Thursday, May 20, 2010

Losing My Hardin

The late 50s/early 60s was the heyday of the TV western and the three major networks stuffed their schedules with an amazing number of series. Warner Brothers, who produced a lot of TV during that time, would wring everything they could out of a show for as little money as possible. The hot show Maverick (which starred James Garner), for example, might be assigned a script that had been used on another show with just the names and a few details changed! Another hugely popular show (starring huge and popular Clint Walker - see photo above) called Cheyenne received the same treatment. These series were often quite cookie-cutter, despite their individual conceits, and the actors often felt as if they were on an assembly line, and they were.

When Clint Walker walked off Cheyenne in a dispute (partly stemming from the studio’s failure to also utilize him in their feature films), an immediate replacement was shoehorned into the series. To fill the void until Walker could be coerced back, they used a slim, blonde, good-looking actor dubbed Ty Hardin (and you can bet that the scripts he filmed as the character of Bronco Layne had once been intended for Cheyenne Bodie!) Thing was, Hardin was popular enough on the show to warrant his own series, called Bronco, and this not only gave Warners another hit, but allowed Walker to have a lighter schedule. They made The Cheyenne Show a rotating concept with Cheyenne, Bronco or Will Hutchins as Sugarfoot starring each week (or occasionally pairing up in certain episodes.)

Ty Hardin was born in 1930 with one of the all time jaw-dropping names: Orison Whipple Hungerford, Jr! The product of a troubled marriage, he was born in New York City, but was transported to Texas at age five where he was mostly raised by his devoutly Baptist grandmother. Initially nicknamed Typhoon thanks to his wild behavior, it was later abbreviated to Ty. Ty Hungerford struggled with what was then an unknown affliction, ADHD (of course, every third person has it or ADD now, it seems!) This led to trouble at school and a general sense of discontent.

After one semester at Bible College, he served in the U.S. Army during The Korean War, managing to become a First Lieutenant and working on airplanes. He then won a football scholarship and sought an Engineering degree at Texas A & M University. Just before graduating, he was offered a job with Douglas Aircraft and opted to take it right away. Having no inclination to act, he happened to be at Western Costume in L.A. looking for accessories for an upcoming Halloween party, when he was spotted by a talent agent!

The agent, Milton Lewis, secured a contract with Paramount Pictures and Ty left his job, now making double the salary he had been earning. He began essaying small roles at the studio. One of the earliest outside jobs he auditioned for was John Wayne’s Rio Bravo, but the role had already been granted to teen sensation Ricky Nelson. The good news, however, was that in the process he wound up meeting Warner Brothers’ Bill Orr who bought Hardin’s contract (while simultaneously giving him a new last name in tribute to the old west outlaw John Wesley Hardin) and almost immediately placed him on Cheyenne! Like Walker before him, Hardin was photographed with his rifle in a patently phallic position.

Hardin, whose Texas background gave him the ability to do most of his own stunts, especially riding ones, became a success on Bronco and, like his fellow Warner contractees, was also utilized in their movies. Samuel Fuller’s Merrill’s Marauders found him costarring with Jeff Chandler and Peter Brown. Fuller, a grizzled veteran himself, specialized in war movies and this one offered Hardin one of his best roles as a soldier who agonizes over having to write to the families of his fallen comrades. He also has to serve under Chandler who is under much duress. (Sadly, Chandler was suffering from a real life back injury during this, his last film, and died soon after from botched surgery!)

Another film that featured Hardin was the all-star (and almost never broadcast!) The Chapman Report. The 1962 George Cukor (!) film was based on a novel that drew inspiration from the famous Kinsey Report and had researcher Efrem Zimbalist Jr looking into the sex lives of Jane Fonda, Shelley Winters, Claire Bloom and Glynis Johns. Various hunks played in the film including Ray Danton and Corey Allen, but Ty was featured in a lot of the advertising as a swimsuit-clad boy toy to Johns’ slightly older woman.

The segment devoted to Johns and Hardin was deliberately comic and proved for many to be a welcome diversion from all the other, heavier goings on. Johns plays a sculptress interested in coercing the yummy Hardin into posing for her au naturel. Obviously, there is nothing shown, but Ty does keep his shirt off for quite a bit of his screen time. Some publicity shots focused on his rear end (unhappily bunched up with a visible jock strap) and with his legs spread while Glynis was perched in the sand in between them. Lucky girl!

