Thursday, February 24, 2011

Now this is my Forte!

The mid-'50s was a white hot time for cute, young singing sensations with dubious musical backgrounds. It was all about finding a good-looking guy with a passable voice who could get the teenage girls to scream and yell and spend their allowances on his records. Today's featured furball became an international sensation through his recordings, but segued into an acting career. When that petered out after a time, he went back to his roots, with the same guys he'd started out alongside back in the hot wax era. I'm speaking, of course, about Mr. Fabian Forte, known by most people as simply Fabian. Fabiano Anthony Forte was born in Philadelphia on February 6th, 1943 to a policeman named Domenic and his wife Josephine. The oldest of three boys, his father became ill from a heart attack in 1957 and couldn't work any longer. The family of five now facing the specter of surviving on $45 per week disability checks, Fabian's traffic-stopping looks and eventual singing ability gave him the avenue with which to support them. He was discovered at the tender age of fourteen by Bob Marcucci, the co-owner of Chancellor Records, who was given his name as a potential clinet by prior discovery Frankie Avalon, another boy from South Philly. Marcucci approached the boy on the front steps of his home the very day his father was taken away in an ambulance, but Fabian reportedly told him to “go to hell.” After some time had passed and he realized that Marcucci was serious, he reconsidered.

Avalon, three years Fabian's senior, had been previously playing with Bobby Rydell in a group called Rocco and the Saints. Avalon, Rydell and Fabian, all acts who would eventually play on Dick Clark's American Bandstand multiple times, would draw upon their history together as boy singers later in life. But in 1957, Fabian's career was just beginning. After a sputtering start, he began turning out hit records for label owner Marcucci (who was, himself, only thirteen years older than Fabian.) He was given singing lessons and instructed on how to look, how to dress and how to behave as part of the star packaging concept (though Clark felt that Fabian definitely possessed that all-important “It” factor, the trappings notwithstanding.)
His huge, beautiful eyes, impossibly thick and high pompadour hairdo and puppy pout combined to make for one serious teen idol. His voice alone had initially made little impact, but once TV viewers got a look at that face on Bandstand, the rest was history! He became so popular it was hard to get around at all in public without a police escort. After less than two years with Marcucci and Chancellor Records, 20th Century Fox came calling in order to turn Fabian into a movie star. It was necessary for him to buy out his record contract with Marcucci, but he did so in order to be free to sign with the movie studio.

He was front and center in his very first feature film, Hound Dog Man, in 1959. Still, in order to hedge its bets against this untried young man, the studio surrounded him with an array of other names (such as Stuart Whitman and current teen favorite Carol Lynley) as well as seasoned veterans of the silver screen (such as Arthur O'Connell, Betty Field, Edgar Buchanan and Jane Darwell - shown here beaming with the fledgling actor.) The rural story had little to do with the city-bred Fabian, but the setting allowed for fans of Memphis-born Elvis Presley, who was THE singing sensation of the time (with a prior hit called Hound Dog, no less) to be suitably intrigued enough to check it out as well. The film resulted in a hit record for Fabian when he sang the title song.

He was frequently splashed across the covers of movie and teen magazines such as this one that references Dodie Stevens, a Hound Dog Man ingenue (and you can also bet that the story inside this one did NOT reveal exactly what was going on between Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner!) Note also how the magazine somehow seems to give a hoot what older comedian George Gobel thinks about teenagers!

The next year, he was paired with two established stars. First came the extraordinarily fluffy High Time, which starred Bing Crosby as a fifty-one year-old returning college student. If you've been waiting all your life to see Crosby in drag, this is your chance. He has a dream sequence in which he attends a school dance, dolled up in feminine finery. Wook how sewious our wittle boy seems to be as he studies in the cwasswoom! (I don't know, so don't ask me... why this shot brings about the need to talk baby talk!)

Fabian, natch, played a fellow student along with Richard Beymer (soon to play Tony in West Side Story) and Tuesday Weld. Other names in the cast included Yvonne Craig (later to be Batgirl on Batman) and Gavin McLeod (of The Mary Tyler Moore and The Love Boat fame.) The already inane film (directed by Blake Edwards in one of his weaker moments) ends with Crosby flying around in the air during the graduation ceremony...

