Charles William Rotsler (1926–1997) was an award-winning artist and science fiction author.
Bill was also involved in the burgeoning adult film industry starting in the late 1950s, first as a stills photographer on the set of adult films, and later when he wrote, directed, or acted in over 20 adult films during his career with Boxoffice International Pictures,
In 1966, he created Adam Film Quarterly, later called Adam Film World, one of the earliest magazines to provide commentary on pornographic films. He wrote hundreds of articles using a plethora of pseudonyms including ‘Shannon Carse’, ‘Cord Heller’, ‘Clay McCord’, and ‘Merrill Dakota’ – sometimes even interviewing himself. He also wrote the seminal book, Contemporary Erotic Cinema in 1973.
But this series of articles is not about Bill Rotsler. It’s about a group of friends of his. Four friends. Four women, to be more specific, who at various times lived with him, and featured in his films, photographs, and magazines. Their lives intersected in his house, as they played their parts in helping establish the adult film industry in Los Angeles.
He called this group, ‘The Gruesome Foursome.’
The Rialto Report tracked down each of the four to hear about their lives. This is the fourth part: Maria Arnold.
Maria Arnold was a rarity in early 1970s adult films: a regular presence who could actually act, a rare example of a performer who could have made the transition to Hollywood movies. She had a colorful life – featuring in men’s magazines in the 1960s to making exploitation and hardcore films in the 1970s with many legendary names, such as Ed Wood Jr, Nick Millard, Lowell Pickett, Bob Cresse, and Ray Dennis Steckler. And it turns out the rest of her life was even more interesting, from working at a topless bar in the San Fernando Valley as a bikini waitress to dating famous men… and much more.
What were your aspirations when you were a girl?
I always thought I was going to be an actress. A real actress. My dad was an actor forever. For 50 years, in fact.
What acting did he do?
He did it all. Films and movies. He started when he was eight years old. He was a comedian; one of those bit-part actors who was in just about everything, like all the old series, Death Valley Days, I Love Lucy, I Married Joan, and many others. He was in several Three Stooges films. He’s got a good scene in The Comancheros with John Wayne. I see him often in that because it’s on television all the time.
He was a funny, short, bald-headed, chubby guy. But he was terribly good at what he did, and he was fun.
He was an incredible tap dancer too. Later in life, when he got down, I’d say, “Dad, don’t be sad. Dance for me.” So he danced, and it was wonderful.
He inspired you to be an actor?
Yes. When I was a kid, he’d take me around all the time to the movie sets, and that’s why I wanted to be an actress. He tried to discourage me because he knew how hard it was, but I was adamant: I would tell him, “No, I’m going to do it.”
Was your mom in the film world too?
No, no. She wasn’t in the business at all. She just loved being married to an actor.
Did you ever do any acting training?
I did some, but just local stuff. Nothing really substantial. Not enough, I guess.
Dustin Hoffman was in an acting class with me when I was really young, and he encouraged me. He said, “You need to go to New York. That’s where you’ll learn. You have to get really serious.”
But that would’ve meant leaving my livelihood which was paying my bills, so I didn’t go. I was afraid. I didn’t know if I could do it, so I never did go to New York.
You had real acting talent.
I thought I did, but it was difficult to be seen or heard and taken seriously. Dustin was right: You really needed to be in school or in training in New York with someone like Stella Adler. You had to be serious.
Did you father live to see you pursue an acting career?
No. He died in 1968. All his life, he liked everything about his life. And then one day he didn’t, and the next day he died. He was only 58.
The business had changed so much for him. When he started out, you used to be able to knock on doors and say hi to casting directors and directors. Then later, it changed overnight and you couldn’t do that anymore. And it was tough for him to find an agent that would really push for him when he was a one or two line actor. So at that point, he sort of gave up.
He died young. I was just out of high school a couple of years.
It was strange because I went on a date with somebody who spent the night telling me his father had just died. He cried all night, reliving the whole experience and he wouldn’t let me go home. When I finally got home that night I found that my father had just died. It was very weird.
2. Leaving Home
What did you do when you left school?
Straight out of high school… my first job was for the city of Los Angeles.
I typed the budget for the city. I was always an incredible typist, so that’s what I did. And then I got high on acid one day going to work. I thought I was an ant on the highway, you know? I thought, “Oh, that’s the end of this job. Never going back there.”
So I went to work for the police department instead.
What were you doing for the cops?
I was the records clerk on the graveyard shift. I typed reports. It was always typing…
How did that end up going?
Badly! I had a friend that lived near someone that had robbed a bank. I went over to their apartment one evening, and the cops were staking out the bank robber’s apartment. They stopped me and asked, who was I? Where was I from?
I said, “I work for you guys!” which was a stupid thing to say. So they took me back to the station where I worked, and interrogated me for 18 hours.
