Thursday, January 7, 2010

Put a Hexum on Me!

As with quite a few of the posts on this site, the subject matter for this one will appeal particularly to those of us of a certain age, that age being old enough in 1982 to crawl over to the TV set and lick the screen up and down!

Jon-Erik Hexum was one of those rare things: a god descended from the heavens to take his place, briefly, on Earth before departing again, leaving the populace panting and wishing in vein that they could have more.

Born to Norwegian immigrant parents (named Thorleif and Greta and with an older brother named Gunnar – now what did HE look like?!) in Tenafly, NJ, Hexum was a promising young man who excelled in many areas. He played the violin as well as the horn in the school orchestra and even played piano at home as well, yet he was athletic enough to play football for Michigan State University. No dummy he, his majors at college were bio-medical engineering (!) and then philosophy.

“Discovered” by John Travolta’s manager in the early 1980s, Hexum was very selective about what work he would take, refusing to go the route of the daytime soap stud or play a redneck hunk on The Dukes of Hazzard. As a college graduate and with a wide range of interests and skills, he could afford to be choosy for a while. He also knew that, while his looks were his primary calling card, what he really wanted to do was evolve into a fine actor.

Finally, he won the lead role in a new TV series called Voyagers, all about a time traveler with the decidedly unsexy name of Phineas Bogg who, with a young boy sidekick, darts through the ages rectifying pieces of history that are about to become out of sync. This type of show had previously been done with Irwin Allen’s The Time Tunnel, but Voyagers attempted to inform viewers about history a little bit more than the previous series. It was dubbed “edutainment” as a result.

Geared towards children, but not without a level of adult appeal, the show was up against ratings giant 60 Minutes on Sunday evenings and wasn’t able to make it past 20 episodes. Those episodes, however, burned everlasting images in the minds of more than a few youngsters. I have no idea what straight kids thought, but for me it was all about Jon-Erik and his eyes, his deep, resonant voice and his chest! Hexum may have wanted to downplay his looks over his acting, but nonetheless, he was placed in an open shirt and occasionally was depicted completely shirtless as in this gladiator-themed episode (heaven!)

In 1983, there were few things hotter than Dynasty and one of the chief reasons for that was its resident villainess Joan Collins. As was the case with most series stars of that time, television movies were developed on the side in order to further showcase them. One of Joan’s was the hooty camp classic The Making of a Male Model. Both she and Hexum were given plenty of attention in the media and the flick was hyped endlessly in commercials. They even went out on several “dates” in an effort to promote the film and themselves. (Hexum was keenly aware of the importance of promotion, even funding his own tour once in order to get his name out there and appear in major cities!)

The TV-movie featured endless clich├ęs about the (male) modeling world as well as a never-ending parade of shirtless scenes with Hexum. (And who’s complaining??) He was depicted as a simple outdoorsman, plucked from obscurity by top agent Collins (a sort of "Alexis"-lite) and formed into a sensation. Along the way he encounters all the usual situations such as the downward-spiraling fellow model, predatory homosexuals and so on. Eventually, he decides that the simple life is the better life and walks away.

In the wake of this project, Hexum was, more than ever, praised for his looks, with few, if any, people considering whether he could act or not. Blessed with an unbelievably warm and deep voice, an expressive face and a sharp mind, he had the chops to be more than a flavor of the month hunk. He went on talk shows to express his desire to take on meaty roles in strong projects, but it would be an uphill battle.

On an episode of Hotel, he portrayed a Prince who woos a Cinderella-ish Emma Samms. This pair dated for a while as well, though most photos of them suggested a rather chaste relationship. At the time, Samms was known for her work in TV movies and, particularly, the daytime soap General Hospital, so the young couple could aid each other in making their names and faces known to more of the public. Ironically, she would later play Joan Collins daughter on Dynasty.

A supporting role in a minor feature film came Hexum’s way soon after. The Bear was a bio-pic of famed football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant and it starred Gary Busey. Hexum played a quarterback and was granted some decent mentions in some of the reviews. His good nature and innate friendliness went a long way in helping smooth over the troubled production, which was held up repeatedly by the lead actor’s alcohol addiction. For this period film, Hexum briefly said goodbye to his gorgeous wavy locks in exchange for a short-cropped look.

He found work in a new series called Cover Up, about the adventures of a former Green Beret who works undercover as a model for a female CIA operative posing as a photographer. It was the type of glossy hook for a series that should have thrived in the 80s. The theme music was “Holding Out for a Hero” (originally made popular by Bonnie Tyler, sung here by E.G. Daily, who would also date Hexum during this time. Daily is probably best known for playing Dottie in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. )

Though it’s a stretch to suggest that viewers tuned in to see him acting versus showing off his amazing looks, at least the varied locations and situations provided him with the chance to do more than just look good. The action-oriented show offered plenty of espionage and gunplay.

Guns are something that would, sadly, be forever connected with the name Jon-Erik Hexum. On October 12, 1984, filming on the set was delayed time and again due to a technical issue. Hexum catnapped on and off as the waiting continued and, as a gag to register his frustration, picked up a .44 Magnum that was loaded with blanks and held it to his temple, pulling the trigger. Though we now know (mostly thanks to him!) that blanks in a gun still have wadding pressed into them and enough force to be deadly at close range, Hexum wasn’t educated enough on them or familiar enough with them to understand this.

A quarter-sized skull fragment was pressed (and shattered) from the blast into his brain, causing massive hemorrhaging. He was raced to the hospital where surgeons tried to repair the damage, but ultimately he was declared brain-dead and placed on life support. On October 18th, his mother (his parents had divorced when he was four) allowed his body to be used for organ donations, as was Jon-Erik’s wish.

His costar in the series, Jennifer O’Neill, had only two years before shot herself in the stomach accidentally when checking to see if her husband’s gun was loaded and it’s surprising that she and Hexum wouldn’t have discussed the dangers of handling any gun, blanks or not. Then again, people’s perception of “blanks” at the time was far different. For didn’t actors shoot blanks at each other on TV and in movies all the time and never suffer in the slightest?

The series wrote his character’s death into an episode and it was handled as reverently as it could be without outright canceling the show. His character Mac Harper was replaced by the similar-sounding Jack Striker and played by Anthony Hamilton. (Hamilton, another major league looker, would die of AIDS within a decade.) The show limped along for a while longer before ultimately being taken off the air.

Unbelievably, Jon-Erik Hexum, at age 26, was gone forever. Not having had the time to develop any type of significant career, he did leave behind a plethora of photographs (he was living with his personal photographer, Lennon, at the time of his death and only allowed Lennon to photograph him in the years prior to it) and a smattering of film and TV roles. Most admirably, however, was the fact that he donated his organs to no less than five other people who were in need. His heart still beats in the recipient’s chest. The corneas in his breathtaking eyes where used to save the vision of another.

When you get the chance to see and hear this man, compare him to what passes for a sex symbol now. The scrawny, treble-voiced, waxed and plucked idols of today come off as more than a little pathetic. Unfortunately, a lapse in judgment and ignorance with regard to the danger of guns, even those loaded with blanks, led to the loss of what could have been one of the all-time greats.

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