A bit more serious (but only a bit) was his next project, the John Wayne western adventure film North to Alaska. Concerning prospectors in the frosty territory, Fabian played the younger brother of Wayne's costar Stewart Granger. Also on board were Ernie Kovacs and Capucine, who played a (very refined!) prostitute meant as a sort of mail-order bride for Wayne, who nevertheless catches Fabian's eye instead.

The title song was sung by Johnny Horton, but Fabian did get to croon another ditty within the film. The middling film was not the first time Wayne worked with a young male singer (like Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo) nor would it be the last (Glen Campbell in True Grit.)
1961 brought Love in a Goldfish Bowl, a three-cornered teen romance that also starred Tommy Sands and an ingenue named Toby Michaels. Jan Sterling played Sands' mother. Fabian played upon his Italian heritage by portraying a character named Guiseppi La Barba while Sands' hair was bleached pale blonde! All I can say is that from where Sands is situated in this publicity still, he had a tough decision to make! (It wouldn't have been for me, however! Ha!)

Incidentally, Sands had starred in a film called Sing Boy Sing in which he played a country boy gospel singer exploited by an opportunistic manager. The whole shebang was allegedly inspired by the story of Elvis Presley and Colonel Tom Parker. Years later, Fabian would find himself represented in a similar type of film loosely based on his own story, but that was many years to come at this point.

This same year, Fabian worked on an episode of the television series Bus Stop, playing a sociopathic killer. Directed by Robert Altman, it was a major departure from the image he usually projected, though it didn't lead to any significant changes in his acting career.

Next, he appeared with yet another veteran actor, this time James Stewart in Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation, one of several innocuous, colorful, family films Stewart made during this time (others being Take Her, She's Mine and Dear Brigitte.) He and costar Lauri Peters sang a minor number during the film. At this stage of his career, Fabian need only appear on a movie screen in order to kick off waves of screaming an crying from his youthful female fan base. It was not unusual for rafts of dialogue to be drowned out as the screeches continued.

Unlike Presley, who was drafted into the U.S. Army at a time when his career was just on the cusp of exploding even further, when Fabian received a draft notice during The Vietnam War, he reportedly presented a doctor's note that caused him to be classified 4F, excusing him from duty. The note allegedly stated that doing time in the military posed a significant risk of causing him to develop homosexual tendencies. (Because making films in Hollywood certainly posed no such risk!!)

From here, he joined an all-star cast in one of producer Irwin Allen's adventures (prior to his becoming the Master of Disaster.) Five Weeks in a Balloon starred Red Buttons, Barbara Eden, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Peter Lorre, Richard Haydn, Herbert Marshall and Barbara Luna. Adapted from a Jules Verne story, it was a colorful, but mostly silly, affair with Fabian mostly occupied with scantily clad Luna, a female chimpanzee and an accordion he uses to back him up as he (incessantly) warbles the title song.
Rounding out 1962 was an appearance (along with practically every working male actor in the business) in the mammoth WWII film The Longest Day. In the wake of this film, Fabian would find himself turning to television more and more, at least for a while. He worked on anthology shows such as The Dick Powell Theatre and The Eleventh Hour as well as Wagon Train.

1964 brought what many folks consider to be one of the best beach movies of the '60s, though it was completely apart from the Frankie Avalon-Annette Funicello series. Ride the Wild Surf featured Fabian alongside Tab Hunter and Peter Brown with love interest supplied by Shelley Fabares, Barbara Eden and Susan Hart. This movie tried to present an ever-so-slightly more serious take on the genre versus the inherently campy and wacky Frankie & Annette shenanigans.
What's really strange about it is that Fabian was one of the few performers allowed to keep his regular hair color! Hunter's dirty blonde hair was dyed light brown, Brown's brown hair was bleached to a putrescent shade of yellow, Fabares' dark hair is white blonde and Eden's normally blonde hair is dark auburn! According to Hunter, the hair colors were changed in order to match the footage of the stunt surfers, but what an odd situation.

