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 clichés 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.


Miss Janey said...

Gorgeous boy- and generous enough to be an organ donor. Such a shame.

TJB said...

Oh, Poseidon, I do remember The Voyagers, vividly, as well as JEH's untimely passing. I was 7 or 8 at the time, but I do recall being incredibly sad and confused that someone so beautiful and young could possibly die. I also remember Cover Up, although my memories are mostly of the Hamilton episodes, and the striking opening credits montage - perhaps where Daniel Craig gleaned his inspiration for Casino Royale's beach shot?

Poseidon3 said...

Yes! And I must say that there were all these photos circulating of DC in his little blue swimsuit, but when the film Casino Royale was actually released, the shot was so far away and brief (or so it seemed to me, anyway!) A similar thing happened with Brokeback Mountain. Insider snaps of Heath running naked and then when the film came out, only Vera Charles and her telescope could have made anything out. Hee hee!

regretful said...

Thank you for such a well-written and sensitive article on an incredibly handsome, engaging, talented and intelligent man who had everything to live for and who put his heart and soul into his work. He truly was one in a million (at the very least) and a joy to behold. I agree with your comment that today's so-called "idols" do not come close to the amazing qualities of Jon-Erik. I also feel that had he lived, he would have been one of the all-time greats. It is still as hard to believe as ever that he is gone, but as was the Voyagers! quote; "Time waits for no man" and it is nice to know that Jon-Erik Hexum has not been forgotten.

Topaz said...

I was deeply closeted when I went to a Spencer's Gifts on the other side of town to buy JEH's iconic bare-chested poster "for my sister." I had that thing for years and would still today except for misplacing it in a move.

I remember being in my apartment in 1984, reading the paper, and seeing a small article. "Actor Shoots Self On Soundstage." I could not believe it was JEH. Aside from his incredible looks, there really was something special about him. After his death, and before they were readily available on the internet, I used to buy his pictures from the celebrity photo services. I even joined a fansite called the "Hex-Nuts," which sent out a newsletter following up with his family and the recipients of his organ donations!

Every few years I have to plug in my old TV/VCR combo and watch my VHS version of "The Making of a Male Model" and think about what could have been.

VoyagerG said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
VoyagerG said...

Thank you for keep Jon's memory alive with this entertaining, funny, and informative blog post. I'm not sure how true it was that Lennon was the only one allowed to photograph him in his last years. It doesn't seem in tune with his friendly, vibrant personality, especially since he was someone who wanted to get far ahead in his career. I don't believe Jon was ever quoted as saying such.

Jon certainly had the vitality, warmth, humor and charm to have been a number of things, as he had numerous interests and talents. There are some fans, including myself, who are doing all we can to keep his memory alive. I love Voyagers and run the ever growing
A friend of mine runs, an excellent/fun resource for pictures and Jon facts and quotes and things. You will enjoy them if you haven't already seen them. :D

Eleni K. said...

he was a very charismaic person, to combine that extreme beatty with artistic skills and university degrees... such a tragic loss he could have gone far fr our generation... thanks for remembering 12/10/1984

AndroidMan said...

....he was an incredible, stunning handsome hunk of a man...I know it doesn't sound original but they say only the good die young...

DAVE BROWN said...

He was two years younger than me and I found him fascinating. I remember Voyagers, but her personified the early 80's as a true American male. Sad he die so young. I was shocked.

Poseidon3 said...

I don't know how in the hell I managed to miss these additional comments which came after my last one on 1/12/10, but I do apologize if anyone felt slighted that I didn't respond again. Jon-Erik lives on in many fans hearts and minds, which is something. He was ten years older than me and was like an ideal I could never hope to equal. It's astonishing, even now, to think that he was dead at 26...

Poseidon3 said...

BTW, VoyagerG, I realize we can't believe everything we read (even here! LOL) but just FYI, this info is listed at for JEH (and I feel like I even looked into it further at the time of this tribute, but I cannot recall more than dix years ago...) --

"Best friends with Lennon the Photographer who shared a Motor Home with Jon-Erik on the Fox Lot at the time of his death. Lennon was his personal Photographer and the only person Jon-Erik allowed to photograph him in the last few years of his life. Lennon was waiting at his Bel Air residence for Jon-Erik to come and pick him up for dinner, when the phone rang and he heard of the "accident". Lennon was also the specialty photographer and technical advisor on Cover Up."


NormaD said...

I would be very interested in hearing more from Lennon.