Jon-Erik Hexum was the most groundbreaking actor that you never heard of. He was discovered the old fashioned way - from struggling waiter one day to playing the lead in a major television series on NBC the next. He was a throwback to the days of Errol Flynn, when a strong natural charisma and personality overwhelmed the camera expressing a realness not seen in today's actors. He had it all, magnetic eyes, illustrations hair, beefcake body, charm, wit, comedic and dramatic chops, as well a good understanding to the dangers of playing the Hollywood game. He was funny yet intelligent and light years ahead of knowing how to deal with the paparazzi, especially when the obligatory gay rumor chatter surfaced. With misty blue eyes and hunky 6’1 frame he might not have been entirely queer or queer at all but Hexum sure turned a lot of dudes gay in the 80's.
Hexum was a rising Hollywood stud that was knocking on Superstardom’s door before tragically dying in a freak prop gun accident. Before that fatal day Hexum had come a long ways from Tenafly, New Jersey where he and his older brother were raised by a struggling single mother. Hexum’s father ditched the family when Jon-Erik was only four and his good Norwegian genes were the only thing he left little the boy. Later when Hexum’s father got in touch with him after seeing the boy on a nationally televised college football game Hexum told his deadbeat dad, “You can’t reap seeds you haven’t sown. You blew it guy. Go to hell.”
But Hexum never played sports in high school. He was however the school’s first male cheerleader. Hexum played the piano, was in the school drama club and watched plays on Broadway while his mother, unable to afford two tickets waited for him at a nearby café. The only ‘sport’ the teenage Hexum showed an interest in besides baseball was bodybuilding and by the time he arrived to college in East Lansing, Michigan, Hexum was a blue-eyed walking Greek statue in bulgy tight Levi’s. Michigan State University was good to the ambitious Hexum, he played football as a walk-on, created and hosted his own radio program, was a NCAA competitive diver, pumped iron half-naked with his homeboys, did a little stage acting, and by the end of it graduated with a degree in social sciences. Proving he had both the brawn and brains Hexum did what any good looking stud in 1980 would have done, he left dreary Michigan and caught the Greyhound to New York City.
Hexum was soon sharing a studio with a transvestite in the Village and working as an apartment cleaner at different places throughout Manhattan. As fate would have it Hexum was sent to the upper West side to clean an apartment belonging to John Travolta’s manager Bob Lemond. Hexum happened to show up to the apartment just as Lemond returned to change jackets. As the stars aligned in favor of the young hunk, Bob Lemond was impressed enough to cancel his plans and spend the afternoon chatting with Hexum. Lemond of course had guided John Travolta to worldwide fame and fortune and after taking one look at the chiseled 23 year-old Hexum saw the same kind of potential. Lemond was a well-known homo and rumors of Travolta’s extreme gayness have been around since the beginning of his career. Just watch Staying Alive, which is not only one of the worst movies ever made but also one of the gayest. Hexum was in no position to compromise and instead of cleaning the apartment he was the one getting cleaned out as Lemond began giving him head on the living room couch.
Lemond was mesmerized by Hexum’s attributes and signed him to a management deal. A short time later his newly discovered auburn chested hunk quickly found work as a male model in Manhattan. But the gigs weren’t coming fast enough and he was still bartending in Times Square and cleaning venetian blinds for strangers. So after six months of parading around in designer suites and posing shirtless in short shorts for various New York ad agencies Hexum was sent packing to California where he auditioned with Daryl Hannah for a role in Summer Lovers. Hexum somehow lost the part to Peter Gallagher and spent the next four months sharing a studio apartment with “two illegal Mexican aliens” and busting his ass for chump change as a busboy at a restaurant on Venice beach. He wouldn’t be living on restaurant leftovers and generic potpies for much longer though Hexum was impressive enough to gain the interest of several Hollywood powerbrokers and in 1982 landed his first starring role on the television series Voyagers! A remarkable achievement considering Hexum didn’t have a clue to what he was doing and just nine weeks before filming was scraping spaghetti off plates.