At the end of it, they told me that I could sign my own resignation or get fired.
Even though you had nothing to do with the crime?
Yes. They kept insisting that I should introduce them to the people who lived there – just because I had a friend who lived downstairs.
I said, “I’m not a policewoman. I’m not getting involved in anything. I don’t even know these people.”
I said, “You guys are so full of shit.” They really were. So that was the end of that job.
Where were you living at this time?
I moved out of my family home, and lived in a hippy commune. It was the time when many people were doing that. It was cheap and fun.
Then I became a waitress.
One of the rumors about your time as a waitress suggests you played the mouth organ, the harmonica, on stage in a bar in the San Fernando Valley – is that true?
And that you told jokes while you played the harmonica…
Oh, it wasn’t a harmonica. It was one of those kazoos. I had a really good time at that bar, and I wasn’t even 21. It was a topless joint. I remember when my birthday came, I was mouthing off about how I just turned 21. And my friend said, “Shut up! You’re gonna get in trouble!”
What came next?
It’s all a blur, but waitressing led to topless dancing.
And then pretty soon I started modeling – or rather, nude modeling.
Was that through Dick James?
Yes! Pretty Girl International. What a trip. I haven’t thought of him in years. A waitress friend recommended I go to find work with him, and soon I was earning more money than I ever had before.
Did you ever do any straight modeling?
Do you remember getting into films?
Yes, but it was just 8mm at first. Reels of real film! You would just look pretty and sexy.
At first I did a ton of films that were not really sex. I mean, they were sexually exploitative, they would intimate towards real sex, but you didn’t really do anything. And you had dialog and little plots to act out. That was fun and I enjoyed them.
It was easy for me to be on film sets, because I’d grown up around them. So I didn’t freak out, or forget who or what I was doing.
Do you remember any of the first films you made?
No! None at all… I didn’t know the titles of any of them when I made them, and I never saw them afterwards. I often didn’t even know what the plots were when I was making them. You were just told to turn up, repeat lines, and be topless… That was easy enough. I never paid attention to what they were.
Who do you remember from those early films?
Bill Rotsler was the social center of that scene. He was older, and wiser, than the rest of us, so he was a stable influence on a whole generation of actors, directors, cameramen, and film people. Good guy. I would hang out at his home.
That’s where I met Uschi. She didn’t drive, so I said, “Oh, I love you. I’m driving you everywhere. Don’t worry about a thing.” And we just started to hang out. We had a really good time together.
I did some work for Ed Wood. Strange guy. I was approached to give information on Ed for the Johnny Depp movie people when they were researching it. But I couldn’t remember much about Ed, except that he was pretty high all the time. But… so was everybody.
What was the drug of choice?
Quaaludes, they were the thing, so we were always stoned. I loved Quaaludes. They used to call me the Quaalude lady. I had a few doctors in my pocket, so…
What about acid?
Oh, I did that too, but I didn’t really care for it as much as I didn’t have the best experiences. I was always trying to get that incredible high, you know? But I didn’t get there really. Acid is a weird drug. It can put you in a strange place, where you’re trying to pick your skin off in the mirror or something. Just too strange for me!
I liked pot. Pot was my favorite thing. I don’t smoke it anymore. I did up until about one or two years ago, and I had a medical license, but I stopped because I just didn’t get high anymore. Even with all the incredible stuff that’s out now. In the end, I just said, “Shit. I’m spending a lot of money and I’m not even getting high!”
Do you remember John Holmes?
Oh, yes. I knew John. I made a couple films with him.
He was nice. Very considerate. Not at all like you’d think given his reputation. He was really a nice guy. Gentle and considerate.
How about stars like Rene Bond?
I made a lot of films with her. She was straight as an arrow. Boring as anything. No personality at all. I don’t want to be mean, but she just wasn’t an interesting person. I didn’t know her that well, but I was never thrilled when I found her on the set with me. Oh man, what a snooze she was…
She had a boyfriend named Ric Lutze.
Yeah, I remember him. I did films with him too. He was a doofus as well. They weren’t my favorite people. Very square.
How did you find the film work?
I had an agent. Hal Guthu. He was terrific. I loved him. He was always cheery. He used to have a lot of film shoots right at his office, in the back.
He was very fatherly. I would come back from filming, and I would tell him all the stories of what had happened on set. He would laugh and say, “You’ve got to write your life story. These things don’t happen to everybody, Maria. They only happen to you!” It’s true. I had a good time.
I hate that Hal died the way he died. In a fire or something.
They said it was a suicide, but there were rumors…
I don’t believe he would ever kill himself. He liked himself too much. Somebody killed him. He had a bird. A cockatoo, I think.
How were you treated when you made the sex films?
Fine. We never got stiffed or anything. Actually, one time somebody did try to rip us off, and I said, “Oh, no way.”