Always the brunt of jabs over his new name (Warner Brothers starlet Diane McBain liked to call him Ty Hard-On), it’s remarkable that he wasn’t one of notorious agent Henry Willson’s boys. Willson gave the world Rock, Tab, Race, Troy, Rory, Chad, Guy and many other shiny pretty boys with "macho" names. Some sources say that the John Wesley Hardin inspiration was merely a public cover for Bill Orr’s (an acquaintance of Willson) attempt to either pay tribute to or outdo all the names Willson had come up with over the years.

The following year, the film PT109 was made of John F. Kennedy’s famous book of the same title, all about his exploits in the Navy during the war, which included being stranded on a tropical island. Cliff Robertson was personally approved by Kennedy to play his part, but Hardin was second-billed as Ensign Leonard Thom, a white-blonde, bearded crewman. Robert Culp and the always delicious Grant Williams were also in the cast, an unintentional side effect being that the stranded men were frequently shown all hot, sweaty and either bare-chested or with an open shirt. Already, Hardin was starting what later became quite a habit for him and that is his covering up of his face with some sort of beard or mustache.

1963 was not only a busy year for Hardin, but also marked the beginning of the end of his Hollywood career. He worked with Suzanne Pleshette in the fairly well regarded, but now very obscure, Wall of Noise. He played a newcomer to the racehorse ownership arena who goes up against a villainous Ralph Meeker. The late Dorothy Provine portrayed Ty’s ex-girlfriend while Pleshette was his concerned wife.

Next was the inherently silly and tacky (but also colorful and attractive) Palm Springs Weekend. This fluffy film had a great roster of good-looking stars that included Troy Donahue, Connie Stevens, Robert Conrad, Stefanie Powers and Ty as a character called “Stretch” Fortune! With third-billing, he played a guitar-playing cowboy singer. In real life, Hardin had always played guitar and even jammed a few nights away with Elvis “The King” Presley when Elvis was living and working in Hollywood. Anyway, Weekend contained a lot of unfunny mugging by Jerry Van Dyke, Dick’s brother.
From here, Ty Hardin left for Europe where he was kept very busily employed, sometimes in foreign productions, sometimes in American projects that were filming overseas and sometimes in large, sprawling films with an international makeup. He was part of the large cast to be found in Battle of the Bulge, a film whose chief stars were Henry Fonda, Robert Ryan, Robert Shaw and Dana Andrews. Then he worked in Savage Pampas, a most unusual Robert Taylor Spanish-produced western (filmed in Argentina.)

Taylor played an Army Captain who is transporting prostitutes across Indian Territory in order to help make his men happy (!) and Ty plays an anarchist newspaperman who is being forced into Army service and, thus, is along for the ride back to the fort. He appears in the film in a bizarre get up, complete with stovepipe hat, that serves to make him look like a sexy Abe Lincoln! Again, he has a beard and seems to be deliberately downplaying his looks. The role of the anarchist must have had some degree of impact on him as he later took up a similar political stance in real life.
Soon after this, Hardin filmed the camp milestone Berserk, starring none other than Miss Joan Crawford. Clean-shaven, thank goodness, he portrays an aerial artist who happens to join a circus just as the performers are being killed off one by one. (In this shot, he breaks one of my own cardinal rules, which is never to be photographed from below! Note how even a hunk such as he has an ugly double chin here.) He is hired as a much-needed replacement and then finds himself romantically involved with the twenty-five years older Crawford.

Their love scenes (not sex scenes, of course) are pretty cringe inducing and more than a little embarrassing when it comes to Joan. She felt the need to wear a long, strawberry blonde wig in a thwarted effort to look younger when she should have just owned up to the fact that she was a quite obvious cougar (or, at this stage, mountain lion!) Joan did look pretty decent in her Edith Head-designed ringmaster getup, but the nighttime scenes in her lingerie are scarier than any of the killings in the movie!

Hardin also gets hit on by Diana Dors, once Britain’s answer to Marilyn Monroe, but by this time rather chunky, though her contributions to the movie are priceless in the extreme, especially when Joan gets mad and barks at her the insult, “SLUT!” Joan invited Ty to dinner over and over in order to get to know him off set, but he claimed that he was the one who liked to do the chasing, not the other way around. Speaking of that, Mr. Hardin has suggested that one reason his Hollywood career ran aground was due to his popularity amongst the starlets of the town and that studio heads were jealous. Though he only admits to seven, imdb.com lists EIGHT wives for him over the years and he has 10 children (three of which are adopted!) many of who are not in touch with him at all.