Hexum had never acted in front of a camera before and had to be schooled by his twelve year-old co-star Meeno Peluce on how the process worked. Hexum was a quick study and the chemistry he shared with Peluce was captivating as the time-traveling historical detectives entertained homes across America every Sunday evening. This now forgotten family show that inspired Quantum Leap, was watched enough to last 20 episodes over the course of a year but ratings paled in comparison to 60 Minutes and Voyagers! was eventually canceled in the summer of 1983. Thankfully the entire series can now be viewed for free on Amazon Prime! The show is littered with an incredible amount of history lessons, family values, themes on morality along with highly skilled displays of great writing, cinematography, costume and set designing and directing. Turn on your television and try finding any show half as good as Voyagers! and you'll be there channel surfing for a long time. The $10,000 per episode Hexum earned seemed unreal compared with the only other paying gig he had managed to secure – $30 bucks a week playing Johnny Browne in The Unsinkable Molly Browne on a tiny upstate New York stage. Hexum didn’t let it go to his head though; he put most of the money away and continued to drive the same shitty car, knowing that an actor’s time in the spotlight can come and go in the blink of a Hollywood eye.
Hexum's good looks, beefcake build and magnetic charm kept him marketable. Soon he was cast opposite Joan Collins in the made-for-television movie Making of a Male Model. This film has since made Hexum a guilty pleasure to behold and in some ways even solidifies his role as tragic gay Greek hero.
In the made for TV movie, 25 year-old Hexum shoots to the top of the male modeling world but quickly bores of the fame and longs to return to a quiet life back on the farm. His roommate upon arriving to New York is a model on the outs of his career, with a face relying on plastic surgery and a body addicted to heroin. This role was played by Jeff Conaway to perfection. Sadly Conaway was plagued by a real life heroin addiction that cost him his life in 2011. Conaway was also represented by Bob Lemond and starred with John Travolta in Grease. The pair had been friends since 1974, however his long standing relationship with Travolta ended in the 90’s when John surprised a sleeping Conaway with a sloppy blow job. Conaway confessed this incident in a 2006 suicide note. The suicide attempt failed and Conaway died a few years later from a drug overdose. Before he died he admitted to his wife that Travolta’s marriage to Kelly Preston was arranged and a complete sham.
The other roommate Hexum’s character shared the apartment with was the model who was now ‘in’ and on his way up, played awesomely by Ted Mcginley, best known as Marcy’s second boy toy husband Jefferson D’arcy in the hit series Married with Children. Mcginley gets bonus points for also being the cool quarterback jock in the comedy classic Revenge of the Nerds. Now competing for modeling jobs with Mcginley’s character Hexum finds himself beating up the streets of New York going to different auditions and trying to land his first gig. He must have had the strangest sense of déjà vu when filming these cutaway scenes in Times Square and other various Midtown spots. Scenery Hexum was very familiar with. When he first arrived to New York Hexum devoured the trade papers, hounded casting directors, sent out hundreds of photos and résumés a week, went overboard on acting lessons and auditioned, auditioned, auditioned - hoping to be seen on Broadway. But like in the film, Hexum’s luck in New York was to be found in front of the camera. And as usual instead of being discovered by a female cougar it was a big old hairy bear that set him on his way.
In the movie he falls for his manager, played by Joan Collins, a cougar that runs her own modeling agency. She discovers Hexum, the green cowhand during a photo shoot in Nevada farm country and convinces him to come to the big apple to give modeling a try. After he becomes successful she begins playing house with Hexum for a few months but dumps him in favor of her new flavor of the month, a freshly signed model with the “surfer look”. This infuriated Hexum’s naïve character to the point where he began to party, drink, behave unprofessionally and after coming home to discover his roommate had died of an overdose ultimately quits the business altogether. Of course the made for TV movie has Joan Collins following her hunky discovery back to the farm, and luring him back to finish his modeling contract. After which she offers him the lead role in a television series being filmed in Los Angeles, however Hexum has had enough of the bright lights and big city and declines her offer, settling instead for buying a Central Park horse and riding off into the Manhattan sunset. The movie itself is a tacky camp classic, with a corny premise, showbiz clichéd ridden script, pseudo-Bacharach 70’s porn score, and stereotypical flaming limp-wristed homosexuals. Despite all of this chicanery Making of a Male Model was one of the biggest television hits of the year.