I went to their office and said, “I’m waiting for the head of the company, the guy who is going to write the check to me.”
And they said, “Oh, he went off to Europe.” Well, I knew that wasn’t true, so I said, “Well, I’ll just wait til he comes back.”
They said, “Well, he’s gone. He’s internationally abroad.” And I said, “Well, I’m internationally here.”
About ten minutes later, he came out with a check.
So you were always quite feisty and strong?
I guess so. I always was outspoken about whatever I was doing. I stuck up for myself if necessary. And I had a really good time.
Did you ever do interviews for the media?
Yeah. I was always recommended to be the one to speak to magazines or journalists. When anyone asked, “Who could we speak to about these sex films,” my name always came up first, maybe because I love to talk. I was pretty good at it. I did articles in Playboy and Cosmopolitan. I was always happy to stand up for our craft. I wasn’t ashamed. I would say, “My skin is my costume.”
I even did a TV show once. I went to Canada to do it. Margot Lane, who was like a Canadian Maury Povich, did a show called ‘All About Women.’ We did the interview in a hotel. The actor Nehemiah Persoff was the person asking me questions. His goal was to get me aggravated so I would flare or something. And he did it. He pissed me off. I told him I had lived in communes as a hippie when I was younger, and so he asked if I fucked everybody in the commune. And I said, “That’s a pretty stereotypical thing to think.”
I stood up, and I said, “I’m not talking to you anymore.” I’d never let anybody insult me.
You acted in a lot of those early sex films.
The work never seemed to dry up. If you wanted work, you could work almost every day of the week. And the money was so good, so I took advantage of the opportunities.
Did you continue to try and get mainstream acting parts?
Yes, but it was tough, because when you have a resume’ that reeks of nudity, people don’t really take you seriously. And so I had a hard time finding straight parts.
Maria (left), with Cheri Rostand (center)
The nature of sexploitation films changed in the 1970s.
Yes. The parts become less interesting, and then they started getting into hardcore.
How did you feel about that?
I did a handful of those. I didn’t like them. I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to fuck on camera. I just liked the whole idea of flirting around it.
Do you know who James Best is?
Yes, he was the actor who played Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane on The Dukes of Hazzard.
He was a big shot. He did quite a lot of mainstream film things. Good looking guy, as well. I met him in an interview for something and he asked me to marry him. He was so weird, because he hardly even knew me. He was producing movies at the time, and he was making a film with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, I think they were in Mexico.
He called me from there, and said, “I want you to come here.” He said I had potential as an actress.
This was before I did my first hardcore porno film. He said, “I’ll give you money, so you don’t do the porno film.” He sent me roses and a check for the film. I did the porno anyway so I scored twice.
What made you decide against going to see him?
I didn’t go because I said, “Who is this weirdo?” I didn’t know him.
In some movies you’re actually credited as Maria Aronoff. And then some movies it’s Maria Arnold.
Maria Aronoff was my SAG name, because, that was my father’s real last name. In the 1950s, when the blacklist happened, the name ‘Aronoff’ was considered too Russian and Jewish, so he changed it to Arnold. When I got my SAG card, I thought, “I’m going to take it back. It’s classy.” I liked it.
One notable film you made was called, Love Me To Death, aka Cozy Cool.
I don’t remember it at all. I only remember the title. Was that the film where I would kill people? Fuck them and then kill them? I don’t know. I haven’t thought of these films for 40, 50 years.
Who do you remember from this part of your film career?
Not really many people. I would’ve remembered more people 20 or 30 years ago. But nowadays I don’t think about that time much at all.
I remember Harry Reems. He was my favorite guy – a great guy. He and I were close. We dated for a long time. I liked him. We always had a good time. He used to live in Malibu.
I met him in the films. We didn’t make any movies together I don’t think, but sometimes he would ask me onto sets when he had to do a film and he couldn’t get off, or couldn’t get hard. He would go, “Get Maria over here.”
He’d was always calling me from all over the United States – wherever he was. We had a lot of great phone sex. He had a great sense of humor.
A year or so after we broke up, I started dating a mob guy. Don’t ask me how that happened, but anyway… And I happened to be in Memphis with this guy and some other mob guys too. This was when Harry was on trial there for having been arrested for Deep Throat.
I was in the courtroom where Harry was on trial, and Harry came over and said, “What are you doing with those mob guys? They produced Deep Throat. They fucked me.”
So I turned to my friend and I said, “Guess what? I’m leaving. And I’m going to go stay with Harry. I don’t want anything to do with these people. They fucked my friend over.”
And I left. Oh my God, they were so pissed off at me.
I’m loyal, and Harry was so low. He didn’t have many friends during that time. But there were people that did fundraisers for him. I went to one at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
I really liked Harry.
Did you date much during that period?