The three guys are all cute, but very different. You've got Porterhouse Hunter with his mature, seasoned body, Sirloin Strip Brown with his lean, low-fat cut and Ribeye Fabian with his adorable baby fat cheeks--both sets!
James Stewart must have gotten on with Fabian during Mr. Hobbs because when it came time to film Dear Brigitte, he was back again. The story of a professor (Stewart) whose young son Billy Mumy writes to Brigitte Bardot every night until finally she invites the family to visit her in France, Fabian was cast as a love interest to Stewart's on screen daughter Cindy Carol. (Carol, a child actress who grew into a rather gawky looking young lady, would retire directly after this.)
His recording career virtually over thanks to The British Invasion of The Beatles and other trendier and wildy popular performers and groups, Fabian struggled to maintain a career in films. He took a role in Ten Little Indians as an unbelievably jerky alcoholic singer who is the first murder victim to be bumped off (and not a moment too soon considering the surly, obnoxious personality he was delivering in the part!) In the film, he sat at a piano and sang the numb-inducing nursery rhyme, at no one's request!

He then appeared in one of his pal Frankie Avalon's teen-oriented movies, a rare Frankie and Annette film that doesn't involve sand and bikinis, Fireball 500. This was an attempt to use many of the same cast members from the Beach Party films, but in a more serious setting. Avalon and Fabian played race car drivers involved in running moonshine and tussling over Funicello. Playing a smarmy, cocky creep, Fabian seemed to have finally found the type of role he could essay effectively (this after years of critical carping about his acting skill.)

Fabian's connection with Avalon would continue as he approached his next movie. Avalon had done a campy, wacky, Italian-made spy film with Vincent Price called Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine. Somehow, a sequel was conceived and put into motion called Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs only, this time, it was Fabian who costarred with Price. The messy, garish film has a small gaggle of admirers, but is mostly considered something of a disaster. In 1966, he married his first wife Kathleen and they soon had two children together. Supplementing his irregular film roles, he worked on the TV shows Daniel Boone, The Rat Patrol and The Virginian (appearing in three episodes of that series, a rare show that ran for ninety minutes each week.) He finally took Avalon's place completely in the film Thunder Alley, where he was Annette Funicello's primary love interest. He had the benefit of also getting to romance blonde Diane McBain in the film, a sexy, perennially underrated actress. By now, in 1967, Funicello's good girl antics were becoming stale and Fabian, at twenty-three, was in the throes of becoming a has been!

While his film career to date had included the campy, the tacky and the wacky, he would now begin to appear in films with an exploitive slant. He was reunited with Diane McBain in Maryjane, all about a youthful art teacher (Fabian) who is reluctantly coerced into investigating and exposing the use of marijuana in his school. McBain played a frosty teacher who continues to resist his advances. Despite the sound of this, the film is reportedly one of his better efforts and contains more than a few good scenes, though it does have its detractors, mostly among the more experienced drug users of the world.
Yet another race car flick, The Wild Racers, had him as a Grand Prix driver experiencing romantic troubles with '60s starlet Mimsy Farmer. (This was also the film debut of Talia Shire, who would later enjoy featured roles in The Godfather and Rocky.) This was followed by The Devil's 8, one of many films to knock off The Dirty Dozen. Though not set in wartime (it involved convicts being recruited in order to stop moonshiners!), it borrowed heavily from the more famous film's premise.

Fabian's notorious looks were parlayed into the gangster film A Bullet for Pretty Boy, in which he portrayed real life criminal Charles "Pretty Boy" Floyd. Just as The Devil's 8 was a cash in of The Dirty Dozen, this flick was riding the coattails of the hugely popular Bonnie and Clyde. Floyd had begun his life of crime avenging the death of his father, giving the story a similar “good” bad guy flavor as that which was found in the early portions of Bonnie and Clyde. This type of outlaw film became very common in the early '70s.
The only period detail to speak of was found in the cars and a few of the clothes. Certainly Fabian's hair, as well as that of his female costars, was completely anachronistic. The good news is that he stripped down for a bathtub scene, showing the world his now furry twenty-seven year-old chest (but doesn't he look older?!) The lady shown here is Jocelyn Lane, one of Elvis Presley's many, many cinematic female costars. This, by the way, was the first time he had billed himself with his full name of Fabian Forte, an attempt, perhaps, to move into a more mature phase.