Joan Collins was a major television star at the time and being cast opposite her as the male lead immediately put Hexum in the spotlight. He got the part after a wild audition with Collins, which involved a lengthy make-out session and very little lines. Collins told producer Aaron Spelling that Hexum was the one and Spelling immediately cut the kid a nine thousand dollar check for “clothes”. It’s a safe bet that Hexum probably banged Joan Collins. Who didn’t? She wasn’t just a slut on Dynasty she was one in real life too and even worked as a high-class escort (prostitute) when first arriving in Hollywood. The actress and the beefcake were seen together around L.A. enough to fuel juicy gossip columns of a real-life fling but Hexum’s love life was shrouded in mystery.
When not filming he was taking voice, acting and dance lessons weekly and checking up on his mom in the new townhouse he bought for her in Northern L.A. but it’s hard to imagine that such a hot 25 year-old would be spending his nights alone. But no stories of wild parties or ravenous drug fueled orgies come up when discussing his name. Hexum seemed pretty intent on making his mark in Hollywood and was well aware of the pitfalls that surrounded him. He lived in a modest house on an undesirable block near the airport in Burbank. And as for finding romance in Tinseltown and whether a lack of female companionship pointed towards him being gay he told People magazine in 1983, “I have no way to meet them. I'm alone when I go to bed at night. Gay, I ain't. I don't want to be thought of as gay, although 80 percent of my friends are.” A cryptic response or simple truth telling? Despite being anointed a “confirmed bachelor” by the press, Hexum had actually dated his college sweetheart Debbie Davis for over four years until she dumped him during the promotion of Voyagers! Afterwards he began dating the doll faced actress Emma Samms while hanging out heavily with Tony Danza. It’s rumored that Samms was his beard and Hexum was actually dating Danza. Before his death Hexum was dating actress, singer, dancer and cartoon voice expert E.G. Daily, but what queer wouldn’t want to date her? Early in 1984 Hexum guest starred with Samms on the popular prime time drama Hotel.
A few months later, Hexum was in Georgia preparing for his silver screen debut, playing terminally ill quarterback Pat Trammell, in the feature film The Bear, about University of Alabama football coach Paul "Bear" Bryant, played unfavorably by Gary Busey. Hexum’s role was small but well-received and represents his sole performance in a feature film, released just three weeks before his untimely death. Hexum, the superstar that never was. “I only worked with him a brief time,” recalled Busey, then 40 and already a Hollywood veteran. “But it was like jumping on a new trampoline—there was a lot of bounce there. He was what I hope I was like when I first came to Hollywood from Texas. It takes some kind of blind courage to step forth in this business. And he had that.”
After returning from the South Hexum pondered several development deals before settling upon Cover Up a project he believed had real potential. Produced by Knight Rider creator Glen Larson and co-starring former CoverGirl model Jennifer O’neill, Hexum played Mac Harper, an undercover CIA agent posing as a male model. Cover Up, cast Hexum as a globe-trotting soldier of fortune and provided an outlet for all of Hexum's cinematic cravings. It was the perfect role as he got to shoot guns, blow things up, show off his killer looks and body, comedic chops and engaging charm. But the episodes were a bitch to shoot and delays had plagued the early production. Hexum went to sleep the night before his death extremely worn out from the 14 hour days he had been putting in all week.
On a cool fall morning Hexum jumped inside his funky two toned ’54 Chevy bel air and began his usual half hour drive to Culver City. It was the first week of October and Halloween decorations bejeweled the suburban homes Hexum passed as he made his way towards the infamous 405 freeway. It would be his final Californian drive. Upon arriving on stage 17 of the 20th Century Fox lot, Hexum downed some coffee and began prepping for the days scenes. With seven episodes in the can, Hexum was set to film the eighth episode “Golden Opportunity” which required a fair amount of gunplay, including a scene calling for Hexum's character to load blanks into a .44 Magnum handgun. Hexum had already been playing around with the prop guns during filming, pointing them at the crew and cracking jokes but Jennifer O’neill wasn’t amused. She warned Hexum that guns are dangerous even prop ones. Hexum played it off with a smile, the stud was too confident to be worrying about a silly fake gun. It was his fatal mistake.
