A friend of mine once pointed out to me that one weakness in many gay blogs is the preponderance of hot guys and the fawning text about them, leading readers to think, "Well, I know whose balls this guy would like to lick." At the risk of adding to that trend, I thought I'd post this remembrance of Jon-Erik Hexum that I wrote for a popular gay sex blog but that has yet to be published...
Jon-Erik Hexum is remembered today as a tragic beefcake actor who died young and stayed pretty and very probably was gay—even if he very probably wasn’t. That is, when he’s remembered at all.
At 6’1” and 190 pounds, the blue-eyed, shaggy-chested brunet was like the ideal male companion beamed up in a brief scene in Logan’s Run—so naturally perfect he almost seemed like a hologram. He had the Nautilus build of a college football player gone hard, the kind of sculpted shell that was less a requirement in Aaron Spelling-era Hollywood than it was a throwback to Muscle Beach in the early ’60s. He looked like he should be carrying Jayne Mansfield one-handed over his head everywhere he went. Perfect body, perfect hair, perfect veneers, he was a male model and he played one on TV. But though he had one role cherished by kids and kids at heart (Voyagers! in 1982), one role cherished by gay men (The Making of a Male Model in 1983) and one role that made him a man’s man (Cover Up in 1984), his greatest—and only great—role is a role he didn’t audition for and that no actor would want: He’s a sort of male Marilyn Monroe for gay fans. Except they dream of saving him in order to fuck him.
He’s gay in death, but was Hexum gay in life? There’s ample evidence he wasn’t, even if he seemed to be so surrounded by innuendo he couldn’t help setting off the average guy’s gaydar before the term was invented. For one thing, he was discovered by Bob Le Mond, who had already made John Travolta a household name. No proof of the sexualities of any of these three men, but the comparison to Henry Wilson’s handling of Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter a generation earlier was inevitable. Add to this Hexum’s bodybuilder physique (you know what they say about bodybuilders) and the press anointed him a “confirmed bachelor” despite a long-term relationship with Debbie Davis, a short-term one with Emma Samms and gossip that he dated Joan Collins (has anyone ever just dated Joan Collins?). He was involved with E.G. Daily at the time of his death, but what fag wouldn’t date her?
All it took was a display of his famously offbeat humor in response to a question about pervasive rumors that he was gay to call his sexuality permanently into question. That the exchange appeared in Playgirl seemed fitting:
"On the usually sensitive subject of sexual preferences, Hexum simply laughs off the rumors. His only long-term relationship (4 1/2 years) broke up a year ago, and his ex is now married. Apart from a flurry of rumors about a liaison with Joan Collins, there has been no rampaging romance for him. So some reporters resort to speculating that he’s gay. Rather than react angrily, Hexum plays along.
He’ll leave phone messages giving the name of a gay bar and say, 'Have him call me at the table, the regular one.'
Ask him about growing up handsome and he answers: 'I certainly wasn’t real confident with girls.' Long pause. 'I guess that’s what got me started with guys.' Another pause. 'And small animals.'
Getting serious for a second, he explains. 'I really don’t care if people think I date a lot or a little, if they think I’m gay or if they think I’m aborigine. Who gives a shit?'”
Even before Madonna made it seem chic and calculated, Hexum was a proponent of letting people think whatever they wanted to of his sexual preferences—in that way, he let himself be a blank canvas for both female and male fantasies. He was happy to be gay if you wanted him to be. As long as you left him out of it. He took his image less seriously than actors who were far less high-profile than he was.
Hexum’s acting credits are so sparse (he only played five filmed characters ever) and his image so sexualized that his most memorable achievements were poses captured during indelibly hot photo shoots. Fans recall and collect the most famous shots—lounging in a pool in a black wifebeater; wearing a cowboy hat and not wearing a shirt in a field; naked except for a Speedo alongside ’80s siren Heather Thomas; leaning against a tree, arms over his head, hairy armpits offered up to the camera. There are no nude photographs of Jon-Erik Hexum, but fans can be grateful that the early ’80s allowed for him to pose in the briefest of running shorts, the tightest of jeans, working out with his tree-trunk hairy legs spread. Unfortunately for the ambitious young actor, you don’t win Emmys or Oscars for connecting with the camera sexually. But you do win adulation.
Despite the vivacity of his surviving portraits—you can almost smell the guy in some of his oiled-chest flex photos—Hexum is long gone. On October 12, 1984, on the set of his show Cover Up, Hexum playfully placed a prop gun to his temple and said something like, “Let’s see if I get myself with this one” or “Let’s see if I’ve got one for me.” He then pulled the trigger, unaware of the danger of blanks. The blast sent a piece of his skull into his brain, a mortal wound.
These days, a small cadre of Hexnuts (as they self-identify) keep his memory alive. In all their fan literature, no mention is made about speculation that he may have been gay or bisexual. In fact, Hexum’s near-pornographic sex appeal is the elephant in the locker room. His fans wax rhapsodic about his star quality. They struggle to unearth new information, new artifacts pertaining to his short life and even shorter career, a task that’s becoming as difficult as finding new tombs in Egypt—it does happen every once in a while but it’s a bigger fucking deal each and every time.
Hexum’s flashy, fleshy time in the public eye and his sudden departure makes him very like so many favorite hardcore gay porn stars from the exact same time—they would briefly emerge as erotic messiahs before drugs or heterosexuality or, more often, AIDS would erase their futures, leaving them preserved on film, forever arousing. Jon-Erik Hexum, Bill Henson...which of them has more of a mystique around him?
Some Hexum fans, invariably middle-aged men, have made journeys to his hometown of Tenafly, New Jersey, to chat with a friend of his or a favorite aunt, who don’t seem to find it at all odd that a group of people still clings to the memory of a man whose primary function while alive was as a sex symbol, and who is now undeniably a “he’s hot, he’s sexy, he’s dead” sex symbol.
If a number of clues enabled gay fans to believe that Hexum was a member of the team, it’s also true that Hexum’s precise level of fame ensured his image and memory would necessarily be bisexual—he wasn’t famous enough at the time of his death for the culture to push memories toward the heterosexual side of things, leaving him wide open to interpretation, a sexual persona rather than a heterosexual or homosexual one.
In November of 2005, the Jon-Erik Hexum Fan Club hosted The Hexum Event, a birthday tribute at which a personal friend of the fallen star (who photographed him in life and now sells fine-arts print, including her incomparable ass shots) held court among 15 devotees, who were treated to a talk by one of Hexum’s former roommates. Many of his gay fans would probably want to ask "boxers or briefs?" "what did he look like naked?" and "did you ever think he was interested in cock?" But the talk was reportedly a good deal less salacious. Is a meeting of this kind creepy? Or is it devoted? Or both? Maybe it’s inevitable that a man who made such a limited but intense impression while he was alive would inspire so elite and so deeply-felt—and so queer—a following in death.