I just had a good time. I went out a lot. I dated Bobby Pickett, the guy that wrote ‘Monster Mash’.
I didn’t really fall in love with anybody until I left L.A. but I had some unusual, strange boyfriends. I dated Freddie Prinze.
How did you meet Freddie?
I was an opportunist.
What do you mean by that?
I had just been to the Director’s Guild, and I saw the pilot for Chico and the Man which was going to be his breakthrough.
A friend of mine was throwing me a birthday party at the place next to the Comedy Store in Los Angeles. I don’t remember the name of it now. I was outside getting some air, and Freddie was out in front of the Comedy Store.
My eyes caught his, and I wasn’t going to let it go. And he wasn’t either. We just sort of clicked. He put the girl he was with in a cab, and then he came and got my number. I let him call me a few times. I was playing the game, you know? I wasn’t going to answer him right away.
What was Freddie like?
So talented and energetic. Such a great presence. We dated for a while while he was making ‘Chico and the Man.’ He was special and we were close.
When did you hear that he’d killed himself?
When I heard that he’d shot himself, I was married and living in Santa Cruz, so I wasn’t with him anymore. I just couldn’t believe it. I heard the news and I went, “Oh my God.”
He was so young and talented. What a waste.
On our first date, he took me to his producer’s house to meet him. That’s the producer that he shot himself in front of.
One of the last times I saw Freddie was at the Improv in Hollywood, and I gave him a Quaalude. I felt so bad, because I didn’t know he was so confused and fucked up. He was a nice guy. He was fun too. But I remember him saying to me that his career all happened too fast. He just couldn’t get his mind around it. It was just too fast for him. And that was at the height of his career.
4. After Films
Why did you leave the film business?
After a while, I got burnt out. I stopped making the movies, but I was still doing some voiceover work.
One day I realized that I knew the person bringing cocaine in from South America, Colombia or someplace. And I also knew the person that sold it to all the wealthy people in Beverly Hills. I went, “Oh, I can put this together.”
So I did. For a while there I had the best coke in town. I really thought I did. And I sold it to many people.
Did you have many wealthy clients?
I did. I had lots of them. I had everybody.
Did it work out well?
Very well. I would grind it up and put it in a little bottle to sell. I always tried to make whatever I was selling better than anyone else’s. Like if it was pot, I’d throw in a couple of rolled joints, you know?
What happened next?
Gradually the quantities sold became smaller. The smallest was a quarter ounce. I remember somebody taking too much out to taste. That fucked me up and I had to start to break it into grams. And that was the beginning of the end of it. You start dealing just a gram.
How did it end up?
I got sick of it, and it got sick of me. I was getting pretty thin and some friends took away my last stash. They said, “You need to get out of here.”
And I said, “You know what? You’re right.”
So I left, and I went to Hawaii. That’s where I met my husband.
How did you meet him?
He wasn’t in films or anything like that. He was just a regular guy. He was a printer.
What did you do when you got married?
We bought homes and redid them, and we owned print shops together. I mean, we did a lot. He totally worshiped me. And I cared about him a lot too. I loved him. I just got a feather up my ass, and that’s what happened…
How did the marriage turn out?
I left him.
Why did you leave him?
I don’t know. You know what? I led a crazy life. All of a sudden, I was like, “Do I really want to be settled down?” I just couldn’t. Even though I was married and happy.
There was no reason for me to think like that, or leave. I should have never left him. I should have never done it. He was the best thing that ever happened to me.
You’ve had quite a life. Have you ever thought about writing a book like Hal Guthu suggested?
I’ve tried a few times but I didn’t get very far. I always got caught up thinking of how many people have done the same things.
There are many people who have doing modeling for men’s magazines, then softcore, and eventually hardcore films, then the selling drugs and… that’s not an uncommon story.
Any regrets back from the film days?
Oh yeah. That I didn’t get serious and drop all the bullshit nude film stuff and get into real acting. I think I could have had a career. Too bad none of the films were legitimate. I wish I could have had a legitimate part in something. That would have been cool.
You know that there are many people who remember you fondly?
Really? That’s crazy. Once or twice, people have suggested I go to conventions. They said “Oh, go and sign autographs. People are wondering what happened to Marie Arnold.”
What do you reply?
I don’t care about any of that. So no, I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to be contacted to tell my story any more. This interview is it.
So no book is on the way?
What I do now is transcription. I just type other people’s words all the time. Now I’m reduced to State Farm accident reports. But I like working.
You don’t want to retire anytime soon?
No. What am I going to retire to?! First of all, I have terrible ankles. I have to use a walker when I go out in the street because my ankles are just fucked. So I don’t want to go into an office anywhere. I love working from home. I love having my own hours. I type really fast for an hour or so, and then I take off two or three and watch TV. I like this job because it’s different. There’s always something different to type. I’m my own boss at last.