school graduation, serving three years in West Germany. After he left the service, he held several jobs in Southern California, including ambulance driver, warehouseman and door-to-door salesman.
His start in pornographic films probably occurred when, to make ends meet, he was posing for nude photographs which caught the attention of a producer of sex films. By the 1970s, he had become an established X-rated star, making films here and in Europe.
Although he worked with most of films' top sex stars during his career, Holmes apparently had few friends in the industry and, associates said, did not socialize with the women with whom he had sex.
"He was virtually friendless by his own decision," said Margold.
A few weeks ago, Los Angeles police reinterviewed Holmes in his hospital bed about the 1981 murders of four people on Wonderland Drive in Laurel Canyon. Although police have declined to discuss the interview, it was believed to have been triggered by the emergence of a new witness in the case.
Holmes, after several months in hiding, was arrested in Florida and charged in December, 1981, with the killings. Although the prosecutor argued that Holmes actually committed one of the slayings, a jury acquitted him. Holmes then spent 111 days in jail on contempt charges for refusing to identify the killers, saying he feared for his life.
The murders, believes Sharon Holmes, "will remain unsolved. He told me he could have told (police) everything. But he wanted to stay alive."
Holmes, she said, is survived by his mother, Mary, who lives in Ohio; two brothers, Edward and Dale; a sister, Anna, and a stepbrother, David.