May 14, 2015

Henry Willson: The Man Who Invented Beefcake

During the Cold War of the 1950s, the Clark Gable-Cary Grant- Fernando Lamas model of  masculinity, the suave, sophisticated bon-vivants who sipped champaign at El Crocadero, fell into disfavor.  Movies began to display a new model of "youthful masculinity" featuring regular guys, small-town boys who sipped sodas at maltshops.   They had to be wholesome -- God-fearing, mother-respecting, patriotic -- yet sexual, overbrimming with erotic energy, aware (without stating it) that sometimes things happened in bedrooms.

They had to be stunningly handsome, of course, and muscular -- for the first time ever in the movies, they would rip their shirts off regularly, providing a beefcake spectacle that might draw audiences away from the still-prudish tv.

Walt Disney and his minions scoured the countryside to provide a stable of Adventure Boys for the teen and preteen audience -- James McArthur, Roger Mobley, Boomer East, David Stollery,  Tommy Kirk, Tim Considine, and many others.

For adult beefcake, the go-to guy was talent agent extraordinaire Henry Willson.

 Born in 1911, Willson began his career as a talent scout for the Zeppo Marx Agency, where he signed on future film great Lana Turner.  In 1943, he became the head of the talent division for David O. Selznick's Vanguard Pictures.  He and his assistants prowled gyms, modeling agencies, athletic events, and community theaters looking for prospects. Muscle Beach was a good bet, training ground to dozens of bodybuilder hopefuls drawn in by Earle E. Liederman's chatty columns in Muscle Power.

Since he was gay, Willson tended sign up men who were gay, or bisexual, or at least "gay for pay."   He spruced them up, arranged for acting lessons and gym memberships, and gave them strong, macho, all-American names:

Orton Whipple Hungerford III = Ty Hardin
Robert Mosely = Guy Madison
Francis Durgan = Rory Calhoun
Merle Johnson = Troy Donahue
Roy Harold Scherer = Rock Hudson

They present a straight facade to the world, of course, so Willson conspired with movie magazines and gossip columnists to send them on dates with female stars or link them romantically with in-the-know starlets.  Sometimes he even arranged "Hollywood marriages."  It seems that the "hiding in plain sight" was part of their appeal, adding a salacious twinge, "is he or isn't he"?

In 1953, Willson opened his own agency.  He didn't need to seek out prospects anymore; he was receiving 9,000 letters per week from high school football players and small-town thesbians anxious to make it big.  And some did -- if they were willing to make it on the casting couch first, or at least flirt a bit.  Almost every Hollywood hunk of the new beefcake model got his start as a Willson boy:

Doug McClure
James Darren
Chad Everett
Dack Rambo (left)

John Saxon
Nick Adams
Clint Walker (left)
John Derek
James Gavin

Willson didn't care for bodybuilders, except for Cal Bolder -- they had to find their representation elsewhere. And a few other hunks managed to find work without him.  But even if they weren't discovered by Willson, they often realized that connections are everything, and gay, bi, or straight, they became regulars at his weekly pool parties:

Ed Fury
Farley Granger
Van Williams
Robert Stack

Roddy McDowall
Steve Reeves
Tony Curtis
Aldo Ray
John Bromfield
Gary Conway
Gary Lockwood
Richard Long
Robert Wagner (left)

Disaster hit in 1955, when Willson made a deal with Confidential magazine to keep the rumors off Rock Hudson in exchange for a story about Tab Hunter's arrest at a gay party in 1950 (the actor and agent had a falling out).  The deal fell through, and Willson was effectively outed.  His established clients left -- most denied that they had ever met him -- and it became difficult to sign new clients.

During the 1960s, the fresh-faced, wholesome look became  "square," replaced by shaggy and androgynous,  and Willson's career ended.  Destitute, drinking heavily, forgotten by his former friends, he moved into a rest home for indigent Hollywood stars, and he died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1978.

But he left an amazing legacy, a 1950s world where "gay" was always just beneath the surface.

May 13, 2015

Martin Sheen

Martin Sheen has been a fixture in Hollywood for 50 years, often playing presidents and other figures of grave and pressing authority, but in his early years, he played delinquents and bad boys.  He was never a child star or teen idol -- he didn't start acting professionally until he was in his 20s.

 He had nearly a decade of guest spots on tv programs as diverse as Flipper and Twilight Zone, making a big impression (although that's not what it looks like) but not receiving critical acclaim.

Then came The Incident (1967), a drama about two young hoodlums (Martin and Tony Musante) who terrorize the passengers on a subway car (including Jeff Bridges).

One of the passengers, by the way, is gay, marking The Incident as the first time -- but by no means the last -- that a Martin Sheen vehicle has included gay characters.

In That Certain Summer (1973), the first tv movie to include gay characters, teenage Scott Jacob discovers that his dad (Hal Holbrook) is gay.  Martin played his lover.

In Consenting Adult (1985), a married couple (Martin Sheen, Marlo Thomas) discover that their son (Barry Tubb) is gay. Martin's character doesn't react well.

In 1986, he played the character of Ned Weeks, a gay journalist attempting to document the rise of AIDS, in The Normal Heart on the London stage.

In 8 (2012), he played Theodore Olson, the attorney who introduced a federal lawsuit challenging California's Proposition 8 (which banned same-sex marriage).

Beefcake in his early performances, and bulges in all the right places throughout his career.  Not a lot of buddy-bonding, and a bit of homophobia (as in The Believers), but the negatives are overwhelmed by his gay-positive roles.

Besides, among his many liberal causes, Martin Sheen is a champion of gay rights.

May 11, 2015

Papa soltero: Telemundo Teens on the Beach

When cable became common in the 1980s, the number of stations available increased from 3-4 to hundreds,  and Boomer kids from small towns in the Midwest got Telemundo, and heard Spanish spoken for the first time (outside of the classroom and the PBS series Que Pasa, USA?)

I didn't like the telenovelas and Sabado Gigante, which looked like a circus sideshow, but I liked some of the movies (Santo the Vampire Fighter, La gran aventura), and Papa Soltero (1987-1993), a sitcom starring Cesar Costa as "Cesar," a single Dad who works as a tv producer and lives an upscale Mexico City apartment.

In Spanish class, all you ever heard about Mexico was adobe pueblos full of people wearing sombreros and sarapes, and maybe the Mexican Revolution of Los de Abajo, so just the premise was exciting.

It was like a Spanish version of Hey, Dad...! Cesar was divorced, and saw his kids only during the summer.  Then his ex-wife died, and Cesar got saddled with them full-time: college-aged Alejandra (Edith Marquez), teenage Miguel (21-year old Gerardo Quiroz), and precocious preteen Cesarin (his real-life brother, 13-year old Luis Mario Quiroz).  By the way, that's not a flower in his hair, it's the station logo.

What was the gay connection?

1. A ton of beefcake.  The family appeared for breakfast wearing bathrobes; they slept in their underwear; they bathed, hung out in locker rooms, went to the beach in speedos.  They had muscular friends who were allergic to shirts. By the time the series ended, even "little" Cesarin was a 19 year old hunk, with biceps and a penchant for speedos.

2. A minimum of heterosexual hijinks.  American sitcoms are obsessed with making their teenage boys as girl-crazy as possible, but Cesar spent far more time dating and romancing than either Miguel or Cesarin.

3.After Papa Soltero, Luis Quiroz played gay roles on telenovelas and is reputedly gay in real life.

See also: Que Pasa, USA?


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