This attempt was brought home in a far more significant way just a couple of years later when Fabian made the eye-opening decision to pose semi-nude in Playgirl magazine. The year was 1973 and the periodical was still in its infancy. Fabian was photographed in the altogether in his pool and with his motorcycle. Though he showed no full-on frontal nudity, the angles were such that Fabian Jr. could be distinctly made out (not so much in this particular shot.) Years later, he considered the decision to be a bad one, referring to himself as looking “fat and stupid.” While the shots are hardly worthy of being hung in an art museum, I don't know that he looks stupid. Maybe, considering the almost four decades that have passed, a little goofy or quaint. I mean, it was 1973! I admire men with the confidence to let it all hang out. And he isn't fat either, unless one is going by today's tanorexic standards.
He followed up his revealing spread with the starring role in a low-budget film called Soul Hustler, that had him playing the sleazy, drug-addicted musician in an evangelical tent-show. He eventually becomes an influential gospel rock star, but one haunted by many vices and demons.
Continuing in his newfound realm of antiheroes, he teamed with '70s actress Karen Black (who, seriously, was in every fourth movie of that decade!) in Little Laura and Big John. Just another piece of low-budget trash involving Prohibition-era gangsters, booze-running, robbery and other crimes, this time set in the Florida Everglades circa 1928. The now-forgotten film had him sporting a patch over one eye which allegedly is shown on the opposite eye during one scene of him running down a dock! This marked the end of his acting career for a five year span of time. He made a return before the cameras in 1978 when he joined several folks from his heyday as guests on The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries. Others in the episode, some looking quite rough, were Edd Byrnes, Gary Crosby, Troy Donahue, Tommy Sands and Deborah Walley. (He's seen here with semi-regular cast member Susan Buckner. Rob, if you're still out there, this one is for you!) This seemed to reignite his interest in acting and soon he was working in things like the TV-movie Getting Married with Richard Thomas and Bess Armstrong (singing a song to Armstrong that was penned by Thomas' character.)

He also appeared as a beauty pageant emcee in the legendary telefilm Katie: Portrait of a Centerfold. The cast of this one included Kim Basinger in an early role, Vivian Blaine, Tab Hunter, Don Johnson, Dorothy Malone, Don Stroud, Melanie Mayron and Nan Martin!

This being 1978, he was the star of a chintzy flick called Disco Fever, all about a disco owner who signs a former teen idol (played by Guess Who) to a performing contract only to use him as the opening act for a new and younger singer! Casey Kasem played Fabian's agent while Michael Blodgett was cast as the up and coming vocalist.
Fabian's story, of being a pretty youth plucked out of obscurity and turned into a staggeringly successful teen idol was an integral part of the 1980 film The Idolmaker. The movie focused on the charismatic and driven talent manager (played by Ray Sharkey), but also included thinly veiled versions of Fabian and Frankie Avalon. Bob Marcucci served as advisor on the film and Peter Gallagher played a character named Guido who eventually is known professionally by the one-word name Caesare. Feeling infringement upon the story of his own rise to fame, he threatened the makers of the film with a lawsuit, eventually settling on Macrucci's 7.5% interest in the project. (As the film was not a raging success, it isn't known how much, if any, money Fabian netted from this gesture.)

A few more low-budget flicks along with the requisite appearances on The Love Boat and Fantasy Island led up to Fabian's eventual exit from TV and movie screens. By now, he was embarking on a whole new chapter in his life. Remarried in 1980 (to a production assistant and later successful producer named Kate), he, Frankie Avalon and Bobby Rydell answered the call of nostalgia for the type of music that had initially brought them fame and began performing regularly across the country. Billing themselves as The Golden Boys, the trio traveled all over, to the delighted screams (though now of a lower pitch, if not volume) of loyal female fans.

His marriage to Kate having ended in 1990, he remarried for a third time in 1998 to Andrea Patrick, a beauty queen turned talent agent, who is close to twenty years his junior, the couple resides in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, not too far from his birthplace and the region where it all began. It has proven to be the longest lasting of his marriages. His now-grown children, Christian and Julie Forte, have dabbled in behind-the-scenes show business, he as a writer and she as an animator. Fabian limits his appearances to around twenty or thirty a year now and involves himself in charities (a couple of which benefit the veterans, one of which he is not.)

Despite all the records and all the movies, what Fabian really excelled at was making his fans swoon in the aisles. He may not have possessed the pipes of a Sinatra or a Presley, nor the acting talent of those legendary actors he worked alongside, but good gravy what a puss he had on him. He was able to use what he had to supplement what he didn't, resulting in a performing career that has lasted over half a century.


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