It wasn't easy for veteran porn director Paul Thomas to watch Boogie Nights. After phoning Paul Thomas Anderson, the movie's director, to request a seat at an early screening, Thomas, 48, found he was the only person there who had lived through the decadent world of '70s triple-X filmmaking in the San Fernando Valley. The film ''rang very true,'' says Thomas, who starred in about 400 porn movies in the '70s and early '80s. ''But the people in Boogie Nights really thought they were making fine dramatic films. Maybe [we're] as stupid as they are, but I don't think so.''
If there's one thing Thomas is not it's stupid. Unlike Boogie Nights' avuncular porn helmer Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), the quick-witted Thomas, one of the few directors shooting ''big-budget'' porn (like Bad Wives) on film, is much more complicated and conflicted. ''A lot of people have called to congratulate me, thinking it was my movie,'' says Thomas ruefully, sitting in his cramped office at Vivid Video in Van Nuys, Calif. ''I wish it was.''
Given his background, it could have been. The son of an upper-middle-class couple from tony Winnetka, Ill., Thomas (né Philip Tobus) studied political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and starred on Broadway in Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar (he was also in the movie version) before he was 22. In 1973, he signed with William Morris and moved to Hollywood, landing parts on such TV shows as Mannix and Police Story. But Thomas quickly tired of the Hollywood competition. ''I didn't stick it out,'' he says. ''I got a little discouraged because I wasn't used to losing out on anything.''
Instead, he signed on for the musical Beach Blanket Babylon in San Francisco, where he met pornographers Jim and Art Mitchell (Behind the Green Door) in 1974. ''It was the era of porno chic,'' he recalls. ''I really wanted to do them. It wasn't a compromise. I was a hippie. It was an extension of my swinging lifestyle.''
As an actor in sex films, Thomas had a career not unlike Boogie Nights' Dirk Diggler, the impressively endowed busboy who becomes a hot-movie stud under the tutelage of Jack Horner. ''It was a different time,'' recalls Thomas. ''Doing porno movies then was a celebration and a rebellion against the establishment. It was addicting being a big fish in a small, albeit scummy, little pond.''
Thomas worked with everyone from Seka to Traci Lords before switching to directing at 35. ''I liked how the movie showed [Jack Horner] in his big house and the sense of family,'' Thomas says. ''Anderson captured how close-knit you get when you band together from outside criticism.'' Like Jack Horner, he had affairs with some of his actresses and witnessed cocaine abuse on his sets. (Thomas himself was busted for smuggling coke from South America in 1982 and spent a year in jail.) Unlike Horner, he went on trial for obscenity in Mississippi in 1991 but copped a plea and paid a fine. He also remembers occasional visits from Mafia members early in his career. ''It was great getting cash under the table,'' he says. ''But, unfortunately, it's all done legally now.''