The Spanish-filmed Custer of the West had Hardin again looking completely different from his previous movie (that's him on the far left.) Hair dyed darker and with a large mustache, he played Major Reno to English actor Robert Shaw’s General George Armstrong Custer. Also in the cast were the once beautiful, but now a little rough, Jeffrey Hunter and the handsome Irish actor Kieron Moore (who portrayed an Indian chief!) The production, which also cast British Mary Ure as Custer's wife Elizabeth, had some epic scenes, but failed to convince as an account of the famous general.

In 1969, Hardin headlined an Australian TV series called Riptide, not to be confused with the 1980s American show of the same name. As one might expect, the show was based on and around the ocean and had plentiful female guest stars in bikinis and other revealing clothing. Just prior to this, he took part in what sounds like some sort of surreal, out of body experience for lovers of the bizarre. In London, he played Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire to a Blanche portrayed by Veronica Lake!! Her nickname for him during the production was “Try Harder!”

Continuing to make European financed pictures, he played a Sheriff in the Joe Namath western (now there’s a phrase you don’t hear every day!) The Last Rebel. He also had a blink and you’ll miss him bit as a helicopter pilot in Jack Lemmon’s Italian comedy Avanti! As the years wore on, he appeared scruffier and scruffier, sometimes to a downright ridiculous degree and sometimes looking intentionally foolish as in this shot of him with a beard “disguise.” His gorgeous looks were frequently buried under either facial hair or dirt or both, though he did hold on to his physique. Note the string from his modesty sling that is visible in this bathing shot from one of his gritty foreign westerns. (Click to enlarge. Did I just say that? Whew!) While Ty was making good money in these projects, they were either not being seen at all in the U.S. or filling out double bills or late night drive-in packages, so his marquee value, what there was of it to begin with, was seriously slipping over here.
A long-delayed return to the U.S. in 1977 resulted in Irwin Allen hiring him for the creatively titled TV movie Fire! It’s sort of hard to believe, but this utterly mundane and cheap disaster telefilm was released to foreign markets as a feature! Note the lobby card, which employs the then-routine “box credits” with all the stars’ faces lined up. Allen had made the other amazingly named Flood! The year before and in ’83 came up with Cave In! Somehow he managed to avoid getting around to Soft Shoulder! or Falling Rock Zone!

From here, Hardin appeared in episodic TV and low-budget movies, often portraying a sheriff or a pastor. Around this time, he decided to pursue his earlier ambition to become a minister in real life and did so, going on television in the western United States to share his Baptist message. However, he soon became disenchanted with what he called “prayers for profit” and backed away from it. This is about the time that the wheels really began to come off and he engaged in some very questionable activity.

Hardin had been involved in a serious dispute with the IRS (perhaps stemming from his decade of working in Europe, though I don’t know for certain) and eventually came to consider the organization an enemy of the people. From his home in Arizona, he formed a group called The Arizona Patriots and began publishing a newsletter, which was said to contain inflammatory and sometimes anti-Semitic content. There was a call to stockpile food and weapons in order to prepare for a battle against the government! There was even an FBI raid done on his compound that uncovered weaponry and anti-political literature.

Eventually, the group was disbanded and the newsletter discontinued, but even now, twenty plus years after, Mr. Hardin’s official website contains a “special message” from him that is the most inarticulate, radical, incoherent, illiterate bunch of political and religious gobbledegook you’re ever likely to find! It’s a shame because I really enjoy watching him in his 1960s movies. Thus, sad as it is to say, I have lost my Hardin. It happens to the best of us, I guess! The beautiful, impossibly clean cut-looking young man of the past can only be admired within certain parameters now. The current version of him (though he is finally clean cut again) truly scares me!

4 comments:

FelixInHollywood said...

Wow. I hate being one of those people who say this, but I honestly didn't know he was still alive.

The wing-nut stuff is just so sad. See what doing love scenes with a 60 year old Crawford will do to ya!

Poseidon3 said...

He's 80! Considering that, he still looks pretty good, but I chose not to include recent pictures of him. he's about to portray Colonel Sanders in a minor film that's due out this year! It's sad to see cliches come true, but the combination of a broken home, oppressive religion in childhood and then the craziness of film acting seem to have combined to make for a zany end result.

Rob said...

"Ty Hard-On" LOVE it! And "Try Harder"? The fact that Veronica LAKE said it is a sad commentary on his acting abilities--still, when ya look that good...
And I love Crawford's comment when she's grilling Hardon about Diana Dors: "She's attractive--in a common sort of way"

Poseidon3 said...

>>The fact that Veronica LAKE said it is a sad commentary on his acting abilities<<

Exactly! And a 1969 Veronica Lake at that. She was a bit of a hot mess, herself.