Jennifer learned her lesson a year earlier when she accidentally shot herself in the gut with a .38 special after checking to see if the gun was loaded. It was and the bimbo nearly killed herself. Hexum was dying of something else though – boredom. After a long day of filming, multiple delays and a few heated arguments with the director, Hexum was finally ready to shoot the days’ final scene involving a game of Russian roulette. But when camera problems materialized another delay halted the shoot. Hexum became restless and impatient, deciding to take a nap on a bed being used during filming. When he awoke fifteen minutes later only to be told of yet another delay he rolled his eyes and jokingly said to the members of the nearby crew, “Can you believe this crap?” Hexum then spun the bullet cartridge, locked it in place and put the powerful six-shooter prop gun up against his temple and joked again, “Let’s see if I’ve got one for me” knowing that out of the six possible slots for bullets in the gun two were filled with blanks. He smiled as he pulled the trigger and before anyone could do anything to stop it, a flashy explosion erupted from the end of the barrel directly into his temple. Hexum was unaware that at close range, a blank can cause great damage. After the loud bang and blinding flash, thick black smoke hovered in the air. Hexum screamed in blood-curling agony with a look of unexpected shock in his eyes as he slumped back onto the bed with blood gushing from his splintered head. It was a horrible scene, Hexum seemed amazed as he looked at his blood drenched clothes and trembling hands before passing out.
An assistant rushed over to him with a towel and wrapped it around his head, trying to stop the spurting bloodstream. But the damage was done. The prop gun explosion drove a quarter-sized chunk of his skull deep into his brain causing massive hemorrhaging. Turns out that blanks use wads of paper to seal gunpowder into the cartridge and after pulling the trigger it’s the paper that is shot from the barrel of the gun. These paper wads can cause injury if the weapon is fired close enough to vulnerable soft spots such as the temple or the eye. At point blank range, the effect of the powder gasses housing the blank bullets is similar to a small explosion so although the paper wadding in the blank that Hexum discharged failed to penetrate his skull, it provided enough blunt force trauma to shatter a chunk of it, propelling the fragmented chips into his brain.
With Hexum unresponsive and news of the tragic accident quickly spreading on the lot an ambulance was dispatched to the scene. Before it arrived one of the studio station wagons was backed up to the set, and three men, including Hexum’s hair-dresser carried Jon-Erik's blood-soaked limp body into the car. They sped off, their legs dangling out of the open tailgate. Dino Ganziano, the hair-dresser kept his hand on Hexum’s pulse, which was faint one, another lifted his head and made sure he didn’t bite his tongue, Hexum was bleeding profusely and everyone in the car prayed for his survival. It took just a few minutes to cover the mile between 20th Century-Fox Studios and the Beverly Hills Medical Center but by the time Hexum arrived he was already comatose and had lost more than four pints of blood. Surgeons worked on Hexum for five hours while a group of his friends, business associates and studio executives clustered in the hospital waiting room. Hexum’s mother conducted a vigil in the intensive care ward as Hexum remained in a coma.
On October 18th, 1984, six days after the accident, and just a few weeks before Hexum would have joined the infamous 27 club, he was pronounced brain dead. With his grieving mother's permission, Hexum’s body was flown on life support to San Francisco where his heart was transplanted into the body of a dying man at Pacific Medical Center. Hexum's kidneys and corneas were also donated. His body cremated and his ashes were spread in the Pacific Ocean, near Malibu, by his mother, who sadly died four years later from breast cancer.
Hexum allowed people to think whatever they wanted to of his sexual preferences. He was a blank canvas for both female and male fantasies and happy to be gay if that’s what you wanted him to be. He took his image less seriously than most actors and felt that sometimes being good looking was a deterrent to getting serious credit as an actor, something he desperately wanted the opportunity to prove. He was pleased with his role in The Bear, and in one of his last interviews expressed his future acting desires, “It was a small but awfully good part. That's the direction I'd like to go in. I'd feel better if I went against type. You know, some days I think I'm hot stuff. Others, I'm not so sure. One of my goals is to play the romantic lead who dies.”
He tragically succeeded.