One of the most prolific and distinctive auteurs to emerge from the proto-pornographic sexploitation film genre of the 1960s, Joe Sarno has written and directed approximately 75 feature films in the sexploitation, softcore and hardcore genres.
Having completed his first adult-oriented feature in 1961, Sarno is one of the pioneers of the sexploitation film genre. Among his best-known sexploitation films are Sin in the Suburbs (1964), Flesh and Lace, The Bed and How to Make It and Moonlighting Wives (1966). Sarno's work of the sexploitation period is typified by stark chiaroscuro lighting, long takes and rigorous staging. He is also well known for scenarios centering around issues of psycho-sexual anxiety and sexual identity development.
During his sexploitation period, Sarno worked with such noteworthy actors as Uta Erickson, Dyanne Thorne (star of the Ilsa series), Audrey Campbell (Olga's House of Shame series), Michael Alaimo, Patricia McNair, Tod Moore, and his cousin, Joe Santos, who would go on to co-star on t.v.'s The Rockford Files.
Beginning in 1968, Sarno's work becomes somewhat more explicit, predicting the emergence of soft-core. His breakthrough feature Inga (1968), was one of the first X-rated films released in the United States. Other noteworthy soft-core features include Vibrations (1968), Passion in Hot Hollows (1969), Daddy, Darling (1970), Young Playthings (1972), Confessions of a Young American Housewife (1974) and Misty (1975). Sarno is also the director of Deep Throat Part 2 (1974), the R-rated sequel to the hardcore classic Deep Throat.
After 1968, Sarno's soft-core work is divided between films produced in the United States and films produced in Europe, principally Sweden, Germany and Denmark. Many of Sarno's European features were made with American backing. In Europe, he is conspicuous for having worked with actresses Marie Liljedahl, Christina Lindberg, Helli Louise, and Marie Forså.
Sarno's first hardcore feature was Sleepy Head (1973) featuring Georgina Spelvin and Tina Russell. Reluctant to be associated with the hardcore genre, Sarno began directing explicit films under various pseudonyms. He also acknowledges being the uncredited director of such adult features as Inside Jennifer Welles (1977) starring Jennifer Welles and Deep Inside Annie Sprinkle (1981) starring Annie Sprinkle. Over the course of his hardcore career, Sarno also worked with such adult film stars as Harry Reems, Eric Edwards, Jamie Gillis, Marc Stevens, Marlene Willoughby, Gloria Leonard, Sonny Landham, Seka, and Ron Jeremy.
Singled out for praise by critic Andrew Sarris during the 1970s, Sarno's work has been acknowledged in recent years by tributes at the New York Underground Film Festival, the Torino Film Festival in Turin, Italy, and the Cinémathèque Française in Paris.
His career is currently being researched by film historian Michael Bowen for a comprehensive biography.
Sarno lives in New York City with his wife and production partner, Peggy Steffans Sarno, who appeared as an actress in several of his films. The couple spend their summers in Stockholm, Sweden. They have one son together, Matthew Sarno.